“The law of periodicity first allowed us to perceive undiscovered elements at a distance which formerly was inaccessible to chemical vision.”
from Dimitri Mendeleev’s Faraday lecture before the Chemical Society in London twenty years after his discovery of periodic law (1889)
If I am allowed to misunderstand Mendeleev’s remarks, it is possible to imagine that he is suggesting such a thing as chemical vision. What a wonderful idea to think we could touch the world with our eyes, to know the world unencumbered by signs and representations, to know what the world really is; what substance it has, what things really are. Mendeleev’s great discovery, the periodic table, is a pinnacle of modernism. It sustains the atomist’s hope that signs can be ascribed to all things; and those things, suspended in the proper order of differences and similarities, can be used as the building blocks of our picture of the world. Chemical atomism is perhaps the most pronounced of all the tendencies towards atomism that characterize modernism. But we live in a time after the atom has been split, when our sensorium is being ripped apart by the domination of physical senses and the suppression of the chemical senses. Logic is just another language game; the visual has become the virtual. We are rapidly losing our grasp of the real that has heretofore grounded our existence and knowledge of the world.
Chemical Vision is a large-scale, walk-through interactive installation that has resonances of a science museum. Architecturally, it is derived from the shape of the periodic table, or more specifically the Meyer table that has become synonymous with periodic law – an image which has become a meta-sign of the discipline of chemistry itself. In the installation, the viewer encounters enigmatic displays that reflect on vision, language, and the physical sciences: a Braille visual acuity chart constructed out of the chemical element’s abbreviations, a giant, motorized computer mouse on an Ouija board, also inscribed with the chemical elements. This museum doesn’t explain but shows us the difficulties for art and science in the transition from the modernist world to our own. The mouse is a particular figure here; both the mouse that has lent itself to psychology experiments and the computer mouse that evokes an entire virtual world that is devoid of the chemical senses. What will be the progression of knowledge in this chemical-less dream world? What will become of mice and men?
Chemical Vision was first shown in an exhibition entitled ‘Scienced Fictions’ curated by Peter Dykhuis at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, Canada in 2000. It was exhibited again in an exhibition entitled ‘Chemical Vision’ at Museum London in London, Ontario in November of 2003 and at the exhibition ‘Chlorine Argon Potassium’ at MICA Galleries, Baltimore in 2005.