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 21, 2013
Washed up on the remote beaches of southern Alaska are plastics of every shape, size and color. There are detergent bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing nets and buoys, oil drums, fly swatters and Styrofoam balls in various states of decay. They come from around the world, adrift in rotating sea currents called gyres, and get snagged in the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s shoreline. Set against a backdrop of trees, grizzly bears and volcanic mountains, these plastics are eye-catching, almost pretty—and yet they are polluting the world’s oceans.
The garbage, dubbed “marine debris” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. It destroys habitats, transports nonnative species, entangles and suffocates wildlife. Animals mistake the garbage for food and, feeling full, starve to death with bellies full of junk. For humans, the problem is more than cosmetic; marine debris endangers our food supply.
In June 2013, a team of artists and scientists set out to see the blight firsthand. Expedition GYRE, a project of the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, traveled 450 nautical miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to observe, collect and study marine debris. A companion exhibition, opening in February 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will showcase artworks made using ocean debris.
For the artists on the GYRE expedition, each day in Alaska was filled with scientific briefings, trash reconnaissance and individual pursuits. All four artists—Mark Dion, Pam Longobardi, Andy Hughes and Karen Larsen—are known for work that explores environmental themes and, more or less explicitly, the pleasures and perils of plastic.
Mark Dion is, first and foremost, a collector. The New York-based artist often works in the mode of an antiquarian naturalist, arranging modern and historical objects in collections that resemble Renaissance curiosity cabinets. “This is kind of the way I know things,” says Dion, “by collecting, by having physical contact with actual material.”
On the black sand of an Alaskan beach, Dion created a collage of bottle caps, sorted by shape and color. It wasn’t a finished piece, by any means, but an effort to “learn by seeing.” He cast himself as the “proverbial Martian archaeologist,” trying to make sense of the detritus of human civilization based on its formal qualities.
“When stuff is strewn on the beach, it’s deposited by forces of nature [so that] it takes on almost a natural quality,” he says. “But there’s nothing natural to it. This is a way to restore it as a cultural artifact, an artifact which fits uncomfortably in these remarkably remote places.”
These places were remote even for Karen Larsen, the only Alaska-based artist on the trip. She viewed GYRE as a “fact-finding mission,” a chance to explore parts of the state that she hadn’t visited before. Larsen has created several environmental works such as “Latitude,” a large-scale installation made out of ice and snow, and “XGRN,” a graphic depicting the life cycle of a water bottle.
“Alaska is not as pristine as everyone thinks it is,” Larsen says. “No place is really that way anymore.” During the trip, she was particularly drawn to microplastics—colorful, beadlike particles measuring less than five millimeters in diameter. Stored in a jar, the artist’s collection of the plastic bits resembles confetti and, she says, evokes the “small changes in our plastic ways” that can have a big positive impact.
Dion noticed that the artists and scientists collected in a “parallel way.” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist, collected bottle caps in order to trace their provenance, while Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, tested her plastic collection for toxicity. “Instead of becoming a science collection or an art collection, it just became one collection that we both [were] able to use for our different purposes,” Dion says.
Pam Longobardi collects, in part, to clean up. She feels compelled to remove as much trash as she possibly can. “Every single piece of plastic I pick up or roll or drag, that specific piece is not going to harm a wild creature,” she says. “It’s not going to be tangling a whale. It’s not going to be in a bird’s stomach or end up in fish or seals. That’s why I’ll do it, and I’ll bend over the millionth time and drag the material off the beach.”
As part of the expedition, the GYRE team assisted with the National Park Service’s clean-up, retrieving a full ship’s worth of marine debris. The top deck of the research vessel was piled six feet high with garbage—but there was still more, innumerably more, left on the beach.
Pam Longobardi is an artist, an educator and an unapologetic activist. Her “Drifters Project” employs marine debris as both medium and message. One piece called “March of Humanity,” for instance, is an array of 77 orphaned shoes, illustrating the wastefulness of human industry. In “Defective Flow Chart (House of Cards),” 1,300 pieces of Styrofoam, which Longobardi personally fished out of a cave in Greece, are stacked into a delicate shrine of seemingly ancient origin—though there is, of course, nothing ancient about it.
“I see the art as an arm of activism because it can activate,” Longobardi says. “I think art has work to do. It can motivate people, and it can be transformational.” She was the first artist to join the GYRE project and worked closely with Howard Ferren, conservation director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to recruit other artists for the expedition and exhibition.
Her companions on the trip share her passion for conservation but nonetheless balk at the term “activist.” Andy Hughes, a photographer from Cornwall, England, supports environmental NGOs but describes his photography as “sitting on the fence” between art and activism. His 2006 book, Dominant Wave Theory, for example, features close-up portraits of forlorn pieces of beach trash. Mark Dion sees himself as an “artist aligned with environmentalism” and concedes the limitations of contemporary art in reaching the general public. Dion acknowledges that his work, exhibited in fine art galleries across the globe, tends to preach to a well-heeled and politically liberal choir.
Longobardi, on the other hand, regularly collaborates with advocacy groups, reads scientific papers, shares online petitions and otherwise pushes for environmental policy reform worldwide. Her work has brought her face-to-face with the violence done by marine debris, and she has studied the science extensively, albeit informally. “I don’t have any kind of censor or gag order on my thoughts and feelings about this,” she says. “I don’t have to wait until I prove it in a scientific paper to tell what I know.”
Ultimately, solving the problem of marine debris will require as much artistic conviction as it does scientific rigor. Art moves people in a way that even the most shocking statistics cannot. The GYRE expedition’s “stroke of brilliance,” according to lead scientist Carl Safina, was giving artists a platform to articulate the issue to a broad audience. “If the scientists alone had gone and said, ‘We saw so much trash and 30 percent of it was blue and 40 percent of it was green and 90 percent of it was plastic,’ it would be of no interest to anybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that I appreciate about the artists. Their work is instantly just much more accessible.”
Bringing it all back home
Somewhat ironically, the artists use beauty to call attention to the ugliness of marine debris. Plastics are attractive, arrayed in bright colors and shiny forms as irresistible in one instant as they are disposable the next. As Dion puts it, “these objects are meant to seduce.”
Longobardi’s art seduces too, using beauty as a “hook” as well as a dialectical “weapon”; viewers are drawn into her intricate creations, then unnerved to realize that they are made out of plastic trash. “What I’m talking about is so horrifying [that] to go straight to the horror of it, I would lose a lot of people,” she says. She is currently working on two pieces inspired by the GYRE expedition—one, a ghoulish plastic cornucopia that symbolizes the “squandered bounty of the planet,” and the other, a sculpture with a range of small to large plastics, including tiny toys and the lid of a BP barrel, all made from and representing petroleum.
Andy Hughes is creating what he calls “constructed photographs, more akin to painting.” His new work avoids metaphors of destruction and overconsumption, instead portraying plastic objects as “religious orbs, which float and inhabit sky, earth, beach and sea.”
For Hughes, the trip has lost none of its emotional potency. His memories come back to him, half a world away, whenever he puts on his Wellington boots. He had set out for Alaska expecting it to be “vast and empty,” but instead discovered that “it was completely alive,” teeming with millions of organisms. Hughes said that the beaches in Alaska actually reminded him of the ones back home in Cornwall.
Indeed, it felt strange to Mark Dion that they traveled so far to see a problem that hits every human so close to home. “The lesson of this trip is that there is no away,” says Dion. “There is no other place. Everything we try to get rid of, we find again.”
October 29, 2013
Adam Cohen and Ben Labay are surrounded by thousands of fish specimens, all preserved in jars of alcohol and formalin. At the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the two fish biologists are charged with documenting the occurrences of different freshwater fish species in their home state and those neighboring it.
That is their day job, at least.
Outside of work, Cohen and Labay have teamed up on an artistic venture they call the Inked Animal Project. Since 2008, the colleagues have made surprisingly tasteful prints of actual animal carcasses—scales, fur, feathers and all.
Both scientists have dabbled in art—drawing, painting and sculpting—for as long as they can remember. As a kid, Cohen even used an octopus and flying fish that he bought at an Asian market as huge stamps to make ink patterns on paper. Fish, of course, were a natural subject for two ichthyologists, but Cohen and Labay were also familiar with a Japanese art form called Gyotaku (meaning “fish rubbing”), where artists slather ink on fresh fish and press them onto paper as a means of recording the size and other details of the catch.
Their first collaboration was a poster with prints of all ten sunfish species that live in Texas, and the Inked Animal Project was born. They inked trout, bass and catfish. But why stop with fish? The duo quickly expanded its repertoire, applying the same printmaking technique to mice, squirrels, rabbits, geese, gulls, hummingbirds and a smattering of deer, pig and cow skulls. No specimen seems to fluster the artists.
I interviewed Inked Animal’s creators by email to learn more about where they obtain their portrait subjects, how they produce the prints and what exactly possesses them to do this.
As you know, Gyotaku is both an art form and a method of scientific documentation. Are there certain anatomical traits you try to accentuate in your Inked Animal prints for scientific purposes?
Ben: I don’t think we print for any tangible scientific goal, though we do print in a spirit of documentation, similar to goals of the original Gyotaku printings I guess. As we’ve expanded our medium beyond fish, we’ve been interested in trying to document life processes through the animals, such as internal or unique anatomy and “road-kill” or animated postures.
Adam: Not long ago I ran across some field notes belonging to a fish collector from the late 1800s, Edgar Mearns, who, rather than preserving a particularly large fish, decided to trace the animal on paper and insert it in his fieldbook. We were well into the Inked Animal Project at that point and that‘s when I realized what we were really doing was a form of documentation as well as art. But, in reality, these days with cameras so ubiquitous, there is little need to print or trace the animal on paper for documentation purposes. I think our prints have relatively little scientific value, but substantial artistic value. I often think about the physical characteristics that someone who knows the species well would need to see to verify the identity of the specimen, but I try not to let that get in the way of creating interesting art. I’d much rather have interesting art of an unknown and unverifiable species.
How do you collect the animals you print?
Adam and Ben: We get the animals in all sorts of ways. In the beginning we went fishing in our spare time. Recently, as word of our project got out, we’ve had people donate specimens. A lot of our friends are biologists, hunters, exterminators and people who work in animal rehabilitation; they have access to animals and are excited to donate to the cause. Additionally, there are a lot of great animals to print that can be purchased through exotic Asian grocery stores. We’re getting serious about printing larger animals, like farm livestock. We would love to get an ostrich or emu too.
On your website, you say, “Our tolerance for gross is very high.” Can you give an example of a specimen that pushed this tolerance to its limits?
Ben: My personal worst was the armadillo. We’ve had worse-smelling animals like a gray fox that was sitting in a bucket for a full day before we printed. But something about working with the armadillo really grossed me out, almost to the point of vomiting. Most mammals are squishy with decay, but the armadillo was a stiff football of dense rotten meat. It’s also a bizarre animal that we don’t ever expect to get so intimate with. This is just a crazy theory, but animals like the Eastern cottontail or gray fox are more familiar, and maybe more approachable or acceptable when rotten. When it comes to larger, strictly wild animals, things get more interesting and intense.
Adam: Ben mentioned a gray fox that we printed in the early days of Inked Animal. I remember picking it up and the juices ran down my arm. But I was so excited by the print we were getting, which I think was the first time we realized that we were on to something really unique, that I hardly even thought about it. We recently printed a very rotten deer whose skin peeled away as we lifted the cloth to reveal a writhing mass of maggots—that was pretty gross too.
You are almost more interested in prints of dismembered, rotting or partially dissected specimens, right? Why is this?
Ben: When we started to expand from fish to other types of animals, Adam and I felt excited about not just doing something unique, but doing art that was deeper than just a pretty picture. I think we both feel that there is something indescribable about the animal prints, which allows people to view them from different vantage points. You see it as an animal print, and also as a process. I like the idea of documenting rotting or dissected animals because it emphasizes the process part of the experience. People see it and can immediately imagine what must have happened to produce the image. Most people love what they see even though it’s something, which if seen in real life, would disgust and repulse them.
Adam: At first I think most people think working with animal innards to be a little gross, but really there’s lots to offer aesthetically in the inside. Ribs, lungs and guts provide very interesting patterns and textures. Blood stains and feces add color. These are the parts of the animal that are not usually seen so they catch the viewer’s attention and cause reason for pause. If, for example, the animal is a road kill specimen, whose guts are spilling out—well that’s an interesting story that we can capture on paper.
Do you try to position the specimens in a certain way on the paper?
Adam and Ben: Absolutely. We think about position quite a bit. Mainly we want to capture natural poses, either making the animal seem alive or dead. Often if the animal has rigor mortis or could fall apart, due to rot, we are limited to how we can pose them. Sometimes animals come to us very disfigured, depending on the cause of death, and we’ve been surprised by the beautiful prints that can be obtained from them.
Can you take me through the process of making a print? What materials do you use, and what is your method?
Adam and Ben: We are always experimenting with different papers, fabric, inks, clays and paints as well as different application methods, but it really all boils down to applying a wet media to the animal and then applying it to paper or fabric. The trick is finding the right kinds of materials and transfer technique for each kind of specimen. The process for bones is very different than fleshed out animals; and birds are different than fish. Having two of us is often essential for large floppy animals where we want to apply the animal to the table-bound paper. Fish can be the most difficult; their outer skin is essentially slime, which repels some inks and creates smudgy prints on paper. You have to remove this outer slime layer before you print a fish. Salt seems to work well for this. We often do varying degrees of post-processing of the raw print with paint or pencils.
What do you add by hand to the actual print?
Ben: For each animal we’ll likely do half a dozen to a couple dozen prints searching for the perfect one. With all these replicates, we’ll play around with different techniques of post processing. The traditional Gyotaku method restricts touch-ups to accenting the eye of the fish. I think we’ve at minimum done this. But we’ve employed a lot of post-processing techniques, including pencil, watercolor, acrylic, clay, enamel and even extensive digital touch ups.
Adam: There is a balance that we are trying to achieve regarding preserving the rawness of the print and creating a highly refined piece. We like both and find ourselves wavering. Recently, we’ve started to assemble prints together digitally and sometimes alter colors and contrast for interesting effects.
What are the most challenging specimens to print?
Adam: I think small arthropods (animals with exoskeletons) are particularly difficult and time consuming. We’ve come up with the best method, to completely disassemble the animal and print it in pieces. The other trick with them is to apply the ink very thinly and evenly. Anything with depth is also difficult and sometime impossible since the way paper and fabric drapes across the animal can result in very distorted looking prints.
Ben: Small fish or insects. Fish because they are just so small, and the details like scales and fin rays don’t come out well. And, insects because they can be so inflexible, and their exoskeletons are, for the most part, pretty darn water repellent, restricting what kinds of paints we can use.
What animal would you like to print that you haven’t yet?
Ben: Generally, I’d love to print any animal that we haven’t already printed. That said, I have a gopher in my freezer that I’m not too excited about because it will likely turn out as a hairy blob. And once you’ve done one snake, another the same size is hard to distinguish. Large animals are, of course, charismatic and impressive, but I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to capture details on smaller animals. There are some animals that do, in theory, lend themselves to printing. For example, we have a porcupine in our freezer that I’m really excited about.
Adam: I get excited about anything new really. To date, we’ve been primarily interested in working with Texas fauna, but we are excited about other possibilities as well. I especially like animals with interesting textures juxtaposed. For example, I think the more-or-less naked head and legs of an ostrich with the feathery body would be interesting and very challenging. But, beyond specific animal species, we’re now experimenting with the process of rot, a commonality of all dead animals. One project involves placing a fresh animal on paper and spray painting it at various intervals with different colors as it rots and expands. The result is an image of the animal surrounded by concentric rings that document the extent of rot through time.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the prints?
Ben and Adam: We like to think there is something in the animal prints that captures both the spirit and the raw corporeal feel of the animal. It’s amazing to us that the art was created by using an animal as a brush so-to-speak, and that there’s even DNA left on the art itself. We hope people have a similar thought process and feeling about the work. We also hope that the project and print collection as a whole serves as a way people can better approach and appreciate the biodiversity around us.
Ben Labay will be showing works from the Inked Animal Project at his home in Austin on November 16-17 and 23-24, as part of the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), a free self-guided tour of the city’s creative community. Inked Animal works are represented by Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas—one of the first galleries in the country to focus on science-related art.
October 16, 2013
Stephen Young is geography professor at Salem State University. He studies vegetation change on Earth using satellite imagery and displays his photographs outside his office.
Paul Kelly, a colleague of Young’s, is a herpetologist. He studies snakes’ scales under a microscope to determine which species are closely related evolutionarily. His classroom walls are decorated with scanning electron micrographs.
“I saw some similar patterns there,” says Young. As a joke, last year, he put a landscape image on Kelly’s door. The biologist mistook it for an electron microscope image that his office mate had created, which got the two talking and comparing imagery. “We found that we had this similar interest in understanding scale and how people perceive it,” Young explained.
The two scientists have since created and collected more than 50 puzzling images—of polished minerals and glaciers, sand dunes and bird feathers—for display in “Macro or Micro?,” an exhibition currently at both Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery and Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Kelly notes, “After I saw Steve’s images, I could think of things that would look something like his satellite images from knowing how tissues and organs are built microscopically.”
But what do you see? Is the subject something massive, viewed from space, or something miniscule, seen through the lens of a microscope? Test yourself here, with these 15 images curated by Young and Kelly.
Answers can be found at the bottom of the post.
1. Macro or Micro?
2. Macro or Micro?
3. Macro or Micro?
4. Macro or Micro?
5. Macro or Micro?
6. Macro or Micro?
7. Macro or Micro?
8. Macro or Micro?
9. Macro or Micro?
10. Macro or Micro?
11. Macro or Micro?
12. Macro or Micro?
13. Macro or Micro?
14. Macro or Micro?
15. Macro or Micro?
“Macro or Micro?” is on display at Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts through November 1, 2013, and at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery through November 6, 2013.
H/T to Megan Garber at the Atlantic for the formatting idea. Check out her “NASA or MOMA? Play the Game!”
1. Macro: Lakes surrounded by steep sand dunes in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia (Data downloaded from the European Space Agency. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
2. Micro: A polished mineral surface (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
3. Macro: The Matusevich Glacier in East Antarctica (Original image: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
4. Macro: Sand dunes in Algeria’s Sahara desert (Landsat Thematic Mapper data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility. Image processing by Stephen Young.)
5. Macro: Cumulus clouds over the South Pacific Ocean (Image created by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
6. Micro: A rotten human tooth (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
7. Micro: The surface of a snake eggshell (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
8. Micro: The interior of a leopard frog’s small intestine (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
9. Macro: The Ganges-Brahmaptutra river delta in South Asia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
10. Micro: A polished sample of boron (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
11. Macro: White lines cutting through China’s Gobi Desert (Image downloaded from Satellite Image Corporation and cropped by Stephen Young)
12. Macro: Sea ice forming around Shikotan Island, at the southern end of the Kuril Islands, north of Japan (Image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team. Downloaded and cropped from NASA’s Visible Earth website.)
13. Micro: The surface of a leopard frog’s tongue (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
14. Macro: A Landsat thermal image of western Australia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
15. Macro: A Landsat image from North Africa (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
September 18, 2013
When the Pacific Science Center in Seattle put out a call for public art demonstrating solar energy, Dan Corson submitted a proposal. He called his musing a “Humming Heliotrope.” Heliotrope, in Latin, means “turning toward the Sun.”
“I was thinking about how some flowers move in order to capture the Sun,” says the artist.
Corson drew up a plan for five towering sculptures of flowers, inspired by the flower of the Australian firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus), to sprout from the grounds of the science center near the base of Seattle’s famous Space Needle. The flowers would light up at night, thanks to electricity generated by day courtesy of solar panels on their faces. They’d also hum as people walked around the stems.
“I also was thinking about science centers and how they reveal things to us that we normally don’t see—microscopically, atmospherically or phenomenologically. This led me down the path of imagining looking up and experiencing flowers from under them, as if you were the scale of a small insect,” he says.
The Pacific Science Center selected Corson for the job. “He is very talented. Of all the artists, he had the most experience in solar,” says Michal Anderson, the center’s chief financial and operating officer. For example, Corson previously created a series of sculptures called “Nepenthes” in Portland, Oregon, that involve photovoltaic panels. The pieces collect solar energy during the day and then glow for four hours after sundown.
“We had a lot of people apply who did not have solar experience, and we had some people apply that had solar experience but no public art background,” adds Anderson. “He was a nice blend and definitely the strongest candidate. We think we made the right choice.”
So, after a few tweaks to the original plan, Corson created the playful installation, now called “Sonic Bloom.” Seattle City Light’s Green Up program, which sponsors projects that stir interest in renewable energy, provided the funds for the commission as a way to honor the center’s 50th anniversary.
The patch of brightly colored blossoms, unveiled last month after three years of planning, is a welcome sight. The flowers stand up to 33 feet tall with petals measuring 20 feet wide. All told, 270 four-watt solar panels, built by the Washington company Silicon Energy, are mounted to the tops of the flower heads. Directly under the solar panels, in fiberglass domes facing downward, are LEDs. At night, the LEDs change colors and the beams chase each other, creating a light show effect.
Corson tilted the flowers at different angles and in different directions to show the effect of time of day and orientation on energy generation. Visitors can see real-time, daily, monthly and yearly electricity generation on a kiosk inside the center. “As you scroll through, you can see how different flowers are performing due to their angle,” the artist explains.
The flowers are tied to the electricity grid, so their brightness is consistent over the five-plus hours each night that they shine. Despite Seattle’s notoriety as a cloudy city, “the amount of energy [created] is calculated over the whole year, so the flowers produce extra energy in the summer, and less in the winter, but overall, the project is energy neutral,” says the artist. During the summer months, that extra energy is used to offset some of the center’s energy needs.
Corson is fascinated by light—so much so that he incorporates it into many of his public artworks. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he constructed a circle of lit trees he calls “Luminous Conjunction.” When a pedestrian walking along the laid brick sidewalk passes a tree, the spotlight illuminating it changes from white to green. Then, in “Rays,” an installation in Rivers Edge Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Corson created a nightly light show that projects lines, rings and swirly patterns on a five-acre grassy lawn.
“Light draws us into work; it acts as a lure to start the artistic conversation,” says Corson. “From a purely phenomenological perspective, it can make you feel differently by the color, angle and brightness. I also think it is one of the easiest ways to transform a piece’s experience from the daytime to the nighttime.”
More than one million people visit the Pacific Science Center each year, guaranteeing “Sonic Bloom” a large viewership. The installation is located just outside the center’s gates, so passersby need not pay admission to see it. “People lay on the ground and take pictures looking up through the petals,” says Anderson. “There is also a sound component to the flowers. There are motion sensors at the base of each flower, and it makes a sound like a chanting monk. It is fun to watch people walk by who don’t expect the sound.”
“Sonic Bloom” teaches visitors about how solar power works, while also showing that it can be an effective means of generating electricity even in the rainy, misty, overcast Pacific Northwest. “We really want people to understand that we have finite resources in the world and that renewable energy is a very important part of our future,” Anderson explains. “People think that Seattle has so much rain that solar energy is not a viable option, and it really is. We want people to give some thought about sustainable energy in their life and how they might be able to use that.”
Corson, nonetheless, primarily considers it an artwork. “One of the things I wanted to do is share that photovoltaic [PV] projects do not need to look ugly,” he says. “Not that all solar projects are ugly, but we often see PV cells arranged in an efficient and non-aesthetic manner. I wanted to look at ways of using the PV cells to tell more stories.”