After experiencing Magdi Mostafa’s The Surface of Spectral Scattering, you’re unsure whether to think of the universe as infinitely big, or about yourself as insignificantly small.
When viewers first walk into the Factory Space of the Townhouse gallery, they are hit with a dense bit of physics. The vinyl on the wall is a definition of the term “last scattering surface” taken from The Routledge Critical Dictionary of the New Cosmology. Think about a balloon of sound, expanding infinitely. The inside of the balloon is full of dead silence. This invokes the image of the Big Bang, when the universe as we know it, or don’t know it, exploded into existence.
After taking a leap of faith up a rickety staircase, listener-viewers look onto lines of light dimming and brightening in sync with sounds. Strewn across a plane of dark fabric, 23,000 LEDs are suspended a foot off the ground. To some they resemble stars, a rare sight in Cairo, and to others maps. On descending, viewers are guided to walk in a circle around the work. Oddly familiar low frequencies resonate behind their sternums.
The surface that the lights are laid on appears to be flat. For a long time, flatness was a problem to cosmologists. The Big Bang theory, as it was understood, said that the universe expanded in a sphere. But on observation, it was flat.
This was until Alan Guth proposed the theory of inflation, two years before Mostafa was born in 1982. His theory said that at the very beginning of the Big Bang — and just for less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second — the universe expanded faster than it would continue to for the rest of time. The theory, a jungle of physics and geometry, solved the problem of flatness.
As you walk around the illuminated plane, it isn’t immediately obvious that its surface is in fact curved like the earth. You feel small next to the big artwork. If it extended in all directions infinitely, as much as to envelope the earth, it would have a radius of 6,371 kilometers. And it wouldn’t be flat to you anymore. If the artwork were the size of the universe, it would have a radius of 46.6 billion light years.
Once the limitlessness strikes you, it renders you prostrate. The earth, Cairo, and what was supposed to be a revolution are nothing but infinitely small blips on the surface of time and space. In every trillionth of a second that the universe continues to expand, they disappear further into the distance. They become smaller by the second.
Do definitive changes happen in fleeting moments? Brilliant events, like the instance of inflation that Guth identified, are the evidently consequential ones. They mark the beginning of a process that then seems to come to an end. In reality, things keep moving without us even knowing, just at a different pace. Maybe this is something to think about these days in our own little blip of Cairo.
In a transcript of a conversation with the artist distributed at the show, curator Ania Szremski says that we have to give up our understanding of reality. Some cosmologists believe that if you travelled in a straight line through the flatness of space, you’d eventually return to where you were. That’s not unlike going around Mostafa’s work: you exit onto a gritty downtown street and find yourself exactly where you started.
Magdi Mostafa’s The Surface of Spectral Scattering is on view at Townhouse from 7 to 10 pm Saturdays through Thursdays until June 25.