Installation visualizes color of universe

Spencer Finch’s Cosmic Latte is delicately balanced at the intersection of mundane and extraordinary, observable and invisible, in an attempt to render tangible the invisible abstract mechanisms behind the universe.

Finch’s installation, specifically designed for MASS MoCA’s gallery, stretches across 80 feet of space down the room. Comprised of 150 light fixtures and an astonishing 417 individual light bulbs organized in molecular groupings, the installation hovers around a foot or so from the ceiling, its shape and luminosity resembling the tapering streak of the Milky Way. These fixtures hang from thin metal tubes that have been painted the same color as the ceiling so that, from a distance, they inconspicuously disappear into the gallery space.

On view since Feb. 5, Cosmic Latte is a variation of a familiar theme: light. From Finch’s website, “light and its color are ultimately the subjects that fascinate Finch and those that he returns to again and again – along with the perceptual, physiological, psychological and linguistic workings that influence how we experience them.” This time, Finch gives his attention to “cosmic latte,” the name given to the average color of the universe by a team of astronomers from John Hopkins University.

It is a bizarre concept that the universe even has a “color.” Studies to determine the color of the universe have involved the survey of more than 200,000 galaxies, from which the spectral range of light was measured and recorded. The aggregate of this data generated the warm, beige tone known as cosmic latte. This essentially means that the color of the universe is an abstract concept, completely unobservable to the human eye despite the obvious tangibility of the color and caffeine concoction it references in its name. Something appears to have been lost or mistranslated in the process of gathering and making sense of data, because the ultimate product of the experiment is a paradox: a concrete value that has no concrete corresponding subject. It is one of those studies that seem completely devoid of meaning, that feels equally futile and frivolous.

This liminal space between the reality of the universe and its observable manifestation is what Finch’s installation ultimately investigates and attempts to resolve. In his installation, Finch plays around with concepts from Kantian phenomenology, the thing in itself that appears to us and its appearance, by first containing the invisible infinitudes of the universe within a visible, delineated space. Cosmic Latte contains the vast expanse of the Milky Way within the enclosed space of a gallery, in which viewers can walk from one end to the other. Walking through the exhibit, viewers are incorporated into a microcosmic model of the galaxy. The undulating ribbon shape formed by the fixtures, in addition, parallels the fluidity of the Hoosic River, which is visible through the windows that line the side of the gallery and thereby relating galactic landscape to local landscape. Thus, Finch assigns appearance and significance to an otherwise unobservable phenomenon by fitting the boundlessness of space within the periphery of human observation.

In spite of its scientific inspiration, Cosmic Latte feels gently nostalgic and sentimental. Finch modified the LED bulbs in his fixtures to look like incandescent bulbs, and they give off a warm glow. It is a constellation that, in line with its name, would feel more appropriate on the ceiling of a coffee shop. These common evocations similarly serve the goal of colloquializing the unfamiliar landscape of space into something knowable by human standards, in this case the experience of getting coffee. Simultaneously, Finch does not allow the viewers to forget that what they are experiencing is in fact an artificial construction generated from the visualization of data: the shapes of the LED light fixtures correspond with the molecular structures of titanium white, mars yellow, chrome yellow and cadmium red – powdered pigments that combine to brew the off-white hue known as cosmic latte. A complex play of symbolism, the light fixtures translate themselves back into the language of science, this time not to scale down the tremendous size of the universe, but to magnify the minute. Their presence within the constellation of light provides a concluding structure to Finch’s installation. Transforming the most reduced representation of the cosmic latte into the most massive one ultimately completes the process of experience in Cosmic Latte by rendering it in an infinite loop where the invisible and observable merge into each other over and over again.

Spencer Finch’s installation features a staggering 150 light fixtures holding 417 LED light bulbs. Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA.