The Coolest, Most Artistic And Metaphysical MRI You Will Ever See
In a 1990 video called “Jonah,” artist Paul Langland manages to combine quantum mechanics, William Blake, and Joseph Campbell’s hero myth to reveal what makes us tick.
Presented here in its entirety, Langland originally premiered “Jonah” at PS122 as part of his 1990 multimedia performance piece, “The Ghost of a Flea,” named after the 1820 painting by author William Blake, who, like Langland, saw a correlation between science and humanity.
“Blake lived at the height of the age of reason,” Langland, who’s more of a performance artist than simply a dancer, explained to me, “but he was also a firm believer in the sublime, the mythic, the creative, and the transcendent.”
While Blake’s work was a reaction to the nascent industrial era, Langland, a Wyoming native born in 1950, was enthralled by the up-and-coming science of quantum mechanics.
“In the late 1980s, I read ‘Quantum Reality’ by Nick Herbert, a book that opened my eyes to the strange sub-atomic world of 20th century quantum mechanics, and I decided to base my next work on quantum reality,” said Langland, who collaborated on “Flea” with artists Daniel Lepkoff, Gail Turner and Jeff Stevenson.
“My impulse was to point to the illogical yet proven aspects of quantum theory, and how math and science was entering a realm of subjective creative reality, in some regards similar to the creative arts.” But how does one base art on quantum mechanics? Enter Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which, to use Langland’s gracefully elementary explanation, “‘rake’ ions in one direction to create high resolution anatomical images.”
To the 21st century viewer, MRIs are old-hat, but when Langland presented ‘Jonah,’ the technology, first developed in the late-70s and not widely available until the late-80s, was up and coming; MRIs were so innovative, in fact, that Joan Acocella’s ‘Village Voice’ review for ‘Flea’ included an explanation: “In one section of the piece we are shown a film made via MRI, a new diagnostic technique in which the living brain can be more or less photographed right through the skull.”
Acocella went on, “Langland shows us his own brain. There’s his face on the film; then suddenly we’re seeing through his face. There’s the cerebral cortex; there’s the cerebellum. You can’t believe it!”
According to Langland, “Jonah” qualifies as “the first creative application of MRI technology.” And it was certainly a labor of love: Langland enlisted dancer Stevenson, who was at that point operating NYU Medical’s new MRI machine, to do the film work.
“Stevenson got a grant from his department for us to play in their brand new MRI machine all night, the only off hours time,” said Langland. “Don’t forget this is a very helpful diagnostic machine in a large teaching hospital, and was in constant use.” So, the men shot from midnight until 6 a.m., “when actual doctors and patients would return to the MRI suite.” The entire piece, made in 1989, took two weeks to create, with the thumb-sucking section taking an entire evening.
“The sections of ‘Jonah’ were state of the art MRI studies,” said Langland, now a professor at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School. But “Jonah” wasn’t simply about blowing the viewer’s mind, although it does do that, too.
The piece, which begins with an image of Langland’s hand, slowly morphs into a view of his pulsating brain, him sucking his thumb, back to his face, and reentering his brain before breaking down into an image of Blake’s God, also offers a rumination of the hero myth as put forth by late writer Joseph Campbell.
“‘Jonah’ is a meditative take off on the hero myth—the hero being myself, of course!” Laughed Langland. “In Campbell’s descriptions, the hero must enter a difficult journey—drowning, war, getting lost, meeting dragons, etc.—and emerge successful. ‘Jonah’ in the Bible enters the belly of the whale and lives to tell the tail.”
“In this video, I enter myself, wander and wonder, and re-emerge. Loosely, I become the ‘Beast’ I confront.”
Though over twenty-years-old, Langland’s use of MRI technology remains germane. As our culture expands its knowledge and application of science, we must remember that while Watson can beat most of us at ‘Jeopardy!,’ we will always have something special and beautiful: our humanity.
At the end of her 1990 review of the entire “Flea” show, Acocella, now the dance reviewer at The New Yorker, marveled at ‘Jonah’s’ conclusion: “This was like watching Hamlet stare into the skull of Yorick: the very image of our mortality.”