July 26, 2013
Scottish born artist Angela Palmer found inspiration for her artwork in an unlikely place—the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England. When she laid eyes on a model built in the 1940s of the structure of penicillin made by Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin, Palmer saw more than a relic symbolizing the potential to save millions of people. She also saw the potential for art.
The three-dimensional penicillin model was made with parallel horizontal pieces of glass depicting the contours of electron density and individual atoms. The result is a magnified visualization of the structure that Hodgkin discovered using X-ray crystallography, a method in which beams of X-rays are aimed at crystals, which are then reflected onto photographic plates. The spots that appear on the plates map the 3D structure of compounds.
“When I saw this,” Palmer says, “I thought that if I could turn that model on a vertical plane and take slices of the human head, I wonder if you could, therefore, in three dimensions show the inner architecture of the head.”
So began Palmer’s curious experiments with 3D mapping.
One of her latest installations took a detour from head and body mapping, and she instead looked to the sky for inspiration. The sculpture is a 3D depiction of all of the stars that the Kepler telescope has identified as likely hosts for orbiting planets, and it has a temporary home in an exhibition at the Air and Space Museum. Entitled Searching for Goldilocks, the artwork highlights those planets that have been identified as “Goldilocks planets,” meaning they aren’t too hot or too cold, but just right for sustaining life. The perfect Goldilocks planet against which all the others are measured is Earth itself.
Searching within the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, the Kepler Observatory has found more than 3,000 “candidate planets,” or planets that orbit within a zone that facilitates the formation of liquid water, since it launched in 2009. Of those planets, 46 of them had been identified as Goldilocks planets at the time Palmer created her sculpture.
Each star with planets orbiting in the habitable zone is engraved on one of the 18 sheets of glass in the sculpture. Each star with a confirmed Goldilocks planet is marked by an opaque circle. The space between each sheet of glass represents 250 light years, making the last identified star a mind-blowing 4,300 light years away from Earth.
“It means more than seeing it on a computer screen,” Palmer says. “You can stand and look as if you were the eye of the Kepler telescope and you see the first star that could be hosting a habitable planet, and that’s 132 light years from Earth. Or you can stand behind it and sort of be thrown back through space, back down to Earth from 4,300 light years.”
The engraved stars appear delicate and ethereal floating in the sheets of glass, yet in reality they are massive and far away. Searching for Goldilocks places them in a context that is easier to understand and visualize. “It really shows science in a different light, in a light that you can grasp visually and all encompassing in this little cube,” Carolyn Russo, the curator for the exhibit, says, “and you walk away saying, ‘oh, I get it, I get what the Kepler mission is.’”
From the scientific perspective, the sculpture is an accurate depiction of a 3D chunk of space. And from the artistic perspective, it is an awe-inspiring marvel of floating lights. Palmer blends the two disciplines in much of her work with the goal of appealing to the imagination and presenting facts in a new way. In addition to scanning heads and creating 3D depictions of their inner workings and creating models of constellations, Palmer has also done a myriad of other artistic projects that were inspired by scientific fact. A previous traveling exhibit called Ghost Forest involved placing the dead stumps of giant rainforest trees in city plazas in Western Europe. She came up with this idea after a scientist told her that an area of rainforest about the size of an acre is destroyed every four seconds. Her exhibit was meant to help everyday people visualize the consequences of such destruction.
Although science plays a major role Palmer’s artwork, she is not a scientist. Her background is in journalism, a profession she turned to after dropping out of art school in Edinburgh. After more than a decade in journalism, working for such publications as The Times and ELLE, Palmer returned to art school, enrolling at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and channeled her curiosity in a new direction.
“I think curiosity is the secret, isn’t it?” Palmer says. “You can do so much if you’ve just got that curiosity. And I think that’s what the most exciting thing about life really is, if you’re curious it’s just got so many endless fascinations.”
July 23, 2013
The Zoo’s panda fans can now live stream 24-7 the high and lows of DC’s much-loved couple, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. After more than a month of upgrades, the National Zoo relaunched their Panda Cams to allow multi-device access to the furry couple.
The two cameras show the pandas in their dens and outside as they lounge and play in their yards. Female Mei Xiang’s den has an enhanced HD camera trained on her every move, so without having to refresh the page, her fans can see her sitting upright or lounging languorously, the two activities that occupy most of a giant pandas’ days.
“Giant pandas can easily spend about 16 hours of the day eating bamboo,” says zoo keeper Juan Rodriguez. “But since bamboo is not that nutritious, they have to eat a lot of it in order to maintain their weight. In fact,they can eat between 50 and 110 pounds a day, depending on the time of year.”
Mei Xiang, who turned 15-years-old yesterday, and the 14-year-old male Tian Tian were both born in a giant panda research and conservation center in the Sichuan Province in China and came to the National Zoo in 2000. The popular power couple have had two cubs together, one of which died last year a week after it was born. Their surviving cub Tai Shan, born July 9, 2005, was returned to China three years ago.
Zookeepers are keeping a close eye on Mei Xiang this summer for signs of pregnancy after she was artificially inseminated last March. There is only a two to three day period each year in which pandas can become pregnant, and with the bears’ endangered status, Zookeepers are hoping to see another successful birth this year. Earlier this month, keepers videotaped an ultrasound procedure. Mei has been trained to enter a specially designed enclosure, deliver her arm through a slot for examination or blood pressure checks, and to lie down comfortably so that veterinarians can easily access her stomach.
July 18, 2013
As the weather heats up, some of the Smithsonian’s exhibits are preparing to cool down. To make way for future shows, a dozen current ones at various museums will close their doors by summer’s end, so don’t miss a chance to see some of these historic, unique, beautiful, innovative and thought-provoking exhibits. Here is a list of all exhibits closing before September 15.
Thomas Day was black man living in North Carolina before the Civil War. An expert cabinetmaker with his own business and more success than many white plantation owners, he was a freedman whose craftmanship earned him both respect and brisk sales. His style was classified as “exuberant” and was adapted from the French Antique tradition. Step back in time to the Victorian South and view Day’s ornate cabinetry work on display. Ends July 28. Renwick Gallery.
The Madrid-based artist group DEMOCRACIA created a video featuring the art of movement in a socio-political context. The film features practitioners of “parkour,” a kind of urban street sport with virtually no rules or equipment and where participants move quickly and efficiently through space by running, jumping, swinging, rolling, climbing and flipping. The actors are filmed practicing parkour in a Madrid cemetery, providing a spooky backdrop for their amazing acrobatics and interspersed with symbols of the working class, internationalism, anarchy, secret societies and revolution that pop up throughout the film. Ends August 4. Hirshhorn Museum.
The Edo period (1603-1868) marked a peaceful and stable time in Japan, but in the world of art, culture and literature, it was a prolific era. These companion exhibitions showcase great works of the Edo period that depict natural beauty as well as challenge the old social order. “Edo Aviary” features paintings of birds during that period, which reflected a shift toward natural history and science and away from religious and spiritual influence in art. “Poetic License: Making Old Words New” showcases works demonstrating how the domain of art and literature transitioned from wealthy aristocrats to one more inclusive of artisans and merchants. Ends August 4. Freer Gallery.
This exhibit, held at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City, explores the significant contributions of Native Americans to contemporary music. From Jimi Hendrix (he’s part Cherokee) to Russell “Big Chief” Moore of the Gila River Indian Community to Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree, Native Americans have had a hand in creating and influencing popular jazz, rock, folk, blues and country music. Don’t miss your chance to see the influence of Native Americans in mainstream music and pop culture. Ends August 11. American Indian Museum in New York.
The exhibition featuring works by the innovative Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, whose bright television screens and various electronic devices helped to bring modern art into the technological age during the 1960s, features 67 pieces of artwork and 140 other items from the artist’s archives. Ends August 11. American Art Museum.
Come to the Sackler Gallery and learn about the Japanese precursor to today’s electronic mass media: the woodblock-printed books of the Edo period. The books brought art and literature to the masses in compact and entertaining volumes that circulated Japan, passed around much like today’s Internet memes. The mixing of art with mass consumption helped to bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes in Japan, a characteristic of the progression during the Edo period. The exhibit features books in a variety of genres, from the action-packed to the tranquil, including sketches from Manga, not related to the Japanese art phenomenon of today, by the famous woodblock printer Hokusai. Ends August 11. Sackler Gallery.
In this seventh installation of the “Portraiture Now” series, view contemporary portraits by artists Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews, each exploring different ways to create such personal works of art. From charcoal drawings and acrylic paints to video and computer technology, these artists use their own style in preserving a face and bringing it alive for viewers. Ends August 18. National Portrait Gallery.
Celebrate Asian Pacific American history at the American History Museum and view posters depicting Asian American history in the United States ranging from the pre-Columbian years to the present day. The exhibit explores the role of Asian Americans in this country, from Filipino fishing villages in New Orleans in the 1760s to Asian-American involvement in the Civil War and later in the Civil Rights Movement. The name of the exhibit comes from the famed Filipino American poet Carlos Bulosan, who wrote, “Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers, / I say I want the wide American earth / For all the free . . .” Ends August 25. American History Museum.
This exhibit features a collection of eight portraits of influential women in American history, but you may not know all their names. They came long before the Women’s Rights Movement and questioned their status in a newly freed America by fighting for equal rights and career opportunities. Come see the portraits of these forward-thinking pioneers—Judith Sargent Murray, Abigail Smith Adams, Elizabeth Seton and Phillis Wheatley. Ends September 2. National Portrait Gallery.
Take a peek into the creative world of Chinese artist Xu Bing in this exhibition showcasing materials Bing used to create his massive sculpture Phoenix Project, which all came from construction sites in Beijing. The two-part installation, weighing 12 tons and extending nearly 100 feet long, features the traditional Chinese symbol of the phoenix, but the construction materials add a more modern message about Chinese economic development. While Phoenix Project resides at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sackler’s companion exhibition displays drawings, scale models and reconfigured construction fragments. Ends September 2. Sackler Gallery.
Stroll through the London of the 1800s in this exhibit featuring works by painter James McNeill Whistler, who lived in and documented the transformation of the Chelsea neighborhood. Whistler witnessed the destruction of historic, decaying buildings that made way for mansions and a new riverbank, followed by a wave of the elite. With artistic domination of the neighborhood throughout the transition, Whistler documented an important part of London’s history. The exhibit features small etchings and watercolor and oil paintings of scenes in Chelsea during the 1880s. Ends September 8. Freer Gallery.
From Picasso to Man Ray to present-day sculptor Doris Salcedo, many of the most innovative and prolific modern artists have set aside paint brush and canvas to embrace mixed media. View works by artists from all over the world during the last century and see the evolution of the collage and assemblage throughout the years. Featured in this exhibit is a tiny Joseph Stella collage made with scraps of paper and Ann Hamilton’s room-sized installation made of newsprint, beeswax tablets and snails, among other things. Ends September 8. Hirshhorn Museum.
July 11, 2013
On June 2, 1969, Washington philanthropist and socialite Gwendolyn Cafritz stood with sculptor Alexander Calder in front of an audience on the west side of the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology (now the American History Museum) for the dedication of Calder’s latest sculpture.
Calder presented his work in few words: “I call it the Caftolin.”
The 71-year-old artist’s voice did not carry over the sounds of an aircraft flying overhead, and the trucks and cars in the nearby street, so Cafritz had to repeat to the crowd what he had said. But she called the work instead by another name—one that Calder had originally considered—the “Gwenfritz.”
Both titles were a play on Cafritz’s first and last names, because she had commissioned the work and was donating it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Minutes later, S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, announced what would become the official name. “Bravo to the Gwenfritz,” he said.
This wasn’t the only time Calder’s intentions were overlooked regarding his 40-foot black steel structure. The first was when he was still designing the piece in the surrounding landscape. He had envisioned the sculpture within a pool of fountains, but the project was downsized to a static pool. The other was in 1983 when the sculpture was unceremoniously moved from its original location on the museum’s west side to a spot on the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue where it was placed in a grove of trees that soon grew to be taller than the sculpture’s highest point.
Calder fans were not pleased. “You couldn’t see it,” says historian James Goode, who criticized the move in a book about Washington sculptures. “It didn’t have the breathing space.”
Now, “Gwenfritz,” one of Washington, D.C.’s first modernist public sculptures, will not only be moved back to its original location, but it will get a thorough conservation treatment. This week, a conservation team will finish disassembling the structure, and the parts will be shipped to Manassas Park, Virginia, July 18 in a caravan of wide-load trucks. After the conservation treatment is complete, the newly painted pieces will be shipped back to the museum in October, to be reassembled and reinstalled.
One of the biggest differences between the 1969 debut of the sculpture, known as a stabile (the opposite of a mobile) and its current restoration is the shifting attitude toward abstract art. Karen Lemmey, a curator at the American Art Museum, which owns the sculpture, says “Gwenfritz” was one of those pieces that broke ground for abstract art in Washington D.C. “Gwenfritz” along with Jose de Rivera’s “Infinity” (also on view in the plaza in front of the American History Museum) possibly played a part in changing the city’s aesthetic and steering it away from its former “very predictable arts program,” Lemmey says. At the time, the city was dotted with public works depicting generals on horseback. Calder’s work was something entirely new.
“It speaks to a high point in the arts at that moment,” says Lemmey. The sculpture was originally made in France and shipped to the United States in pieces. The staff at the American Art Museum were involved in putting it together according to Calder’s instructions. “We are in some ways reliving that moment as an Institution . . . that intimacy between Calder and the Smithsonian,” Lemmey says.
The treatment that conservators have planned for it in many ways mirrors that intimacy. “It’s a very interesting time in the field of outdoor painted conservation because these objects that were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now hitting that 45 to 50-year mark, and they’re actually at a tipping point,” Abigail Mack, a member of the conservation team, says. “For many years, [conservators] would just recoat it. You put a new coat of paint on it. But at this point the object needs structural work.”
Although often forgotten and unseen by museum-goers in its current location among the trees, “Gwenfritz” has been on the verge of a makeover for more than 20 years, says Catherine Perge, an assistant director for exhibitions and projects at the American History Museum. This year was the first time that the funding and the timing aligned, so Perge and the conservators began to make immediate plans for the move.
Although removing 1,270 rusty bolts and dismantling the 75-piece structure seems more harmful than restorative, the goal is to revitalize the sculpture and revive its former glory. The conservation team will accomplish this by taking every piece apart, clearing out the corrosion and repainting the surface. The paint will mimic Calder’s signature matt-black color, but the new paint, a result of a collaboration between the U.S. Army Research Lab and the National Gallery of Art, will last longer and help to prevent future corrosion.
“Gwenfritz” will be among the first recipients of the military-strength paint, but despite the advancement in technology over the last few decades, the conservation process is not meant to remake “Gwenfritz” into a stabile of the future.
“You can’t expect a paint to last for 45 years,” Mack says. “That’s something that the artist understood. For objects that are made by fabricators, painted by industrial painters, it’s understood that we’re going to be repainting it, so my goal is to conserve the artist’s intent, not the original paint.”
Mack, who has helped conserve more than 40 Calder sculptures in her career, calls this project a challenge. It’s the largest structure she’s ever worked with, and the pieces must be put back together in exactly the right way. The first piece taken off—the tip of one of the many points on the sculpture—alone weighed as much as the average car. Calder, who was trained in engineering, designed every bit of the sculpture himself, and one misplacement would change the aesthetic. To the conservation team, “Gwenfritz” is a giant jigsaw puzzle.
“They should see Alexander Calder when they look at this object,” Mack says. “They shouldn’t see my marks . . . .We’re just trying to preserve what the artist wanted.”
When the sculpture’s makeover is completed and the parts are put back together, it should appear as if nothing has changed. The steel points will shoot prominently toward the sky as before, and the jet black color will reflect clearly in the pool just the same. Not only will the metal parts be restored, but so will Calder’s intentions.
July 9, 2013
Tuesday, July 9: Verbal Gymnastics
Unlock your inner wordsmith and join D.C. poet and playwright John Johnson in an interactive workshop about poetry and storytelling. Participants and budding poets will reflect on their observations and experiences with community and create original works of poetry. Johnson, who founded an organization that teaches people theater techniques to deal with issues in their communities, will also read some of his own poetry and reveal tips for fostering the creative spirit. People from all communities are welcome, although this particular program will focus on promoting awareness and civic engagement in the communities surrounding the Anacostia River. Free. 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
Wednesday, July 10: Handi-hour
Who says crafting is only for kids? Come to the Renwick Gallery for an adults-only DIY hour where you can make craft art and drink craft beer. The garden-themed crafting activities at this month’s event include decorating terra cotta pots and creating cork plant holders. Tap into your creative side and then unwind with live music and a beverage selected by beer director Greg Engert of the D.C. brewery ChurchKey. Participants must be 21 or older to attend this event. $20 admission at the door, includes two drink tickets, snacks and endless crafts. 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. American Art Museum.
Thursday, July 11: Maria Broom and Jali-D
Rock to the beat of the djembe drum and become engrossed in the words of Maria Broom, a storyteller, dancer and actress in HBO’s The Wire and The Corner. Broom and drummer/rapper David Foreman, a.k.a. Jali-D, will engage the audience in a music and drumming extravaganza for all ages. The djembe drum, originally from West Africa, is a rope-tuned and skin-covered instrument that is played by beating your bare hands on different spots on the drum. Find your beat and engage in this multicultural performance. Free. 2 p.m. African Art Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.