“Brain” – Photographs of Nobel Prize winners at ESMoA
Mind Over Matter
“Brain,” photographs of Nobel Prize laureates by Peter Badge, opens Sunday at ESMoA
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Have you ever been in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner? You have? Oh. How about hundreds of them at the same time? Well, now you can have that privilege, beginning Sunday afternoon in El Segundo when ESMoA (the El Segundo Museum of Art) unveils “Brain,” its newest exhibition.
In the year 2000, when he was in his latter 20s, Berlin-based Peter Badge was asked by the directors of three notable institutions if he would consider photographing the Nobel Prize recipients. Before committing himself to the project, Badge attended the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on the island of Mainau in Lake Constance, Switzerland. He must have been impressed by what he saw and heard, because now, over 15 years later, he’s logged countless miles and arranged meetings or sessions with laureates in 160 cities in over 40 countries and six continents.
Badge realized rather early, as he points out in the book “Ingenious Encounters,” that “reducing Nobel laureates to superbrains would merely render them one-dimensional superlatives. I want to draw attention to the people and personalities, beyond the attributes that one typically associates with laureates: talent, intelligence, ingenuity.”
The result is an ever-growing body of work that goes well beyond simple headshots. When we step into ESMoA we’ll see just how important and how effective this is. Furthermore, the art space has once again been transformed to enhance and underline the value of the work on display.
Art, science, sociology
Eva Sweeney, who was instrumental in bringing the photographs of Peter Badge to El Segundo, gives most of the credit to the artist and also to the curator, Marc Pachter, the latter being Director Emeritus of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. After all, it was the Smithsonian, in cooperation with the Lindau and the Deutsches Museum in Munich, that got the ball rolling. Co-funding by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung ensures that it’s rolling still.
The annual event at Lake Constance originated in 1950 in part as one more way to bring Germany back into the international community after World War Two. As Sweeney points out, “Half the German scientists disappeared to Russia and the other half disappeared to the United States.”
While not widely known to the general public, the gathering on the isle of Mainau brings in about 600 of the most brilliant minds from around the world, where they meet, formally and informally, with about 30 Nobel Prize winners.
Which brings us back to ESMoA.
“To me,” Sweeney says, “this is unique because it’s in line with our approach to education,” and to demonstrate the connection between art and science. Specifically, she’s referring to the subject of typology, which is the study or classification of types, “still a very underestimated method or approach in conceptual art.”
To illustrate what she means, Sweeney refers to August Sander (1876-1964), who spent over four decades creating a collective portrait of the German people. He photographed men and women from all walks of life and thus we have a full representation of society at a certain time and place in history.
Sanders’ body of work exists as a document, yes, but something more. “When you see his pictures,” Sweeney says, “there is no question this is art.” She also mentions the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who did for industrial buildings what Sanders did for people.
Such endeavors are rare but not uncommon. Eugéne Atget documented Paris streets over 100 years ago. Irving Penn, whose “Small Trades” was on view at the Getty in 2009, photographed workers in Paris, London, and New York in 1950 and 1951. Closer to home there’s Edward Ruscha’s “Some Los Angeles Apartments” and his other limited-edition books.
In creative hands, this sort of conceptual work is essentially a genre in itself. What’s also interesting about Peter Badge is the other series he’s been engaged in documenting with his camera: people who think they are Elvis Presley. We’re not only speaking of Elvis impersonators, but those who actually believe they are the King, reincarnated.
Their contribution, and ours
In the beginning, it was just a small set of photographs of people who’d won the Nobel Prize.
“If he would have just shot 10 or 15 of them everybody would say, ‘Okay, it’s just a celebrity thing.’ But now it’s a substantial body of work,” Sweeney says, “which took him two decades to put together and he’s still doing it.” And, incidentally, Badge has photographed laureates who were honored prior to 2000, the year he was hired.
In a garden of notable recipients this large, facts and statistics begin to emerge: So far, just six percent of the prizewinners have been women. Most of them, not at all surprising, have been white, and most are older. Leonid Hurwicz was 90, but then Werner Heisenberg was 32, Lawrence Bragg was 25, and Malala Yousafzai was all of 17. Not surprisingly as well, a Nobel laureate’s curiosity often leads him or her towards other disciplines. “I’m sure of one thing,” Badge writes in his book: “Experts of ‘nobel’ greatness also have outstanding achievements beyond their own specific fields.”
“Brain” could have been arranged and displayed in any number of ways, whether chronologically, categorically, or by nationality, but at ESMoA it’s done alphabetically.
“We wanted to democratize the whole process, not to put somebody higher than the other person,” Sweeney says. “The visual of the whole place should feel like a classroom.”
It manages to do this, for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with the dark brown wood paneling and the two shelves, encircling the gallery, upon which the portraits rest. The second reason has to do with the size of the prints themselves.
Usually, when prints of the Nobel Prize recipients are displayed (and this is the first time that they’ve all been on view), they’re presented in a larger format, perhaps poster-sized. Here, they’re closer to 8x10s. So why is that?
ESMoA wanted to make the viewing experience an intimate one, Sweeney replies, and at the same time convey a sense of scale that might recall photographs of our grandparents or beloved family members that we display in our own homes.
In the center of the gallery are three tables “with quotes and scribbles by the Nobel laureates that people can actually take with them.”
Sweeney also points out how the show should be a stimulant for the schoolchildren who are regularly brought to ESMoA to see and learn from the art. Presumably they’ll come away from this exhibition with a better understanding and appreciation, but a better appreciation of what?
Perhaps Peter Badge has answered the question in his book: “The most important thing I learned from the Nobels project, about myself and about all of us, is that one’s contribution does count. We can all make a difference wherever we are and with the means available to us.”
Simply put, we don’t need to be little Einsteins to do good work or a good deed, and when we depart this world to try and have left it a little better off than how we found it. ESMoA’s show should be an example to everyone of what’s possible, and an encouragement to strive for it.
Brain opens Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with curatorial remarks and an introduction at 2 p.m. by Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute. Further events are scheduled throughout the run of the exhibition, which closes Feb. 12. ESMoA is located at 208 Main St., El Segundo. Free. (424) 277-1020 or go to esmoa.org. ER