According to Albert Einstein: “Imagination is greater than knowledge.” This is because the line between imagination and intuitive insight is very fine, or even porous. If a scientific solution can be flowing from one's intuition, then imagination can act as its container or vessel. Just as poets have their muses, the process of scientific discovery is not dissimilar to the practice of contemporary artists.
In the photograph titled Regarding Picasso a naked female subject appears in Professore’s nineteenth century laboratory. Metaphorically, she can be seen as this vessel entering the artist /scientist’s psyche. Her distorted face is reflected though a glass jar filled with an unknown solution. Einstein also stated: “The most important decision you will ever make is whether the universe is friendly or hostile.” It thus feels very natural for a female subject to be Testing the water in the Professore’s lab, by slowly dipping her foot into the liquid.
Is Professore really reliable? Can the archetypal mad scientist be trusted? Stephane Graff has created an alter-ego that oscillates between the extremes of experience and uncertainty, control and failure, or genius and insanity. He treats Professore with a degree of humour, whilst affirming the character’s quest to expand our knowledge and thus make the universe appear friendlier.
But Professore might not inspire our full confidence when we find him wearing a strange helmet connected to some vintage electronic devices in Unnatural ways to feel good about yourself. We are similarly perplexed witnessing his electrostatic crystal spiked device in Moral animal. Despite our suspicions of this eccentric character, we are still prepared to blindly drink the “scientific solution” as does the woman in Water therapy. This highlights Graff’s aim in creating Professore. He clearly wants to question society’s innate trust in science and institutions. Our sense of confusion is emphasised by the fact that Graff deliberately blurs the distinction between reality and fiction. His photographs often have a painterly quality to them, incorporating nineteenth century techniques, as is the case in What’s the grey matter? or Untitled (nude with the grid). His ingenious printing skills are frequently achieved with long exposures onto glass plates and by processing chemicals that he prepares to his own recipe. As a result, this helps Professore to project the qualities of a well-respected and highly educated scientist—the authority figure towards which we find ourselves gravitating.
As a society we have become too obedient towards our physicians and scientific institutions. We have lost our discernment and disconnected ourselves from our self–healing abilities. As a result, this has made us more prone to addictive behaviour, which manifests in society’s increasing dependence in prescription pills and medications. In this regard, Professore’s attempt in Monitoring addicted personalities, in which the female subject is holding a “chain smoking” device, appears as one of his most absurd experiments.
Superficially, we seem to be encouraged by the seemingly benevolent scientist examining his patients, as in Anatomy study, or Assert your true potential (stress levels). But in truth, we have evidently surrendered our own healing capacities. The doctor within us finds himself caged behind the bars of scientific dogmas, just as the muse appears to be trapped behind a giant numeric grid in Untitled (nude with the grid).
Behind the mask of this Clouseau of science, Graff addresses Einstein’s question in all seriousness and seems to be suggesting the following answer: When science manifests a deeper respect towards nature (and primarily human nature), and takes into consideration the limitation of resources, the universe will finally become much more friendly. There was a time in the past when science and reverence for the human soul were interlinked. It took the form of the ancient art of Alchemy. Symbolically, some of the reference materials that Graff incorporates in his Musée Imaginaire are inspired by actual medical and scientific experiments of these earlier eras.
A parallel can be drawn here with the nineteenth-century author Edgar Allan Poe, who believed that the realm of spirit and the domain of science should be united. Professore could have been a protagonist in some of Poe’s novels, like Conversation with a Mummy or The system of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. Most likely, just like in Graff’s body of work, Professore would have been instrumental in expressing Poe’s deepest intuitions and metaphysical truths, such as his deep belief in life after death.
In his earliest experiments, Professore was trying to record and decode the voice of plants, (Advanced techniques in Communication—Tell me if you are thirsty?). He certainly entertained the possibility of consciousness in all living things, as did the ancient alchemists as they were shedding light on the unsolved mysteries of the universe through their Solve and Coagula— the decomposition and re-composition of matter. Poe, the “Eureka” author also yearned for this reunion between hard science and ethereal spirit, and like Graff, recognised the precision of scientific thinking, the need for empirical observation, research and trial and error, but at the same time acknowledged the spirit and the light of consciousness. They both seem nostalgic for a time when the art of Alchemy was not reduced to chemistry and when the establishment did not label visionaries as heretics or decree that mysticism and science should follow separate paths.
Poe, just like Graff, was critical of the scientific dogmas of his time and sceptical of his contemporaries that were blinded by the science of their day and whose credulity now echoes our own. “Hoax is precisely the word suited to Mr Valdermar’s case (…) Some few persons believe it but I do not. The story is a pure fiction from beginning to end,” he said. He also added after having published two of his novels in scientific magazines, “The Swedenborgians inform me that they have discovered all that I said in a magazine article to be absolutely true, although at first they were very strongly inclined to doubt my veracity—a thing which, in that particular instance, I never dreamed of not doubting myself”.
If Graff aims to highlight the similarities between scientists and artists in their working processes it is because he too senses spirit and matter are one and the same. Creating for him consist of transforming one into the other. Incarnating Professore’s spirit into photographic images is an alchemical act of transformation. Graff describes the Bromoil technique that he sometimes employs as where a picture firstly made in silver gelatin undergoes a complete transformation from base metal to pigmented image. His explorative approach in the darkroom has led him to come up with self-invented practices such as the “Graffite” print (patent pending). This invention allows him to further investigate the mind of a scientist but also to imprint onto the viewer, at least on a subconscious level, the notion that Professore himself may actually stumble upon some tremendous new discovery.
What is certain is that he seems to have been paving the road for the latest findings of leading edge neuroscience, which is rediscovering the connection that exists between the soul and the brain. In the language of neuroscience the soul is the feminine life force animating our cells. It is the female subject in Professore’s lab, whose face is reflected in the glass jar—neuroscientist call her “Mitochondria”. The mitochondria are the energy factories at work within our cells, impacting our moods, vitality and aging process. They are inherited only from the feminine, our mother’s lineage. These mitochondria seem to be breaking down under the continual barrage of stress coming from our toxic emotions and environment. Just as Professore is looking into the brain of his muse in What’s the grey matter? cutting-edge neuroscience is looking into possibly reversing the damage caused by free radicals in the brain. When the muse, our inspiration, our optimal mitochondria is restored, then our genes will be able to generate cells that promote brain health. Our current brain wiring is as obsolete as Professore’s wiring in Unnatural ways to feel good about yourself. It relies on neural networks created by the prehistoric, survival at all cost, brain regions. Our toxic emotions and environment comes from this “old wiring” and in this regard, Professore seems to encourage us not to be afraid to adopt a new brain “wiring”, like in Moral animal. Neuroscience now affirms that we can grow new brain cells and change the actual networks in the brain. We can engage newer, higher, more evolved brain structures in the neo and prefrontal cortex.
It would be foolish to overlook Professore’s heroic efforts to communicate this precious information to us. Fortunately for him, the relationship of spirit and matter, while subjugated to the background, was never totally erased from human consciousness. Neuroscience now states that enlightenment is the condition of optimal mitochondria and brain functioning and this implies that Professore was indeed onto something!
If this is the case, it would indeed be very wise for him to stay “under the radar” and carry on hiding behind the self-depreciating mask of an odd and eccentric scientist, since our scientific community, caught up in its technocracy, bureaucracy and interest groups, has sometimes been merciless towards true visionaries and inventors.
Just as Edgar Allan Poe’s writing attempted to demystify death as a mere transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, Graff, through his alter-ego, is directly tapping into the mysteries of the universe that are within the scope of human consciousness to resolve.
TEXT BY FLORENCE LOBET
© picture Stephane Graff, Unnatural Ways to Feel Good About Yourself