Sofia Pidwell

SEESAW – from dynamic equilibrium to dissipative structures

Casa Museu Medeiros e Almeida Lisboa


album 1 album 2


We live in space and we exist side-by-side in time. Space and time are such common words in our everyday lives that they prevent us from thinking about what “space” and “time” really mean, whether they are interdependent notions or whether, on the contrary, they form separate categories. And yet we recognise that the concepts of space and time condition and regulate our lives socially, emotionally, economically and politically.


Sofia Pidwell’s exhibition is, at the same time, a process. A process that develops around four moments: Observation; Liberation; Contemplation; Being Authentic. Which, for any trained physicist like me, immediately recalls the stages of the classic scientific method: Observation; Hypothesis; Experimentation; Theorisation. My attention was heightened.


For millennia, explanations of the world stemmed from a “religious” vision of the universe which originated systems in which societies were dominated by gods. The cosmology associated with these religious visions is that of an unmoving earth in the centre of the world, with the stars eternally revolving around it, moved by divine will. Time had a cyclical nature (it periodically returned to a state of initial purity), as in the agrarian cycle and calendar events of the religious hierarchy. Space was local, corresponding to the place of the objects situated in it. There was no void, as that would constitute a horror and a challenge to the divine omnipresence that guaranteed the order of things.


An important contestation of this vision of the world resulted from the great voyages of the Portuguese and European navigators who came to reveal the full extent of what was previously unknown. Various orders of magnitude were added to reality, accompanying the astonishing discoveries of astronomers and scientists that were emerging at that time. A new culture of critique and experimental bases thus took root in Europe, bringing about a new world vision.


In this “geometric” vision, nature, like the developed societies of Europe, was governed by laws. The book of nature, however, had not been written in a common language, but in mathematical language, in the words of Galileo Galilei. In this conception of the world, the essential is to find the great symmetries, corresponding to the principles of invariance describing the universe that, in turn, give origin to the laws of nature, unchangeable, absolute, eternal.


Isaac Newton was the great rationaliser of this concept, defining space as infinite and absolute, in other words, pure. The world had started as space. Space was a void through which bodies moved, as a result of the forces acting on them. It became impossible to make a distinction between movement in the skies and on earth: there was only one single physics that stemmed from the laws of nature. Time, naturally, lost some of its organic character, it was separated from space and transformed into a linear and reversible parameter: the time of merchants and clock makers, the artisans of modernity.


But at the start of the 20th century, doubts began to mount up about the geometric order of nature – if, at a cosmological level, it was possible to understand the world as an aggregate of space and time, the “space-time” of Albert Einstein’s relativity, the curvature of which constituted the rational explanation for the field of gravity, at a micro-cosmological level, that of atoms and elementary particles, new fields of force and new symmetries appeared that were not compatible with the rules of the world at our scale.


Once again, space was not empty any more, possessing its own energy, serving as a means of propagation of fields. The quantum world is dominated by “indeterminacy” and our only way of understanding it, according to Niels Bohr, is to consider that we know only the probabilities of the location of a particle within a specific time interval. Here, the notion of information comes into play, a concept that is still not as stable as that of energy, a fact that motivates many and divergent conjectures.


These difficulties lead once again to the question of the relationship between space and time, in focusing the quest for understanding the universe not on symmetries but on the existence of instabilities. These instabilities correspond to the operation of principles of self-organisation, giving rise to a profusion of “dissipative structures”, the cohesion and informative content of which are finite. This justifies the existence of complex, highly organised systems, just like ourselves, as well as our societies.


This new vision possesses a “temporal” character. And we thus continue, between space and time, between time and space. Albert Einstein’s phrase “space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions under which we live” contains one of the most profound observations on this subject.


Sofia Pidwell’s lines are built from basic structures that seem more like space-time quanta, with curves revealing the existence of matter, their twists and vortices indicating the complexity of the real; or rather, could it be that they describe the propagation process of a community of living cells that multiplies until it colonises the entire universe? And then? What goes up must come down? Could this be the secret of SEESAW? Only by observing and experimenting, by searching according to Sofia’s invitation, will we begin to understand.


João Caraça, May 2016