Physics as Art         Radical Art         

Gravity in Art


Defying gravity: sublime heights.

Because we are accustomed every moment to observe the difficulty with which things are raised in opposition to the impulse of gravity; the idea of ascending always implies the notion of force exerted in overcoming this difficulty; the conception of which invigorates and elevates the thought, after the same mannner as a grand object, and thus gives a distance above us much more an appearance of greatness, than the same space could have in any other direction. The sensation of amplitude, which by this means comes to attend the interposed distance, is transferred to, and considered as excited by the object that is eminent and above us; and that object, by this transference, acquires grandeur and sublimity.

Gerard (1759), summarizing a section from Hume (1739-1740)

"The simplest form of external grandeur appears in the vast and boundless prospects presented to us by nature; such as wide extended plains, to which the eye can see no limits; the firmament of heaven; or the boundless expanse of the ocean. All vastness produces the impression of sublimity. It is to be remarked, however, that space, extended in length, makes not so strong an impression as height or depth. Though a boundless plain be a grand object, yet a high mountain, to which we look up, or an awful precipice or tower whence we look down on the objects which lie below, is still more so."
"In the feeble attempts, which human art can make towards producing grand objects (feeble, I mean, in comparison with the powers of nature), greatness of dimensions always constitutes a principal part. (...) A gothic cathedral raises ideas of grandeur in our minds, by its size, its height, its awful obscurity, its strength, its antiquity, and its durability."

Blair (1783)

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.' Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9

From that day on this has been the motto of humanity, "let us make a name for ourselves." I am always amused to see how many public edifices made a plaque somewhere on which the names of all the public officials who were in power when it was built are inscribed: the mayor, the head of public works, etc. "Let us make a name for ourselves," is a fundamental urge of a fallen race. It reveals one of the basic philosophies of humanism: "Glory to man in the highest, for man is the master of things." That is the central thought of humanism, glory to mankind. The fact that this was a religious tower – and yet built to make a name for man – reveals the master motive behind religion. It is a means by which man attempts to share the glory of God. We must understand this, otherwise we will never understand the power of religion as it has pervaded the earth and permeated our culture ever since. It is a way by which man seeks to share what is rightfully God's alone.

Stedman (1978)

Why has the World Trade Centre in New York got two towers? ... The fact that there are two identical towers signifies the end of all competition, the end of every original reference.

Baudrillard (1993)



Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage Publications, 1993, p. 69.

Hugh Blair: Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres. London, 1783. (Lecture III)

Alexander Gerard: An Essay on Taste. London: 1759.

David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature. London: 1739-1740. (Book II, Part III, Section VIII.)

Vernon Hyde Minor: "What Kind of Tears? 9/11 and the Sublime", Journal of American Studies of Turkey 14 (2001): 91-96.

Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen: The Skyward Trend of Thought. The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988.

Willem Jan Neutelings: "The sex appeal of gravity." Archis, November 1999.

Ray C. Stedman: The Beginnings, Waco Books, 1978.

Galileo: Observing gravity

The most famous demonstrations of gravity at work may have been performed by Galileo Galilei around 1590. They are prominently mentioned in a sketch of Galileo's life by his disciple Vincenzo Viviani:

"Aristotle taught that mobile objects of the same material and different weight, when moved through the same medium, receive velocities proportional to their weights. Galileo claimed, however, that they had to move with the same velocity, and demonstrated this with many experiments, which he performed from the Clock-Tower in Pisa in the presence of many professors and students."

In Galileo's manuscript De Motu Antiquiora, we find more details about the experiments he carried out. To dismiss Aristotle's motion laws, he did in fact not need experiments: he established their intrinsic absurdity by reasoning about simple "thought experiments". But he also described observations of the motions of a lead sphere and an equally large wooden sphere, which are dropped simultaneously. The wooden sphere

"... moves more swiftly than lead in the beginning of its motion; but a little later the motion of the lead is so accelerated that it leaves the wood behind it. And if they are both let fall from a high tower, the lead moves far out in front. This is something I have often tested."

The higher speed of the heavier object points to the role of the densities of the falling materials, which Galileo at that time took to be the cause of all spontaneous vertical motion. The head start of the lighter object is less obvious; it was explained much later, when Thomas Settle (1983) showed that a human experimenter tends to release the lighter object more quickly, because it is gripped with less force than the heavier object.

Galileo's experiments with falling bodies achieved a legendary status in the history of science. Taking Viviani's account as a point of departure, later biographies of Galileo added increasing amounts of fictional detail in their accounts, and exaggerated the scale and the impact of the events. More careful historians have of course noted this, and have also pointed out that Viviani's Galileo-bio cannot be taken at face-value, since it was written 60 years after these purported happenings, in a spirit of uncritical admiration and over-enthusiastic propaganda. Many maintain therefore that the Pisa droppings never took place. (Cf. Wohlwill, 1905; Cooper, 1935; Segre, 1989; Martinez, 2011.) Galileo's unambiguous statement in De Motu, however, suggests that these authors err on the side of skepticism. Bertoloni Meli (2006, p. 56): "... in all likelihood Galileo repeatedly dropped balls from high places such as the leaning tower of Pisa; lack of additional contemporary records may be attributed to the fact that such public events and disputations were rather common at Pisa and possibly elsewhere."

Note that Galileo's Pisa experiments were not merely scientific experiments in the modern sense of that word. They were also demo's, serving a communicative purpose: persuading colleagues and teaching students. The myhthical experiments, as Viviani viewed them, were certainly remarkable. In teaching, they replaced abstract description by vivid demonstration. In empirical science they created a perfect peer review system, which allows researchers direct access to each other's observations. And research and teaching were integrated; students and professors were invited at the same time; the university became one scientific community. Finally, the choice of a monumental and visible site for the experiments created a cultural presence in the city at large, encouraging knowledge dissemination beyond the boundaries of the academic scene.


Domenico Bertoloni Meli: Thinking with Objects. The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Lane Cooper: Aristotle, Galileo, and the Tower of Pisa. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1935.

Galileo Galilei: On Motion and On Mechanics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960. [Comprising an English translation of De Motu Antiquiora (ca. 1590) by I.E. Drabkin. The quote is from p. 107.]

Alberto A. Martínez: "Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa." In: Science Secrets. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, pp. 1-12.

M. Segre: "Galileo, Viviani, and the tower of Pisa." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 20 (1989), pp. 435-451.  

Thomas B. Settle: "Galileo and early experimentation." In: R. Aris, H.T. Davis & R.H. Stuewer (eds.): Springs of Scientific Creativity. Essays on the Founders  of Modern Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 12-17.

Vincenzo Viviani: Racconto istorico della vita di Galileo. Letter to Leopold de Medici, 1654. [I translate from page 275 of a German version: "Lebens-Beschreibung Galilæi Galilæi." In: Christoph August Heumann (ed.): Acta philosophorum, Vol. 3, 1723/1724, pp. 261-282, 400-423, 467-484.]

Emil Wohlwill: "Galilei-Studien, 1. Die Pisaner Fallversuche." Mitteilungen zur Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 4 (1905), pp. 229-248.

  Falling objects
  Falling persons

Duchamp: Questioning measurement

The dramatic effect of gravity on material bodies has become a ubiquitous symbol of our inexorable subjugation to the inhuman, unchangeable laws of nature. This theme reverberates throughout the history of art, in many different ways.

The most profound reflection on this matter is no doubt Marcel Duchamp's "3 Stoppages Étalon". It is a performance piece which looks like a pastiche on a scientific experiment: A thread with a length of 1 meter is dropped onto a flat surface from a height of 1 meter. It is fixed exactly in the position in which it lands on the surface, and this shape becomes the model for a new, crooked "standard meter". This procedure is repeated 3 times. Duchamp thus applies a destructive test procedure to the unit of measurement itself. The transformation of the standard distance alludes to the notion of Lorenz contraction and to Einstein's theories of relativity; the random character of the transformation evokes the klinamen in the world view of Demokritus, and the measurement notion of modern quantum theory. But Duchamp's suggestion is more radical. He is not proposing new complexities in physical theory; by twisting the prototypical unit of measurement, he problematizes the very notion of scientific knowledge. He frees the mind from the tatters of matter by suggesting that the so-called laws of nature may very well not exist, or that they are irrelevant because unknowable. What we think we know are mere conventions; every statement is false. Duchamp's attitude is very close to the scepticism of Pyrrho and other pre-Socratic philosophers. "3 Stoppages Étalon" is a stark and yet complex expression of this scepticism.

The sophistication of Duchamp's work remains exceptional. Other modern art which takes up the theme of gravity assumes a more naieve mind-frame; it accepts or denies the laws of physics without challenging them conceptually. Andy Warhol's Suicide paintings thus acknowledge the operation of gravity on the human body in a postmodern, deadpan fashion. The other extreme is represented by Yves Klein's "Jump into the Void", which revives the age-old fantasy
of overcoming the laws of nature through sheer magic.

Malevich & Klein: Space Travel

The serene detachment of science is subverted into Faustian hybris when science turns into technology. In the twentieth century, the airplane and the spaceship came to symbolize technology's ultimate seduction: they promise to transport us into the realm of freedom by exploiting the very laws of nature that always constrained us. Some visionary artists were encouraged by these technological developments, but they were not willing or able to proceed as humble engineers – they needed shortcuts. Thus, Malevich (1920) wrote about space travel by means of a completely novel technology which was supposedly emerging from his new approach to painting.

In his famous fake performance Le saut dans le vide (1960), Yves Klein demonstrated he could fly by sheer magic. He also maintained that this would be a viable method for space travel:

"Neither missiles nor rockets nor sputniks will render man the "conquistador" of space. Those means derive only from the phantom of today's scientists who still live in the romantic and sentimental spirit of the XIX century. Man will only be able to take possession of space through the terrifying forces, the ones imprinted with peace and sensibility. He will be able to conquer space - truly his greatest desire - only after having realized the impregnation of space by his own sensibility."

"Today anyone who paints space must actually go into space to paint, but he must go there without any faking, and neither in an aeroplane, a parachute, or a rocket: he must go there by his own means, by an autonomous, individual force."

Yves Klein: The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, 1961


Yves Klein, Harry Shunk and John Kender: Le saut dans le vide. Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, October 1960. (Photo-collage.).

Yves Klein: "The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto" (1961). In: Le dépassement de la problématique de l'art et autres écrits. Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, 2001.

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism. 24 Drawings. Vitebsk: Unovis, 1920.


Conner, Ader, Panamarenko: Failure.

Since the 1920's, many cinematic artworks have questioned the hybris of our culture in an entertaining way, by demonstrating our ineffectiveness in overcoming the power of gravity. Bruce Conner made a very effective collage movie of an airplane which keeps crashing forever. Bas-Jan Ader made a series of performance documentaries in which he can be seen falling from a tree, falling from the roof of his house in Claremont, and riding his bicycle into a canal in Amsterdam. A recent example in this tradition is the video installation Go Up! Go Up! by Hu Jie Ming.

Panamarenko is interested in flying and space travel, and he is more serious about it than Malevich and Klein were. Operating in the context of science and technology as we know them, he rethinks the motion laws and designs alternative technologies –– and fails conspicuously. His theories don't compute, and his airplanes don't fly.


Anon.: Struycken & Panamarenko. Eindhoven: Studium Generale, Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven, 1981. [With texts (in Dutch) by Jean Leering, Toon Prüst, Peter Struycken, Hoos Blotkamp, Walter Lewin, and Panamarenko.]

Bruce Hainley: "Legend of the Fall", Artforum, March 1999. [About Bas-Jan Ader.]


Accepting Gravity

The prototypical sculpture is a statue, affirming the upright stature of the human animal. The prototypical sculpture is vertical. (Brancusi.) Carl Andre's floor sculptures are unique in that they accept gravity in a deadpan, down-to-earth way.

The art of process and anti-form also embraces gravity: to hang, to drop, to pour. A particularly provocative instance of this approach is the suspension of human persons: the person turns from an active agent into a passive object. Stelarc's early work demonstrates this in a pointed way.

"Negative sculpture" dodges the isue: the art of digging holes, as practiced by H. Th. Wijdeveld, Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Wim T. Schippers.


Abolishing Gravity

Archimedes' principle provides a way to "abolish" gravity: by suspending objects in a liquid with the same specific weight. (One creates an environment where an upward force consistently and perfectly compensates the earth's downward pull.) Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have used this method in pieces which allude to the lost harmony of our floating existence in our original habitat – where there is no strife, and where earth, fire and air don't exist.

Floating may be faked by applying external forces in an invisible way – for instance, by moving air or by magnetic attraction/repulsion. The simplest version consists in suspending ping pong balls in an air flow. This approach, which turns the heavy-duty gravity issue into a joke, has been applied by the New Electric Chamber Music Ensemble, Hans Haacke, Wim T. Schippers, and Damien Hirst.

Remko Scha – June 24, 2004 / June 25, 2011