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.”
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.
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 25, 2013
As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, Samantha Dempsey made a series of 18 watercolors about humankind’s relationship with infectious diseases. She enjoyed the project but realized in the process that the artwork failed as a communication device. People, she says, didn’t quite understand that one painting, for example, was about Oliver Wendell Holmes discovering the communicability of childbed fever.
“I realized that I wanted to be making art that didn’t describe science but could actually affect the science that was out there and affect our relationships with that science. I guess it’s more science communication activism,” says Dempsey. “I wanted to make art that could do things instead of just talk about what already existed.”
So, while earning her BFA in illustration, the artist took classes at both RISD and Brown University to fulfill a science communication minor of her own design.
By this past spring, Dempsey, a senior in her final semester, was thinking like a true activist. She had identified a problem: when it comes to endangered species, people seem to only care about animals that are cute and charismatic, like the giant panda or some exotic bird. “It is upsetting that, though other animals are just as important to our genetic diversity as a planet, no one pays attention to them,” she says. So she devised a solution: the Extinction Tattoo Project.
For her project, Dempsey designed tattoos of an oblong rock snail, a St. Helena giant earwig and a Pasadena freshwater shrimp—three extinct, and rather ugly, creatures. Like commemorative tattoos for loved ones who has passed, Dempsey’s designs include references to the species life spans. She writes “in memoriam 1881-2000″ next to the oblong rock snail, for example, which is thought to have died out due to habitat loss in the Cahaba River in Alabama, and “R.I.P. 1798-2000″ for the ill-fated giant earwig.
With the designs, she then launched a campaign to make the public aware of these often ignored animals. She created posters, photoshopping the tattoos onto portraits of models, and hung them around her campus, and she distributed temporary tattoos to students and faculty.
“They went like candy,” she says.
For this first foray into temporary tattoo production, Dempsey chose animals that, in her eyes, had at least one redeeming physical quality despite their otherwise homely appearances. For the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, it was its curly antennae, and with the St. Helena giant earwig, it was the sweeping shape of the insect’s pincers. “I tried to find what was beautiful about each of the ugly animals,” she says. Guided by this endearing feature, Dempsey determined the overall layout of the tattoo.
“Because they were extinct, there aren’t a lot of photographs of them, or the photos are hard to find,” Dempsey explains. Some of the tattoos are drawn directly from images but others are a blend of scientific illustrations she could find of both the particular species and of modern animals related to it. “It was a little bit of sleuth work,” she says. “There is slight artistic interpretation as well, because it had to fit into the tattoo style.”
Dempsey distributed nearly 100 temporary tattoos, mostly around RISD, to gauge interest. “It was mostly people looking at them and being sort of whaaa, not really sure how to feel, and then deciding, wait, this is great!” she says. Her inventory vanished in just 30 minutes or so. “I would love to produce them at mass scale,” she adds. “There are a lot of ugly animals. The blobfish is pretty awful, but important.”
In her projects, Dempsey aims to make science accessible, to make it hip, mainstream and fun. “Design can really affect the public’s relationship with science and how we view it. Instead of some lab coat, old, white man telling us ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Eat your vegetables,’ the science that is out there should really be as exciting to everyone as it is to the scientists themselves,” she says. “That is what drives me.”