Steven Friedman Tackles Life's Big Questions in His Unique New Show
The molecular biologist, artist, and philosopher gives a first-person account about how his eclectic vision of the world came to the stage as Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World.
It began in a deluge the night of February 28, 2014. At about 6:30pm the skies split open and an avalanche of rain flooded down on Santa Monica, California, and on the corrugated ceiling of Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station Arts Center. I had been represented by Robert since 1999, having entered his gallery one day that December to try to begin the process of making my art (acrylic under acrylic rods) public and being rewarded with a solo show 10 days later!
Yes, with Robert the stars seemed to align. In recent years he became especially drawn to my philosophical results and their applications to fields as diverse as cancer research, film marketing, and even product design, and he would film my visits to the gallery to capture my ideas and conversations. By early 2014 I decided the time had come to get serious about making my philosophical work and related results available to a wider audience.
I had been experimenting since at least 2009 with somewhat unconventional ways to do this. Because much of my philosophical writing is in concentrated, aphoristic form, I could "publish" books in the sand, in tealights next to Santa Monica Pier in 2009, or in the sky, over Huntington Beach in 2010. But concentrated writings, especially in philosophy, can need some explanation, and for that a public talk seemed a way to go.
Since Robert Berman liked to record my talking, I approached him about the possibility of using his gallery as a venue from which to speak about my work. The result, on that drenched February night — an event called Splendid Eyes: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World. Splendid Eyes was the title of an artwork of mine that had led to a small book of philosophy whose contents would form part of the talk. The "solving the riddle" part referred to an ambition Einstein expressed as a boy of 11 — that he wanted to "solve the riddle of the great big world."
At 7pm, when the talk — or "performance art," as my dealer called it — was scheduled to begin, about seven people had arrived. But a half hour later, and despite the deluge, which had created ankle-deep puddles throughout the broken asphalt of the parking lot, there was standing room only and an overflow crowd in the large gallery space.
I talked for about two and a half hours — unscripted except for 20 minutes of excerpts from a philosophical and autobiographical narrative poem I had written, The Books of Joshua (2008). In the audience was Al Corley, a friend and producer of film and plays. The talk was well received, but Al thought it needed work — form and, perhaps, direction. I scripted a one-hour version and began reading it to him in his car late one night. Before I had finished, I saw the lightbulb flash on in his head: "A play — not a lecture —with personal narrative, philosophy, poetry, art and science — a full theatrical event in New York — and for the world."