The development of quantum mechanics had reached an intriguing point in 1935 when, to illustrate certain paradoxical tendencies in its theories, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment. Imagine a cat in a sealed, opaque container; an event that had a 50/50 chance of occurring would then, if it did occur, trigger the release of a poison that would kill the cat. His point was that given quantum theory’s development as a way of calculating probabilities of atomic events, it was not possible to verify whether an event had occurred or not. His proposition would, theoretically lead to the patently absurd conclusion that the cat was simultaneously both alive and dead.
Schrödinger’s set-up was playing at the back of Bea McMahon’s mind when she was making her short video Cats, 2011, during her residency at John Latham’s Flat Time House. But the cats in her video restlessly prance back and forth, mewing and twitching their tails, intercut with images of the poised, grandiose statues of lions sitting outside Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, and, perhaps oddly, shots of the brain-like shape of walnuts. The camera capturing the two cats is on floor level, and it is their feline perspective and rhythm we attune to as their paws tap on the black wood-panelled floor. One of the cats makes an unusual rhythm, with a pronounced, deeper step, an accentuated ka-thump, ka-thump – eventually we see it has a tumorous growth on one foot. In these two contrasting rhythms, McMahon found a ‘matrix-like structure’, comparing it to the Syllabic poets and – in the publication accompanying her show at FTH – captured the cats’ beats in medieval musical notation, turning the lighthearted film into a suggestive immersion in non-human rhythms.
The cats’ equanimous staring in the video brings to mind a naked Jacques Derrida. At the beginning of his 1997 ten-hour lecture and posthumous publication The Animal That Therefore I Am, is the theorist’s encounter with his own cat, the animal staring at him as he emerges from the bathroom in his birthday suit. His subsequent embarrassment at the encounter leads him on a linguistic and philosophical comedy of manners around our conception and differentiation of animals, what he called ‘the most chimerical discourse I have probably ever attempted’. The animal, as well as the multiple identities of the chimaera, could be seen as running through McMahon’s work, with the same sprightly bound as the eponymous cats that run across the screen. There is an earlier video, InDivisible, 2010, which uses 3D technology, filming with two cameras positioned similarly to human eyes, though at points what is visible by each eye through the 3D glasses diverges completely. At one moment, our left eye can see a close-up of an eagle, on the right a lion; our brain naturally tries to assemble the two, making its own hybrid beast.
This visual divide gives an explicit embodiment to a central theme – or at least a starting point – for McMahon: the breaking-point of knowledge, the boundaries between imagination and reality, the gap between the human and what we might call the divine. ‘Where does the world end and I begin? There must be a crossover or something,’ mumbles the narrator of InDivisible. In her videos, drawings and sculptural installations, McMahon collapses a dizzying amount of references and sources; it is not necessary to know these sources or, for example, to know that sequences in Cats were edited according to the Fibonacci sequence. It is not necessary to know that she has a background in mathematical physics before she turned to art, but she does make incessant visual and conceptual allegories and crossed puns between the ideas of Pythagoras, SØren Kirkegård, Dante, and Yvonne Rainer. Like Schrödinger’s situational vexings, she speaks of figures like Gottfried Leibniz, who in his development of infinitesimal calculus enabled ‘reaching the wall that is unreachable’, and George Boole, who postulated a purely symbolic approach to logic and helped found modern computing – these are figures who have helped define our attempts to grasp and articulate the unknowable and the purely hypothetical. McMahon’s work uses that as a sticking point for analogous efforts in art, music, dance and everyday, mundane experience – a shifting space, where creative and intellectual concepts are nurtured in the same amniotic fluid. When quantum physicist David Bohm claims that, ‘the essential character of scientific research is, then, that it moves towards the absolute by studying the relative, in its inexhaustible multiplicity and diversity’, you feel that McMahon’s close, elliptical and whimsical studies somehow follow a parallel course.
In her recent exhibition ‘Warp and Woof’ with Anna Barham at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, McMahon showed Cats alongside a new video and a sculptural assemblage of four pieces gathered under the title For all that in them is, 2011. A trail of material or some sort of scattered body: on one wall is a pair of black rubber gloves, in the middle of the floor a large stone surrounded by a spiralled strip of leather that is a Golem head (off position), 2011. Her sculptures maintain a provisional quality, what she calls ‘elusive attempts at incidental-ness’, or ‘manufactured found objects, primary forms leaked out from the same place as the ideas the videos came from’. As ever, the connections are muted, perhaps irrelevant – or perhaps a particular form of arbitrary precision.
The video Signature, 2011, starts off from the features of Tory Island on the North West coast of Ireland to create a meditation on the slippage of signs, via the Irish language, Boole, the Lascaux caves and the search for the inhabitable part of the universe known as the Goldilocks Zone. With a voice-over in Irish and English subtitles, it calmly veers between documentary and more experimental modes, looking at lichen and the sparse plants on the island’s rocks, followed by a horse dressage scene where the animal trots back and forth precariously close to a large hole in the ground. The narration begins by telling of a chance meeting with an astrophysicist who states that, cosmologically speaking, life and the planet began at the same time, turning the narrator towards a more Biblical notion of life being uttered into creation: ‘Fuck Darwin, I am descended from a long line of alphabets, and mud.’ At the heart of the piece is the Tau cross that sits on the island; McMahon uses its sturdy shape to help spell the words ‘rigid’, ‘stiff’ and ‘fixity’ across the screen. But the T-shaped stone retains a weightlessness – as the ancient symbol for life and resurrection, it is connected to the Egyptians and the Franciscans, and is also used as the mathematical symbol for the golden mean: ‘It is the sign of signs,’ the narrator claims, ‘it marks things, it reveals things.’ This is juxtaposed with a series of more modern signs of the letters K, V and Z, letters that don’t feature in the Irish alphabet and, with each appearance, the narrator emphasises, ‘we don’t have that sign’. Between all these seemingly incongruous elements, then, hovers the limitations of intelligibility, what can be said and thus made. The Tau’s own multiple meanings and the absences within the Irish language become analogues to, respectively, the towering stone and the hole, the horse becoming its own free-floating, inutterable sign that comes close to falling in and disappearing. If words shape our reality, McMahon suggests esoterically, we might recognise their uneasy transience and thus that we constantly risk nonexistence.
McMahon’s combination of the mathematical and the emotional seems to set them both as equal partners in our attempts to grasp what is around us. Her work is a look at our necessary inability to grasp beyond the human interior, and the more implicit and imaginative systems for understanding we create in attempting to mediate that inability; hence the reappearance of animals, natural and notational rhythms, and even a certain mysticism. In his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose almost apologetically states, ‘quantum theory was not wished upon us by theorists. It was (for the most part) with great reluctance that they found themselves driven to this strange and, in many ways, philosophically unsatisfying view of a world’. McMahon isn’t wishing an underlying mathematics upon us but, in finding its original, imaginary impulse in an impossible range of places, takes this unsettled reluctance as a celebration and a dizzying turning point for metaphor and play.
Originally published in Art Monthly No 353, February 2012