4 minute read


The End of the World

From what’s outside us to our inner selves, from primordial earth to the end of the universe, Jonathan Latiano’s most recent, most ambitious piece of installation art, The Only Thing That’s the End of the World Is the End of the World, takes viewers on an expansive, layered journey.

Walk into the dark exhibition space in Payne Gallery, and you are confronted with an enormous mass of misshapen spheres of multiple diameters covered in irregular shards of mirror suspended in the center of that darkness. Strung on wires, they spin slowly, reflecting and absorbing light in cadence with the discordant and melodic voices of the string quartet piece that surrounds you.

Jonathan Latiano ’06 earned his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He is the director of the art and art history program at Merrimack College, just outside of Boston, and a nationally renowned installation artist. From conception to completion, he has worked 10 years on this piece.

“As an installation artist, I am always interested in how I can author space,” says Latiano. “I was starting to work with light, reflected light, and mirrors as having both reflecting and absorbing properties. I researched the potential of darkness. And I wondered, Is it possible to make a piece that constantly re-authors the space that it inhabits? I also started to become interested in the intrinsic connection in the brain between music, motion, and emotion. Can I use that in installation art in a way that heightens those elements?” But to what end? What would the piece be about? Latiano asked himself.

Since 2016, the country has experienced an ever-widening politically driven chasm among its people, the rise of overt bigotry, and an increase in the number and violence of natural disasters fueled by the warming climate. And then came COVID-19, a new virus that ignited fear; led to a suffocating, isolated death in the most vulnerable; and forced lockdown.

“While there is so much beauty, love, intrigue, nuance, and complexity in the world, sometimes it’s a tough place to be. Sometimes, it makes you want to scream. This installation became my response to all that,” says Latiano. “If I had to sum up this piece, I would say it is about societal-level trauma.”

Prior to 2020, Merrimack awarded Latiano a large research grant to create the installation. He collaborated with the college’s engineering students on the kinetics of the artwork, and several art-student interns were hired to assist him in the fabrication of the misshapen spheres, which included puzzling together the thousands of shattered pieces of mirror onto their surfaces. Then the pandemic sent everything into lockdown— including the grant. Latiano had completed only half of the installation. It lay in limbo until Dave Leidich, director of Payne Gallery, contacted Latiano about doing a solo exhibition at Moravian. They agreed that Latiano would premiere his current work and Moravian would fund its completion.

For the music, Latiano turned to composer Sam Wu, whose work has been performed around the world. They selected five of Wu’s pieces that move viewers through an arc that represents the stages of the societal trauma of the pandemic: the initial encounter that is both frightening and fascinating in its sci-fi otherworldliness, then the darkness, the despair of prolonged isolation, the emerging, and finally hope for the future.

The music, the changing light, the movement have a grand effect aesthetically, emotionally, and thematically, but the piece elicits also an intimate personal response from the viewer. She looks inward and sees her own life reflected. Childbirth is violent; death is ultimately a release. On that journey, she experiences darkness, light, fear, peace, beauty, imperfection, wholeness, brokenness, sadness, grace, love.

And the viewer discovers themes in human existence. We welcome light and fear darkness, yet at times, the light in this art stabs our eyes, while the darkness protects us and provides comfort. Stare at one of the mirrored spheres, and it seems you are looking right through to a hollow center, though you know the piece is solid. Not everything—or everyone—is all that we think we know.

“All of my installations have been big external pieces. You look on them. This piece is intensely internal,” says Latiano. “You are in this darkened room, which forces you to be present. When the piece goes fully dark, your universe ends at your fingertips.”

Where does the universe end? Latiano asks us by way of this installation. At the outer limits of space—an inconceivable distance—or the farthest reaches of our senses? The answer is both. Universes lie within universes.

During the final musical composition by Wu, “Warmth, Love, Romance,” from In Passage, Wu’s score for a ballet, the viewer recalls Latiano’s aesthetic: “I am always interested in how I author space.” She realizes the installation is larger than the glittering asteroid-like mass rotating in the center of the room. She turns to watch the oval rings and circular forms cast by the reflected light onto the walls. They move to Wu’s lyrical, uplifting piece for piano and cello, indeed, as if they are performing a ballet. It seems a primordial dance, and the viewer sees that she is suspended between the beginning and the end of the world, and they are connected, and she feels hopeful.

“The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world, and what are you going to do with that?” asks Latiano. “It’s easy to become a nihilist. We’d be tempted to just lie down because it’s exhausting, but if we did that then it would be the end.” For Latiano and all of us, the title of his work continues with an unwritten, line—“and it is not the end of the world.”