Saturday, 14 March 2015

Schrödinger's box, a cat reliquary

Schrödinger's box, digital x-ray, 2015
I particularly like this experiment because it was truly collaborative, crossing scientific techniques with art and humanities (which is what archaeology does, really) and something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been working with Dr Richard Thomas. It came about as a result of conversations and thoughts on what you can and cannot see.

Richard and I have had a few discussions about medieval reliquary boxes; were they ever opened or not? Originally they may have been opened, but later reliquaries were permanently closed or even sealed to prevent people from handling the relics. Therefore whatever is inside them is, in fact, unknown. You could say that it is merely a matter of faith that there is anything in the box at all; pilgrims who came to pay tribute to the relics of a saint believed that the box contained the saint's bones, but there was no proof of this and they probably couldn't even see the bones themselves.

In the later medieval period there are examples of reliquaries which were more like elaborate display cases and one could view the bones within. Rock crystal was used as a viewing chamber, as in a reliquary in the Walter's Art Museum in Baltimore. I'm making another piece about this.

But for other reliquaries it was merely the signifier of the box itself that maintained the belief that it held powerful relics.

I made a wooden box in a classic reliquary shape, with a sloped lid, to resemble the shape of a sarcophagus. We put cat bones inside, closed it and then x-rayed it. The results are rather beautiful and I love the foreshortening from the rays "flattening" a three dimensional object.

It was an odd process making a box that was not to be seen itself, but would have its inner revealed, and even its construction. This made the fixings for the box much more important than the box itself, I paid more attention to the screws than to the wooden case. It also meant I had to consider the materials for more than their structural or surface properties. It was a curious thing to be making an object whilst thinking of the relative densities of its parts.

We called it Schrödinger's box. In Schrödinger's famous thought experiment the cat in the box is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is observed as one or the other.  But with an x-ray, what's in the box is both seen and unseen at the same time, in a sense, without even opening the box. I don't know what that means for Schrödinger's cat, existing in two states of being, but our cat in a box makes me think of those archaeological objects which hover between two states of the past and the present, detected or even just suspected, but not yet recovered.

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