"The show is all about the history of mark-making," says Matthew Ritchie as he pencils a long line on the wall of the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University. It's a recent Friday morning, and Ritchie is preparing for the exhibit's opening later that day. There's still some work to be done, but all around us, on the walls and on the floor, are paintings and drawings by Ritchie that capture the history of man, from the Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) to the future.
The Demon in the Diagram is the result of Ritchie's deep obsession with the ways mankind has tried to make sense of the world around us. The show consists of 25 large square diagrams, each depicting a philosophy or mythology. The diagrams serve as a kind of timeline: As science and knowledge advance, old ideas collapse and new ideas are formed. Within each timeline, however, there is always an unknown—fate, luck, coincidence, or some other force acting either for or against man—known as a demon.
In Hesiod's case, his Theogony, a poem explaining the genealogy of the Greek gods and the creation of the world, is replaced by Aristotle's Square of Opposition, a kind of logic problem that argues that the only reality is the current moment. Other diagrams include historical events like the Black Plague and the Atlantic slave trade. "Yet another worldview collapse," Ritchie says.
Accompanying each diagram is a painting depicting Ritchie's own interpretation of the various mythologies. Those diagrams and paintings are also echoed in other ways throughout the show, resulting in a multi-sensory, multimedia experience.
Upon his invitation to the Moody, Ritchie was essentially given carte blanche to create whatever kind of show he wanted. He accepted the challenge with gusto.
"This is a big experiment," he says. "The idea was to foster questions for the university. The show is very much in the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration."
Much of the show is a comment on pedagogy. In the first room, the square diagrams are duplicated on the floor. Instead of a timeline, they're arranged in a grid, allowing visitors to sort of "time hop" from era to era. The paintings are reproduced on clear screens set on casters (similar to rolling chalkboards, in the spirit of pedagogy) which can be moved around, rearranged, layered like transparencies.
The end result? "We can break the pattern," Ritchie says.
The second gallery continues the timeline and Ritchie's interpretation of it, extending into an unknown, but optimistic, future. In both rooms, visitors are encouraged to become a part of the work. In the second room, visitors can don a smock covered in Ritchie's work and an abstract mask concealing a VR headset, which allows them to explore the timeline in virtual reality. In this way, the visitors become the demons in the diagram themselves.
The first gallery includes a musical composition by long-time collaborators of Ritchie, Evan Ziporyn and Kelley Deal, which responds to the movements of visitors as they move about the show. The work is exactly 25,000 minutes long — the length of time the show will be open at the Moody. That number is a coincidence, Ritchie says, but corresponds nicely with the 25 squares that make up the show. Yet another demon at work?
The show, which runs through December 22, will include several events corresponding to the work of Ritchie. Shepherd School of Music students will perform a concert in the gallery on October 13. Choreographer Hope Mohr has also created a performance inspired by the show. Her dance company will be in residence at the Moody Center, performing for a week in late October. Ritchie himself will be present for an artist's dialogue on October 25. In addition, Rice students are encouraged to create works inspired by the show.
"I'm always thinking about the ethics of seeing," he says, referring to a concept that questions who gets to tell the story of history. "I like reinventing the idea of who gets looked at."
Matthew Ritchie: The Demon in the Diagram, thru Dec. 22. Free. Rice Moody Center for the Arts, 6100 Main St. 713-348-2787. More info and tickets at moody.rice.edu.