November 27, 2013
In a courtyard outside the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, there is small piece of ice, roped off. The sight is a curious one, for sure. What is so important about this single frozen mass that it warrants special treatment?
The question is one that Barbara Matilsky, the museum’s curator of art, hopes you might ask.
The ice is a dwindling sculpture, a site-specific installation called Melting Ice by Jyoti Duwadi, that less than a month ago stood firmly, a stack of 120 ice blocks each measuring 36 by 14 by 14 inches. The artist installed the cube in timing with the opening of the museum’s latest exhibition, “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012,” and left it to melt—an elegy to glaciers around the world that are receding as a result of climate change.
“Vanishing Ice,” on display through March 2, 2014, features 75 works by 50 international artists who have made icy landscapes their subjects in the past 200-plus years. The exhibition, in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.
It also shows how artists and scientists have collaborated to learn what they can about these dramatically changing places. In a few pieces, a contemporary artist documents the very location that another had decades before, for the sake of comparison.
As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities.
In the exhibition catalog, the show’s curator, Barbara Matilsky, claims that there is something sublime about these extreme places. In a sense, the snowy, glistening surfaces are ideal for reflecting our own thoughts. “Through the centuries,” she writes, “artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey feelings, ideas and messages.”
The idea for “Vanishing Ice” actually came to Matilsky, who wrote her doctoral thesis 30 years ago on some of the earliest French artists to capture glaciers and the Northern Lights, when she began to notice a critical mass of artists working today heading off to high peaks, Antarctica and the Arctic. She drew some connections in her mind’s eye. Like their 18th, 19th and 20th century predecessors, these artists are often part of government-sponsored expeditions, rubbing shoulders with scientists. And then, as now, and their work reaches into scientific discussion as visuals that document scientific observations.
The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts. David Breashears, an American photographer and five-time climber of Mount Everest, for instance, committed himself to what he calls the Glacier Research Imaging Project. For the endeavor, he “retraced the steps of some of the world’s greatest mountain photographers. . . over the past 110 years across the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau.” Both his photograph West Rongbuk Glacier, taken in 2008, and Edward Oliver Wheeler’s record of the same vista, from a topographical survey of Everest in 1921, are included in the exhibition. The then-now comparison captures the glacier’s 341-foot retreat.
American James Balog approaches his timelapse photography with a similar degree of precision. His Extreme Ice Survey, also represented in the exhibition, strings together the images routinely snapped by 26 cameras aimed at more than a dozen glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska and the western United States. The footage speeds up, for our eyes, the melting that is occurring in these regions.
“Vanishing Ice” has been four years in the making, more if you consider Matilsky’s introduction to this genre of art in the nascent stages of her career. The curator of art at the Whatcom Museum composed a wish list of paintings, prints and photographs and negotiated the loans from institutions worldwide. What resulted is an impressive body of work, including pieces from the likes of Jules Verne, Thomas Hart Benton, Ansel Adams and Alexis Rockman.
The Whatcom Museum will host the exhibition through March 2, 2014, and, from there, it will travel to the El Paso Museum of Art, where it will be on display from June 1 to August 24, 2014.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”
November 25, 2013
There are tribal tattoos, photorealistic tattoos, celtic tattoos and biomechanical tattoos. Then, there is a whole genre called anatomical tattoos. Chris Nuñez, a tattoo artist and judge on Spike’s TV show Ink Master, has said that this style is all about “replicating a direct organ, body part, muscle, tissue, flesh, bone in the most precise way you can.”
Danny Quirk, an artist working in Massachusetts, is doing something similar, only his anatomical tattoos are temporary. He creates body paintings with latex, markers and some acrylic that appear as if his models’ skin is peeled back.
The project began in 2012, when Halloween provided the occasion for Quirk to paint his roommate’s face and neck. From there, he made other anatomical paintings on the arms, backs and legs of willing friends, and his photographs went viral.
“The paintings started off very rough around the edges, having a ripped skin aesthetic,” says Quirk, “but as they grew, I started making them more anatomical, showing the adipose around the cuts and proper layering of nerves and vessels. I really started making medical illustrations in a new and different way than what was done before. I made ‘living lectures’ for lack of a better term.”
Quirk has his sights set on a career in biomedical illustration. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2010, with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration, and then applied to medical schools. Without having some of the necessary science prerequisites, he wasn’t admitted, so he got a little creative. Kathy Dooley, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, asked Quirk to do 10 to 15 illustrations for her class, and he did a little bartering, trading the artwork for a spot in her doctorate-level gross anatomy course. It was in this class that the artist got to dissect a cadaver.
“Let’s just say, the books are much prettier than the real thing. In the books, everything is color coded and pretty, where as in the labs, everything was grey, with the exception of tendons, which have a beautiful, silvery iridescent shine to them,” he says. “I learned first hand that despite its drab hue, the body is a fabulously constructed machine. It’s like lace that can stop bullets—the intricacy of its inner workings are so fine and delicate, and yet the strength and durability behind each structure is unreal.”
Quirk likes to say that he now dissects with his paintbrush. To some extent, the subject of a painting is determined by the model, and his or her features, he explains. If he has a volunteer with a particularly muscular neck, he’ll add his flourishes there.
“When you find bony landmarks, it’s just a matter of hooking the right muscles up to the right places on the bones, and coloring it in from there,” says Quirk. Of course, the time he spends on any anatomical painting depends on its size and complexity. A full rendering of a model’s back, with not just superficial musculature but also the deep intrinsics, can take up to 14 hours to complete, though the average illustration demands about four to six hours.
One of the advantages of Quirk’s anatomical body paintings is that they dynamic, compared to other biomedical illustrations, which are static images. ”I paint my anatomy very precisely, making sure to match up origins and insertions, so that when the model moves, the painting moves with it, really illustrating what happens under the skin,” he says.
Quirk is trying to arrange some guest speaking gigs at schools, where he’d use his body painting to teach anatomy. He is also working on a timelapse video of a painting in progress, overlaid with educational notes.
“Aside from that, I really want to find a bald head,” he says.
November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
November 8, 2013
Photographer Bernhard Edmaier is a geologist by training, and it is this knowledge base of the processes that create geological features that he leans on when selecting locations to shoot. For almost 20 years, he has hunted the world over for the most breathtaking views of coral reefs, active volcanoes, hot springs, desert dunes, dense forests and behemoth glaciers.
“Together with my partner Angelika Jung-Hüttl, I do a lot of internet research, including Google Earth[searches], study satellite images of planned destinations, maintain close contact with local scientists and commercial pilots, deal with various authorities and negotiate flight permits,” says Edmaier. “It can take months of research until the moment of shooting has arrived.”
Then, on that long-awaited day, the German photographer boards a small plane or helicopter and instructs the pilot to position him in just the right spot over the landform. He often has that perfect shot in mind, thanks to his planning, and he captures it out of the side of the side of the aircraft with his 60-megapixel digital Hasselblad camera.
From a logistical standpoint, Edmaier explains, “As my favorite motifs, geological structures, are mostly very large, I need to shoot my images from a greater distance. Only from a bird’s eye view can I manage to capture these phenomena and to visualize them in a certain ‘ideal’ composition.” Then, there are, of course, aesthetics driving his methods. “This perspective perfectly allows me an exciting interplay of concrete documentation and somehow detached reduction and abstraction, with more accentuation of the latter,” he adds.
Looking at an Edmaier photograph, your eye might trace a fracture, fault, rock fold or pattern of erosion like it would the stroke of a brush until, without any geographic coordinates or other means of orientation, you find yourself thinking you could be gazing at an abstract painting.
In his new book, EarthART, published by Phaidon, the aerial genius presents a broad survey, from the islands of the Bahamas to the alpine meadows of Italy’s Dolomites and Germany’s Alps, the rugged desert of California’s Death Valley to a bubbling mud pool in New Zealand ominously named “Hell’s Gate,” in 150 images organized–quite beautifully–
by color: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet, brown, grey and white.
“Each photograph is accompanied by a caption explaining how, where and why these spectacular colors occur: from tropical turquoise seas to icy blue glaciers; from lush green forests to rivers turned green by microscopically small algae,” reads the book jacket. Edmaier was particularly enamored with the Cerros de Visviri, a mountain range on the Chile-Bolivia border that he calls “an orgy of all shades of orange.” The oranges, yellows, reds and browns are the result of a chemical alteration of the iron in volcanic rocks turning to iron oxide and iron hydroxide.
The book reads like a plea not to take these colors and geologic wonders for granted. In the introduction, Jung-Hüttl, a science writer, describes how the Earth’s hues developed over 4.6 billion years:
“Our planet was first a grey cloud of cosmic dust, then, following collisions with meteorites and comets, a glowing red fire ball of molten rock, the surface of which cooled off gradually before solidifying to form a dark crust. Enormous quantities of water vapor in the early atmosphere, which was acid and without oxygen, led to intense precipitations on the young earth, which in turn led to the creation of oceans over the course of several millions of years. In the cold regions, the white of the ice fields was added to the blue of the water…The widespread shades of red, yellow and brown first occurred when the earth was half as old as it is today, that is to say around 2 billion years ago. These shades are the result of chemical rock weathering, which only became possible once small amounts of oxygen had become enriched in the earth’s atmosphere…Much later, around 500 million years ago, the first green land plants settled on the banks of the waters and spread gradually across the continents.”
Edmaier thinks most humans have a very anthropocentric view of the world. “In our imagination, the Earth or Earth’s surface is something eternal or with very little changes. But the opposite is true. Infinite processes are continuously remodeling the surface and interior of the Earth. But only a few processes are directly observable,” he says. The photographer specifically chooses landscapes that have not yet been touched or altered by humans.
“Most of these spots are fragile, nature-created formations which, in the long run, will be unable to resist man’s unstoppable urge to exploit. They will alter and ultimately disappear,” says Edmaier. “So, I would be happy if at least some viewers of my images decide for themselves that the remaining intact natural landscapes are worth preserving.”
November 1, 2013
As a mathematical concept, the fractal can be intimidating.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the Polish-born mathematician who coined the term, defined a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Fractus, in Latin, means “broken.”
But, the whole idea, I think, becomes a lot more digestible when you look to nature.
The natural world is chock full of fractals. Consider a tree, one of the simplest examples. Whether you look at the entire tree, a branch or a single twig, the shape is generally the same. The same can be said for rivers and their tributaries. This “self-similarity” is a defining trait of a fractal. A fiddlehead—a young fern that is tightly coiled—has little leaflets that form even tinier coils. Similarly, the interior sections of a nautilus shell, all the same crescent shape, get progressively larger from the center of the spiral outwards. Fractal geeks also point to their favorite vegetable: Romanesco broccoli. Each bud of the edible plant is composed of more miniature buds of the same geometric form.
“There’s this moment of awakening where you understand that the natural patterns that you’ve been seeing your entire life are actually based on simple mathematical formulas. And once you’re aware of those patterns—be it the spiral shape of a galaxy or the whirl of a hurricane or the swirls of cream in your morning coffee—you’re able to recognize them anywhere,” says Ben Weiss.
An expert in computer graphics, Weiss has taken it upon himself to make these universal mathematical principles even more accessible. His new iOS app, Frax, which he developed with colleagues Kai Krause and Tom Beddard, puts fractals, as he says, “in the palm of your hand.”
Frax users begin with a basic shape from the app’s fractal library. Then, they manipulate the shape to their own liking, adding depth, shading, color, lighting, gloss and texture. The end result is nothing short of art. The fractals are complex, colorful patterns that conjure any number of things—sea weed, snowflakes, sand dunes and oil spills.
While most will just doodle on their iPhones and iPads, “Some will use it to create more complex works of art, using it as a starting point for fabrics or paintings or digital art installations,” says Weiss. “We’re also hoping that the interaction with these beautiful images will inspire users to want to learn more about the underlying math and geometry, in the same way that looking through a telescope can inspire interest in astronomy and science.”
Weiss’ fascination with fractals took root at an early age. As a 10-year-old, he was writing bits of code and patiently waiting hours for the images to load on the screen of his Apple IIc. For three decades, fractal programs have required users to plug in lots of equations to generate visuals, Weiss explains. He was excited to harness the power of today’s touchscreen devices for this purpose. Frax is built on the famous Mandelbrot and Julia set equations, but, as Weiss told Co.Design, he and his team hid all the mathematical inputs, amounting to almost 100,000 lines of custom code, “under the hood.”
“Not everyone wants to be introduced to something in terms of math,” says Weiss. “There is plenty of complexity hidden away behind the scenes, but the audience is immersed more easily if they don’t see the mechanics behind it all.” (It is a little like slipping fruits and vegetables into desserts.)
Kai Krause, a German software and interface designer involved in the project, has watched kids use Frax. “They clearly have no clue about ‘Mandelbrot’ or the math of it,” he says, and yet they have an appetite for the app, as an entertaining, creative experience. The design team sees Frax as something with broader appeal than other fractal programs on the market, used mainly by math geeks. Krause says they have amplified the play value, without making Frax a game in the traditional sense. “The belief is that you can have serious fun without the need for shooting pigs or people or high scores,” he says.
The experience is immersive, and, as the user zooms in on fractals and makes aesthetic decisions about colors and other effects, he or she picking up skills and developing a more innate understanding of this mathematical art form.
“You’re playing directly with mathematics, but it doesn’t feel dry,” says Weiss. “It feels like an artistic adventure.”