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An Anonymous Hand

Meelis Friedenthal (3/2017)

Meelis Friedenthal looks at the popular science illustrations of Estonia's foremost surrealist Ülo Sooster.



Science illustration should be exact and dispassionate – or so one would hope and expect. An illustration should do nothing more and nothing less than deliver information to the viewer in an easily accessible way. After all, ever since René Descartes it has been emphasised that science must rule out all fantasy, for imagination breeds error; only clear and exact measurement, observation – ideally free of any human factor, and therefore mechanical – is capable of providing us with an objective image of nature. The more distant and abstract – or mathematical – our description, the more objective the image it provides.

In illustration, then, complex phenomena should be simplified and abstracted, reducing them to lines and vectors. Still, even the most mechanical illustrations highlight details that we are otherwise not used to noticing and show connections that we were previously incapable of detecting. Illustration, therefore, does not only concern the tangible, but always also involves the construction of reality, one which emphatically is neither tangible nor visible to the naked eye and is only present through an abstract image.


Perspective grid

A quick glance at Ülo Sooster's (1924–1970) illustrations for "Близкая и далёкая физика" (Physics: Familiar and Unfamiliar, Moscow: 1963), a popular science book by Viktor Trostnikov, makes it clear that Sooster goes even further than that. Rather than a dispassionate and mechanical scaffolding for reality, his illustrations are a game, an exercise in aestheticising physical material and handling it. Instead of "pure explication and indication" – if such a thing is possible at all – it becomes a value-laden commentary, an evaluative judgment about science and what we think of as being reality.




Ülo Sooster
Illustration to V. Trostnikov's book "Физика:
близкое и далекое" (Москва: Знание, 1963)
ink on paper
From the collection of Tartu Art Museum



Sooster is intentionally juggling with reality and non-reality, as his friend Juri Sobolev explains: "A paradox that Sooster and I used all the time was adding seemingly scientific methods of construction to completely non-scientifically produced objects. In this way, we developed a set of attributes for popular science illustration – coordinate grids, numbers that referred to a legend which should have been given below but had been omitted or rendered in a bizarre way. We also used other methods: a perspective grid that signified nothing, as the space within it wobbled around with complete disregard for the grid itself. This sort of use of scientific graphics – or scientific popularisation – was natural at the time, as all of us worked with popular science literature. And through the coarse grid of scientific popularisation, this other reality that we wanted to capture began to spill over."1

In other words, what was going on was that by overlaying elements of science illustration a message was being sent to the viewer. A coordinate system, regardless of whether it is explicitly identified as such, requires interpretation; it suggests itself as a reference to something meaningful and calculated. If there is a diagram, it is a representation of something; if there is a formula, it describes something.

It is like ichthys for Christians, simple lines underlying which is a whole mythology. In the same way, we see a drawing in a textbook and believe it to be based on scientific practice – educated, purposeful, planned, exact and reliable. We are being given a reference to reality, one that is mechanically abstracted into a schematic or mathematical representation and seems cryptic at first but is completely accessible to the initiated.

So, while scientific diagrams are a mechanical abstraction, leaving no room for imagination, understanding them and mapping them back onto the real world requires appropriate training as well as imagination on the part of the viewer. Moreover, if a diagram is incomplete, its incompleteness – a defect – is the opposite of the scientific and calls for correction, for additional information to be filled in, and in order to make up for the incompleteness of the perceived image, the eye and the mind seek meaning in the other elements of the drawing, which is precisely the intended effect.


Butterflies, hands, eyes

Imagination, then, must fill in what the scientific drawing is not even trying to represent, and with its necessarily schematic (in both senses of the word) nature and incompleteness, scientific explanation is made to serve fantasy. Science illustration becomes a reference to something that exists in another way, something that can only be accessed by scientific means constructed specifically for that purpose. By its very essence, scientific knowledge is not natural knowledge, but something that goes beyond natural knowledge; as such, it is supernatural, or surreal, and Sooster's illustrations seek to thematise precisely this unobservable surreal quality.

In his illustrations for the physics book, Sooster signals this bewilderment using elements ordinarily not seen in physics illustrations – butterflies, hands, eyes. These make us look beyond the dispassionate captions and engage with the scientific descriptions of reality using our subjective knowledge. This kind of reality – part scientific, part imaginary – may be called science fiction or an extrapolative world, which is based on (a quest for) objectivity but furnished with things that gesture towards playful possibilities. First, this play can be seen as a comic interlude suitable for a popular science book and still conveying useful information to the reader. It would be playful in the sense of being "only a game", a little joke, unserious, the opposite of "work", as it were.

On the other hand, play can also mean "a child's work", something like a dog gnawing at a stick. A game where a set of arbitrary rules is completely accepted, staking everything, showing fanatical devotion and where the bitterness of defeat or joy at winning is greater than the real, day-to-day, objective experience of life. A similar play with reality is present in Sooster's illustrations for sci-fi books, which of course represent the same idea of reality developing into a possible world, a constant succession of different what-if situations, the continual transformation of the currently actual and here-and-now into a possible future actuality, of the familiar into the unfamiliar.

The hand is a recurring motif in the illustrations for "Physics: Familiar and Unfamiliar". It is always an expression of activity, a manicula that points something out, exerts influence, holds something. Having drawn these images, the artist's hand, of course, is primarily an expression of the imagination. An idea without realisation, without actuality, is inaccessible to us. An embodied idea, however, is never complete on paper; it is always crafted, a fact that is very clearly revealed by the incapability, and also reluctance, to reproduce an idea with mechanical precision (as exemplified in an illustration by Sooster where he uses moire).2

Any crafted object is a personal interpretation, human and imperfect. A sense of imperfection (error or deficiency), however, is necessary for understanding perfection. When we draw a rough sketch of a triangle, its very roughness brings out more clearly the idea of a perfect triangle, as it suggests that we have gestured towards something beyond the drawn image, something invisible.


An invisible force

It is an invisible hand that manipulates matter, drives the machinery and moves the hourglass in Sooster's pictures. While Sooster's hand created the images, the disembodied hand in the pictures is the expression of an abstract force; it is a schematic representation of the designer and controller of the experiment, a symbol of the scientist.

Early modern prints often show the hand of a disembodied and invisible God, reaching out from the clouds and exerting its influence on the world, as an expression of divine energy. God cannot be represented, only gestured towards. Similarly, we encounter the manicula, the image of a little hand, in the margins of books as an expression of the reader's attention, a means of communication, of pointing out important passages to other readers, to us.

Of course, there are always two aspects to pointing; while indicative and helpful, it is also selective and assumes control over what is being pointed at. A pointed finger says, pay attention! – I see. Secretly pointing a finger, on the other hand, used to be a way of putting a curse on someone. This sort manipulation, then, is a way of placing the other under your spell, of using supernatural force to gain control by your own hand. The hand is a hegemon, a will to control; it clasps and holds, but it also grasps and gropes. This way, both the scientist and artist create their own worlds. An interpretation given by such a hand is no longer natural; it is surreal. And that is Sooster's physics – familiar and unfamiliar.


Meelis Friendenthal is a writer and theologian, and also a member of the editorial board of the Algernon sci-fi webzine.



1 Symmetrical worlds – mirrored symmetries. Ülo Sooster, Juri Sobolev, Tõnis Vint, Raul Meel. (IV B. Addenda to Soviet-era art history.) Ed. Elnara Taidre. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2017, p 42.

2 Lähedane ja kauge füüsika Ülo Soosteri illustratsioonidega. Ed. Kadri Mägi. Tartu: Tartu Art Museum, 2016, p 12.

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