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52 variables (number 21), 2010 mixed media on alum
52 variables (number 21), 2010 mixed media on aluminum 39-3/8" x 31-1/8" (100 cm x 79.1 cm)

Keith Tyson Deals The Joker

Turner Prize-winner Keith Tyson chats to us about his New York exhibition and the influences that science, the stars and the occult have had on him

In his new exhibition, which opened last night at The Pace Gallery in New York, Turner Prize-winning artist Keith Tyson will present 52 paintings of the backs of playing cards, exploring the operations of chance and the systems, random or otherwise, that govern human history. For the exhibition, aptly 52 Variables Tyson has created mixed-media on aluminum paintings of the backs of cards culled from 52 different decks. Though the backs of playing cards are meant to be neutral – empty signifiers whose meaning is filled in by the value on the front of the card – Tyson found that elements of society often leaked onto the imagery of card backs, situating them in a specific place and time by default, even when there was no intention for the original image to provide a window into a cultural moment.

Dazed Digital: You’ve always dealt in some way with issues of chance and unpredictability in your art. Where does 52 Variables sit in this context?
Keith Tyson: All of these art works deal with the same dichotomy that a gambler does, which is that before the spin of the wheel the result could be anything and that afterwards, it is something. I’m playing with this space all the time. In this show, there are 52 results but of course there are millions of cards out there that they could have been. Why did those particular cards end up in this exhibition? Why is the world the way it is? All of these questions come up in the show.

DD: Does the exhibition offer a glimpse of an eternal human truth?
Keith Tyson: As human beings, we shy away from the idea of the infinite complexity of the world. We like to have boundaries. In our true nature though, we are infinite. The atoms in our bodies were created billions of years ago and they’re the same age as everything else. We tend to forget that every day is just as spiritual and mystical as everything else. So for me, these cards, and the metaphor they provide of being dealt a hand in the cosmic game of chance, do offer a very good symbol of this.

DD: Is this seeker aesthetic the crux of your art?
Keith Tyson: I think the idea of how one specific result can come from a myriad of possible results is in every work I’ve ever made. Why am I the way I am? And why do I have this specific consciousness in this specific body? Why am I not a free-floating sense of self? I think that these are the really fundamental things that human beings have to experience. We tend not to think about it, but in many ancient societies, these questions were at the centre of civilization and meditated upon everyday. Many Native Americans were integrated with the spirit of nature and the spirits of animals so there was much more of a conversation going on between them and the universe.

DD: In the past, you’ve experimented with magic. Do you see magic as an attempt to control the higher power of chance?
Keith Tyson: Magic is just another method of understanding the world. The occult is a very nebulous and strange system – it’s the idea that your conscious self is an interpreter and that the universe is trying to tell you something. Reality is boundless and fascinating and religion and magic are much more soft and accepting to this idea. Letting go is at the centre of it and, as an artist, you are on this periphery of control and chaos all the time.

DD: Your work as an artist often overlaps with mathematics and science. Do you think that the joining of these disciplines is a better way to approach the world?
Keith Tyson: The idea that art and science are separate disciplines happening in isolation from one another is mythological. We’re just one, big, evolving society and everything reflects that in some way. Our species’ interaction with the world through a set of separate disciplines is crazy; it doesn’t provide an integrated experience of the world. Knowledge, since the enlightenment, has become progressively more separate and less holistic. You can no longer just be a scientist, you’re a specialist particle astrophysicist – it’s very precise. But in Da Vinci’s day, you could be many things at once; people were experiencing the world curiously and in a more essential way. My work is about integrating everything and embracing such complexity.

DD: What’s the significance of the joker in this exhibition?
Keith Tyson: If you’re a card collector, you take the jokers and swap them with other people. Normally the significant part of the card is the front, that’s normally the variable. In 52 Variables, I’m saying that the back of the card is actually the thing with the most diversity. The exhibition is really about how something, which appears to be an empty signifier, is loaded with specificity. There’s another game of cards that’s going on which isn’t taking place on the scale of a night’s entertainment, it’s happening over thousands of years. It’s the deterministic shuffling and dealing of this cosmic game of cards that I’m drawing a metaphor towards.

DD: Does the joker introduce an element of unsaid humor into the exhibition and its wider metaphor?
Keith Tyson: Humor is interesting because it’s traditionally linked with the absurd and the irrational. The rational world is heavily controlled, but throw in a meteor from space and the whole thing shows itself to be a joke. It’s not the joker that’s the joke, it’s the world that we build and have such faith in. When someone acts like a joker or a fool, they’re often saying something more profound and rupturing convention, but we tend to dismiss it as trivial.

52 Variables will be on view at Pace’s newest location, 510 West 25th Street, New York City, from December 10, 2010 through February 5, 2011. All images © Keith Tyson, Courtesy The Pace Gallery. Photo courtesy the artist and The Pace Gallery