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 1, 2013
What does the universe sound like? Contemplating the sky on a dark, clear night, a casual observer might balk at the question: without the hum of human life, how could the universe sound like anything? But the universe is, in fact, a noisy place. From collisions to pulsar starts, it emits an abundance of sounds. The only problem is that these sounds are in frequencies too low for the human ear—we are literally deaf to the symphony of cosmic music around us.
We won’t stay deaf much longer though, if any unlikely duo has its way. Mickey Hart, leader of the Mickey Hart band and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, has teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist George Smoot to turn the frequencies of the universe into music for human ears. Hart and Smoot “sonify” light and electromagnetic waves collected through various telescopes by shifting them up to octaves that humans can hear.
It’s a project that Hart stumbled upon while exploring the nature of rhythm. “I wrote two books in ’90 and ’91 called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and I tried to find where the brotherhood and the sisterhood of rhythm came from,” Hart said at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which hosted a screening of Rhythms of the Universe and a panel with Hart and Smoot, the film’s makers, on Sunday. “I went back through the historical records, and of course, in order to really find out where vibrations come from, you had to go back to the singularity—you had to go back to the Big Bang.”
Going back to the Big Bang isn’t an easy task, but George Smoot and others at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California began making huge strides forward in understanding cosmic microwave background radiation, or the thermal radiation leftover from the expansion of the Big Bang. Cosmic microwave background is literally light emitted from the Big Bang, which has traveled more than 14 billion years to where we can detect it today. By detecting cosmic background radiation, astrophysicists and cosmologists can literally look at the light—and particles—from the beginning of space and time.
“We didn’t know exactly where it was or when it was, until George pinned the tail on the donkey so to speak and found the cosmic background radiation,” Hart explained. “So now I had the start of the story. I had beat one—the moment of creation, when the beat started. It was a beautiful timeline. Any rhythmist worth his salt could not turn away from the idea of tracing the history of time and space.”
This isn’t the first time Smoot and Hart have crossed paths—Smoot used to date someone whose best friend was the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead—but this is the first time the two have collaborated professionally. When, later on their careers, the two encountered one another working in sound preservation, Smoot mentioned to Hart that he had been involved in a project that converted astronomical data, in the form of acoustic wavess, into audible sound. Hart was immediately intrigued.
“It’s inspiration for music, and he’s always trying to write and create new stuff,” Smoot said. Hart took Smoot’s data, and, with the help of others at the Lawrence Lab and elsewhere, began converting the data into music. Data for the music was collected from a wide range of celestial bodies—our own sun, various pulsating stars (known as pulsars), distant galaxies and, of course, the cosmic microwave background—Hart’s beat one.
“The information that was gathered from radio telescopes was transferred into the computers, and we turned radiation and light into sound,” Hart explained.
Sonifications—like the one below, which features data from a Pulsar B0531+21 (colloquially known as the Crab Pulsar)—contain valuable scientific information, but aren’t the most amusing to listen to. The sonification for the pulsar represents one of the most musical of the raw scientific data, since pulsars are by nature one of the most rhythmic celestial objects (in fact some pulsars are so rhythmically accurate that they rival atomic clocks).
Other sonifications, however, like those of solar winds or microwave background radiation, are less rhythmic and appear, at least in their raw form, less like what we recognize as music. In order to render these sonifications pleasurable, Hart enlisted the help of members of his band, the Mickey Hart Band, and proceeded to take some artistic liberties with the raw scientific data.
“What you’re seeing is a step along the way to the vision that we put out before, which was that this would be both entertainment and education in different levels. Many sounds are very educational, but not so entertaining—there’s information there but it’s not very pretty,” Smoot explained. “You hear a pulsar, and it has a kind of heartbeat, whereas most of the other things you hear are being made into art. You hear Mickey being a creative musician.”
The end product was the twelve-track Mysterium Tremendum, which was released in April 2012. The album included sonification with, as Hart describes it, “Earth music” added to create an enjoyable listening experience. “This brings together art and science, which is a very powerful combination,” Hart said. “I try to use as little amount of whole Earth instruments [music added by musicians using instruments and voice] as I could, but still make it entertaining.”
After the release of the album, Hart and Smoot continued, creating a multimedia representation of the music with a video, Rhythms of the Universe. The 20-minute film features high-definition photographs of celestial elements shown alongside Hart’s sonified music—so when viewers see the Crab Pulsar, they hear the sounds that go along with it.
Both Hart and Smoot hope that the video will eventually make its way into educational settings and inspire the minds of young scientists and artists. But, for now, Hart is focused on its rhythm—rhythms having held sway over the musician for much of his life.
“The whole universe is based on vibrations—it’s the basic element of all life, and rhythm is controlled vibration,” Hart said. “Everything has a sound and a light. Everything that moves is alive; if it isn’t it’s inanimate, it’s dead. And when the rhythm stops, we stop.”
March 26, 2013
When I step into the newly installed Laib Wax Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the floral smell of beeswax wafts through my senses. Psychologists say that scents can quickly trigger memories, and this one transports me back to my childhood: The fragrance of the amber beeswax coating the walls instantly reminds me of the crenellated sheets of beeswax, dyed pink and purple, that came in a candle making kit I had as a kid. I remember rolling the sheets into long tapers for Advent.
The warm glow of the closet-sized space is equally comforting. A single light bulb dangles from the ceiling, giving a sheen to the room’s waxy walls. Standing in its center, the spare room has a calming effect—it is a welcomed “time out” in an otherwise overstimulating world. As Klaus Ottmann, curator at large at the Phillips, puts it, the room has the “ability to temporarily suspend reality.”
Wolfgang Laib, a 63-year-old conceptual artist from Germany, created the meditative space. Over the course of a few days in late February, he melted 440 pounds of beeswax, minding the liquefying material carefully because temperature swings could have resulted in batches of varying yellow. Then, he used a warm iron, spackle knives and spatulas to evenly apply the inch-thick coat of wax, like plaster, onto the walls and ceiling of the 6-by-7-by-10-foot space. The Laib Wax Room, as the museum is calling it, opened to the public on March 2.
In his career, spanning more than four decades thus far, Laib has turned many raw, natural materials, such as milk, rice and pollen, into artistic mediums. Earlier this year, in fact, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City exhibited the artist’s Pollen From Hazelnut, an 18-by-21-foot installation made entirely of bright yellow pollen he harvested in the last 20 years.
Beeswax, however, happens to be one of his favorite materials. Since 1988, Laib has created a temporary wax room for MOMA as well as for two museums in Germany and one in the Netherlands. For these, he nailed sheets of beeswax to plywood walls, so that the installation could be disassembled. Then, he developed a more intensive, irreversible process by building a couple of outdoor wax rooms in the past 15 years, in a cave in the French Pyrenees and on his own land in Germany. The Phillips Collection is the very first museum to have a permanent beeswax room.
Visitors to the Phillips Collection are encouraged to enter the Laib Wax Room—titled Where have you gone – Where are you going?—one or two at a time. ”Here this is a very, very small room but it has a very beautiful concentration and intensity,” says Laib, in an audio tour and video produced by the Phillips. “When you come into a wax room, it is like coming into another world.”
February 22, 2013
The most radical figure in the biodesign movement is Eduardo Kac, who doesn’t merely incorporate existing living things in his artworks—he tries to create new life-forms. “Transgenic art,” he calls it.
There was Alba, an albino bunny that glowed green under a black light. Kac had commissioned scientists in France to insert a fluorescent protein from Aequoria victoria, a bioluminescent jellyfish, into a rabbit egg. The startling creature, born in 2000, was not publicly exhibited, but the announcement caused a stir, with some scientists and animal rights activists suggesting it was unethical. Others, though, voiced support. “He’s pushing the boundaries between art and life, where art is life,” Staci Boris, then a Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, curator, said at the time.
Then came Edunia, the centerpiece of Kac’s Natural History of the Enigma, a work that debuted at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis in 2009. Edunia is a petunia that harbors one of Kac’s own genes. “It lives. It is real, as real as you and I,” says Kac, a Brazil native living in Chicago. “Except nature didn’t make it, I did.”
Still, he had help. The project began in 2003, when the artist had his blood drawn at a lab in Minneapolis. From the sample, technicians isolated a specific genetic sequence from his immune system—a fragment of an immunoglobulin gene that produces an antibody, the very thing that can distinguish “self” from “non-self” and fights off viruses, microbes and other foreign invaders.
The DNA sequence was sent to Neil Olszewski, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota. In recent years, Olszewski had identified a virus promoter that could control the expression of genes in a plant’s veins. After six years of tinkering, the artist-scientist duo inserted a copy of Kac’s immunoglobulin gene fragment into a common breed of the flower Petunia hybrida.
It’s not the first transgenic plant. A gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis is routinely introduced to corn and cotton to make the crops insect-resistant. Also, scientists are inserting human genes into plants, in an attempt to manufacture drugs on a large scale; the plants essentially become factories, producing human antibodies used to diagnose diseases. “But you don’t have plants that have been made to explore ideas,” Olszewski says. “Eduardo came to this with an artistic vision. That is the real novelty.”
Kac selected the pink petunia, in large part because of the distinct red veins that hint at his own red blood. And though he refers to his creation as a “plantimal,” that may be overstating the case. The organism has only a minuscule stretch of human DNA amid many thousands of plant genes. Yet it’s the idea of the encounter between the viewer and this curiously endowed plant that mainly interests the artist. Whenever Natural History of the Enigma has been exhibited, Kac has presented Edunia alone on a pedestal, to heighten the drama. “To me, that is pure poetry,” he says.
He predicts that people will have to get more used to strange, genetically engineered hybrids in the future. “Once you are in the presence of this other creature, the world is not the same,” says Kac. “There is no going back.”