June 2, 2009
The stacks of FedEx boxes and cubes of cracked glass scattered throughout the third floor of the Hirshhorn don’t look like priceless works of contemporary sculpture, which is probably why museum visitors keep crossing the security tape and setting off the alarms.
Or maybe they do it just to get a closer look. The shatterproof glass cubes are mailed from exhibit to exhibit, accumulating cracks, dents, chips, and other abrasions that the artist, Walead Beshty, can’t anticipate.
The box sculptures are featured in the new exhibit, “Directions: Legibility on Color Backgrounds,” which focuses on Beshty’s creations. Though, what place do the boxes have next to his multicolor photograms and his black and white portraits? According to Colby Caldwell, a DC-based artist and professor, who gave one of the museum’s Friday Gallery Talks last week, part of the fun of the exhibit is figuring out what Beshty is up to.
“He’s trying to put together a conversation,” Caldwell says, pointing first to the photograms. To create a photogram, the artist lays out objects on top of photographic paper and exposes them to light. “The thing that is happening here is the interaction between light and time,” Caldwell explains. His evidence is that Beshty invests great detail into the titles of his art, including the angles of light sources, along with the site and date where a work is created. (For example, pictured above is Six Color Curl (CMMYYC): Irvine, California, July 18th 2008, Fuji Crystal Archive Type C, 2008.)
But what does this have to do with the boxes? Well, another clue is the black and white photographs, hanging salon style in the corner of the exhibit. They are portraits—of a curator, a studio manager, a FedEx delivery man, even the horizontal enlarger that created the prints. Through the various characters in the photographs, Beshty is telling the story of the artistic process.
Though the British and American artist’s work is often categorized as abstract photography, Caldwell argues Beshty is more of practitioner. “His work has more in common with the Human Genome Project than art,” Caldwell says. Rather than being the traditional photography show, Beshty uses his exhibit to explain the DNA of photography: Light, time, technology, people and just a bit of luck.
The black and white photographs, photograms, and the decaying glass boxes are all offspring of the same formula. Their existence with the space is like a conversation between siblings.
June 1, 2009
Ellen Lupton is the kind of person who ponders the necessity of toasters.
“Is civilized life possible without this fundamental kitchen gadget?,” she muses in her book Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things. “Could a 21st-century family get by with no toaster at all?”
Well, yes… Lupton concludes [pdf]. But compared to broiling, frying or microwaving your bread, you can’t beat the convenient predictability of a toaster.
Lupton, a design critic and curator at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, teamed up with her identical twin sister Julia, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, to co-write the book and its ongoing companion blog, Design-Your-Life.org.
On the blog, created in 2005, the sisters question the way we use and interact with everyday objects: What are the secret lives of scarves? How can a personal Web site help you curate the self? And what creative possibilities exist with file folders? Each post is accompanied by photographs and original illustrations that add to the authors’ points.
According to Ellen Lupton, writers are attune to grammatical errors the way design critics are inspired by and sensitive to the way things are put together. The blog is not a diary, but a first-person account of these aesthetics. “Design is critical thinking and creative thinking,” she says. “If you don’t have a design point of view you tend to accept everything as it is and not wonder how it came to be that way.”
When Lupton does find room for improvement in everyday design, her words can draw fire. In the book, a chapter dedicated to the annoyances of luggage with wheels, known as roller bags, led to a passionate response. Roller bag supporters say the invention allows travelers to carry more and is better on the back and neck. “It’s certainly an area of debate,” Lupton says. “People don’t’ realize how much space they’re taking up. You have a product that has great benefits but also makes people behave badly.”
The blog is a hub for these kinds of conversations. And because Lupton is a combination writer/curator/speaker/mother/teacher/etc…, there is some commentary on life as well. For example, after being asked if she was a workaholic, Lupton didn’t hesitate to say yes. But, she explains, there’s a difference between a high-functioning workaholic versus a sloppy workaholic. See where you fit in.
May 29, 2009
In the rainforests of Peru, scientists with the National Zoo’s Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program set up cameras that “trap” wildlife in the area, digitally at least. When an animal walks by one of these traps, sensors register its body heat and movement, giving researchers a candid shot of nature. The photos are used to document rainforest biodiversity.
Below are three photographs that show the range of Peruvian wildlife. For 20 more images, check out the Zoo’s Flickr Page.
On May 28, 1959, a rhesus monkey named Able, plucked from a zoo in Independence, Kansas, and a squirrel monkey named Baker, made history as the first mammals to survive space flight.
Strapped into specially-designed couches inside a Jupiter missile nose cone, Able and Baker flew 300 miles above the surface of the earth reaching speeds more than 10,000 miles per hour.
Animals had been sent into space before. In 1957, two years before the monkeys’ flight, the Soviets watched Laika, the space dog, orbit around the Earth. She did not survive.
But Able and Baker did, and their survival was evidence that mammals, even humans, could safely travel through space. Two years later, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet, became the first person in space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
Unfortunately, a few days after the historic flight, Able did not survive surgery to remove an infected electrode from under her skin. Her body was preserved and is now on view at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.
Able recently found new life as a star in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. She and partner-in-mischief Dexter, a capuchin monkey from the first Night at the Museum movie, can be seen testing security guard Larry Daley’s patience with some slapstick comedy.
May 28, 2009
If one could guess the species of bird that fatally crashed through the kitchen window at the moment of T.S. Spivet’s birth, it would be the Baird’s sparrow, Ammodramus bairdii.
The spirit of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the brainy 12-year-old protagonist of the new novel, “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen, seems loosely inspired by the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Baird, (1823-1887).
More than a dozen species, including the sparrow, are named for Baird, who was a passionate scholar of natural history, especially ornithology. Not only did he increase the Smithsonian’s collection from 6,000 to 2.5 million specimens, he founded the Megatherium Society, a group of young explorers who lived in the towers and basement of Smithsonian Castle when not venturing across the United States acquiring specimens.
In this story, fact meets fiction. When the fictional T. S. Spivet hears the true story of the society, he goes silent for three days, “perhaps out of jealousy that time’s insistence on linearity prevented me from ever joining,” he writes. Spivet then asks his mother to start one in his home state of Montana. To which she replies, “The Megatheriums are extinct.”
But luck finds Spivet when a Mr. G. H. Jibsen, Undersecretary of Illustration and Design at the Smithsonian, informs the preteen that he’s won the Institution’s prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science. Though only 12, Spivet already made a name for himself in the field of scientific illustration. He could map, for instance, how a female Australian dung beetle Onthophagus sagittarius uses its horns during copulation. The catch is that nobody knows he’s 12.
This is how “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” begins. The gifted young artist, who loves mapping the world as much as Spencer Baird loved collecting it, sets off from Montana to Washington D.C. to meet Mr. Jibsen and claim his prize.
The author, Reif Larsen, began writing “T. S. Spivet” while an MFA student at Columbia University. He later decided to incorporate scientific illustrations in the margins (drawn by the author) to add an extra dimension to the read. In an era where the Internet and Kindle rules all, Larsen’s unique hybrid of literature, art and science, offers a rare moment when you can sit and truly experience what you are reading. A possible exception to 19th-century scientist Louis Agassiz’s remark, “Study nature, not books.”