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.
September 27, 2013
Most of us are content to hear music. But last year, German photographer Martin Klimas decided he wanted to see it.
“I was listening to lots of minimalist music—contemporary classical and free jazz—and I started looking for imagery that could express it best,” he says. “Then, soon afterward, I came across the research of Hans Jenny and his Study of Wave Phenomena.”
In the sixties, Jenny, a German physician and scientist, began experimenting with and photographing the effects of sound vibrations on a variety of materials—fluids, powders and liquid paste. By setting these substances on a rubber drum head and making it vibrate, he found that different tones produced different spatial patterns in the materials: Low tones led powders to gather in simple, straight lines, while deeper tones produced more complex patterns.
“It gave me an idea,” Klimas says. “I wanted to take these two things—the effects of vibrations, and music—and bring them together.”
Over the next year, he spent countless hours capturing what he calls “sonic sculptures” of a variety of musicians—everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to Philip Glass and Johann Sebastian Bach. “I use an ordinary speaker with a funnel-shaped protective membrane on top of it,” he says. “I pour paint colors onto the rubber membrane, and then I withdraw from the setup.”
After cranking the speaker to max volume, “I leave the creation of the picture to the sound itself,” Klimas says. At the precise moment when the paint starts flying, a soundtrigger—a device that detects spikes in noise—automatically snapps photos with his Hasselblad camera.
Klimas used songs from a variety of styles and periods to make the photos. “I mostly selected works that were particularly dynamic, and percussive,” he says. Many of the songs he chose were by musicians with some relationship to visual art—like The Velvet Underground—or had influenced artists, like Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz, A Collective Improvisation.”
In total, the series took months to produce, and required hundreds of attempts. “The most annoying thing,” Klimas says, “was cleaning up the set thoroughly after every single shot.”
September 19, 2013
Diana Beltran Herrera had a realization a couple of years ago. “I started to feel closer to nature, but more, I recognized that I was in nature living at the same time as others, and I wasn’t any more special than any other element,” says the Colombian artist.
A bit conflicted, she says, “I had this knowledge of things living around me, but did I really know about them? I decided that it was time to play again, to rediscover the place where I was living.”
Herrera’s explorations began with birds. She observed local birds in her city of Bogotá and did Internet research on these species, identifying them and learning about their behavior and habitat. The artist also met with members of an ornithology group that provided more information.
“I discovered that I was living in a city full of nature, but somehow the traffic and modernism never allowed me to see what was living in there,” says Herrera. “With time, I started to find those plants, animals and life in general and felt astonished about each single thing, but the most recurrent animal was always the bird.”
Feeling inspired, Herrera started to cut paper into feathers and construct hyper-realistic sculptures of birds. In just a short time, she has created an her own aviary complete with more than 100 species found around the world, from lineated woodpeckers, Bateleur eagles and European bee eaters to blue herons, flamingos, cardinals, blue jays, robins and warblers. The artist’s first international solo exhibition, “Diana Beltran Herrera: Birds of Florida,” featuring seven new sculptures of the state’s birds, is now on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
To represent the birds as they are in nature, Herrera makes her sculptures life-size. For a cardinal, that might translate to just over six sheets of paper and five days of labor. An eagle or a crane, on the other hand, means 10 to 15 sheets of paper and up to two weeks of time. She observes some of the species in the wild, studies photographs of birds, and confers with ornithologists and birding groups to ensure an impressive level of visual accuracy.
Then she begins, first with a base form made out of paper, on which she carefully pastes meticulously cut paper feathers. The feathers themselves—mostly delicate bits of Canson art paper scored finely with scissors—range from lightweight wisps to stubby fronds and spikes, depending on the species of bird and their position on the creature. The result is something so stunningly close to the real thing, you’re shocked not to see it move.
Although her work is awe-inspiring in its detail, the real wonder is the complexities seen in nature, Herrera explains. “The most amazing thing for me is to go and find these birds in the wild,” she says. “I feel like a kid still with this need to discover. I love to feel this surprise and enjoy this experience in a mature way that I did when I was a child.”
At the top of her list of birds she would like to see in the wild is a kingfisher. “I have been looking for one, but it is difficult to find,” she says.
When choosing a bird to make her subject, Herrera focuses on its movement. “It is the most important thing for me,” she says. “When I started this project, I was trying to find a way to communicate with this other part [of nature]. Having knowledge that there wasn’t a language in common, there was a challenge to understand this life in another way. I realized there was this corporal expression, this dance, that could tell me a story about them.” She always looks for a photograph to reference, where the bird seems to be at its liveliest.
On her website, Herrera describes her work as seeking “to explore the chillingly disengaged relationship between humans and nature in modern society.” She deeply hopes that her paper sculptures of birds can affect this relationship for the better.
“People say that a little action can bring a reaction, and I like to think that this is possible. I wonder if people could appreciate the real world as they appreciate art, things could be different,” says Herrera. “My work is nothing different or new, it is just a representation of something that is real, and somehow it has an impact. More than creating birds, the real aim of what I do is to use this work as a model to exercise a behavior. It is an invitation to rediscover what is there, to see further and understand we are not alone here. We are part of a big system, and, as that, we need to learn how to respect and relate.”
“Diana Beltran Herrera: Birds of Florida” is on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, through December 8, 2013.
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.”