I meet Susan Kleinberg at The Explorers Club in New York. Aesthetically, this 110-year-old member’s only club looks exactly how one might think: taxidermied big game everywhere—fireplace flanked by elephant tusks, a lionskin rug draped over a table, a stuffed cheetah in the corner. Somewhere in here, there’s a mounted sperm whale penis. This place promotes scientific exploration, research, and education, most of this stuff gifted from explorers. And though Kleinberg says she doesn’t spend much time here, her work seems particularly at home amongst these antiquated maps and expedition flags.
The first piece she shows me is Kairos, a digital project and sound piece that she queues up in miniature on an iPad. With headphones on, I am enveloped in sound. It’s vaguely familiar, slightly rhythmic, and impossible to place: I think of whale sounds and ultrasounds. The screen shows a rich blue field that looks, at times, like the firmament where Earth’s atmosphere ends, and at others like an approaching wave. But because I’m here with Kleinberg, I know that none of this is the case. She tells me that the images are microscopic close-ups of the Burmese ruby in the belly of a 2nd-century statue of the goddess Ishtar filmed with a high-tech Hirox microscope by the head physicist at the Louvre’s research center, all soundtracked by light waves coming in from NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennas.
It’s an impressive provenance, one layered with journey—from man’s primeval artistic expression to today’s most cutting-edge technology. It seems like everything imaginable is encompassed in the work: past and present, macro and micro. For Kleinberg, the source material provided a starting point for exploration and a way to root the work in the physical world, but it’s not something the viewer needs to know about. She says of the work’s backstory: “It doesn’t seem necessary to include that anymore; it’s contained in it.” It’s left up to the viewer to place themselves within its broad continuum.
Kleinberg’s work is not easy to characterize. She often presents digital projection and sound pieces in public places, but those have included everything from interviews with people on the fringes of society to a digital rendering of a blood-filled sphere that defies the laws of physics. She also paints: both with gouache on paper and with water on seaweed. “I am completely a geek, but not just science,” she says, showing me a framed seaweed drawing, its surface bent and contorted by her brushstrokes. “I like learning things and I like to learn real things.”
This wide-ranging curiosity is just one element of her multifaceted practice. In some ways, she’s dealing with the very issues that have concerned artists for centuries: perspective, politics. And like Giotto before her, she’s using the tools of her era to explore them.
“I would have walked away from this project if I thought it would look like a tech experiment,” says Kleinberg. She’s referring back to Kairos, but the statement could apply to any of her work. Science and technology are, for her, just a tool in her arsenal, the same way a painter uses a brush, she says. “No one needs to see the brush.”