Jim Sanborn: On The Fusion of Art and Science – Grace Guan ’20

On Friday, October 12, the SAB hosted acclaimed artist Jim Sanborn. Ryan Golant, Chair of Academic Outreach invited Sanborn and organized the talk. An Astrophysical Sciences major at Princeton, Ryan chose Sanborn because he “wanted someone who could engage not only the artists at Princeton, but also the scientists, the mathematicians, the engineers—that whole other side of campus—thereby bringing a new crowd of students to the art museum.”

The SAB hosted Sanborn for dinner; then, Sanborn gave a talk: “On The Fusion of Art and Science.”

Sanborn’s talk touched on five of his main works: Kryptos, his late 1990s large-format light projections (Topographic Projections and Implied Geometry), Atomic Time, Terrestrial Physics, and Without Provenance. In his talk, Sanborn spoke on the integration of art and science. Though Sanborn’s training was in cultural anthropology, art history, and sculpture, Sanborn emphasized how people can succeed even in areas in which they lack formal study.

Sanborn started with an engaging story on his work Kryptos. Since CIA agents have to keep secrets their entire lives, Sanborn wanted to create an artwork whose secret he would have to keep his entire life. Kryptos–Sanborn’s part-sculpture, part-code crowning achievement–contains an encrypted message still un-cracked by the world’s top codebreakers, stumping both the CIA and the NSA alike. Though Kryptos has stumped so many mathematicians, Sanborn claims that no more than a high school Algebra II background is needed, as the work appears in many Algebra II textbooks. Sanborn noted how Kryptos has become an element of pop culture, as one of the world’s most famous unsolved mysteries.

Next, Sanborn talked about how he integrated elements of the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, into his work. Sanborn’s huge, outdoor light projections were a cornerstone in the environmental art movement. Topographic Projections and Implied Geometry illustrate Sanborn’s mathematical approach to art. Terrestrial Physics and Atomic Time seek to blur the lines between art and science. Respectively a full-scale working particle accelerator and a recreation of the 1944 Manhattan Project laboratory that built the first atomic bomb, Sanborn’s reconstruction of the instruments and sites as they were when the original experiments were done allows the viewer to see science itself as art.

Lastly, Sanborn decided to go back to his roots in archaeology for Without Provenance. Antiquities from Cambodia were often forged, and Sanborn figured out how forgeries of antique Cambodian sculptures were made. After giving the Metropolitan Museum of Art  its first genuine fake sculpture, Sanborn wrote fake descriptions and made a fake auction catalog for his fake items, exhibiting them as if they were real.

For both scientists and artists alike, Sanborn’s talk was a refreshing reminder of the importance of interdisciplinary studies.

The SAB at dinner with Jim Sanborn.