The Dudley Observatory in Schenectady, NY had a rockin’ show in 2004. I didn’t see it, but the description is utterly captivating:
In his Principles of Philosophy of 1644, Rene Descartes described the earth as surrounded on all sides by a very liquid heaven. Although later discoveries discredited this idea, in a sense Descartes was on target. Modern astronomy reveals stars not as hard, fixed objects, but as pulsing plasmas, and interstellar space not as pure void, but as diffuse clouds of atoms and molecules.
A Very Liquid Heaven explores the essence of permanence versus mutability by posing questions regarding the nature of time, the constancy of experience, and the perception of change. These questions will be examined through an investigation of the changing human perception of stars based on physical observation, technical postulation, and artistic imagination. Traditionally, stars have been characterized as immutable points of light, but in the last one hundred years scientists have redefined these seemingly timeless objects as very active bodies—stars dramatically pulse, even catastrophically explode. Does this change in the ways stars are perceived help to make the stars more comprehensible, more real?
This exhibit featured historical artifacts, star charts, maps, globes, and photographs of astronomical bodies (including star atlases and the Farquhar transparent globe of Dudley Observatory), as well as recent art by Kiki Smith, Russell Crotty, John Torreano, Bill Viola, and Sebastian Romo, among others. Additionally, three performances of Music for a Summer Evening: Makrokosmos III (a work for two pianos and a wide array of percussion instruments, composed by George Crumb) opened the exhibition. The performances, featuring Skidmore faculty musicians and a dance choreographed and performed by Debra Fernandez, took place on October 14, 15, and 17.
Gee willikers. If I could time travel.
In the meantime, we can visit this?
I had a job once working at a university museum cataloging their collection into a digital database. And what that means is that I was working with computers in a basement office all day. Yikes! During a particularly gray winter day, I wandered next door to the greenhouses where there was, among other green growing things, an orchid collection. The little lunch-break visit did wonders for me. In an elegant biological cycle, plants give us oxygen, and we give them carbon dioxide, exchanging waste for sustenance in a smart loop. But it was much more than that. As much as I enjoy the urban framework, my sights are always pointed toward wilderness. I am no survivalist, and my appreciation (and apprehension) toward what is true wildness comes from a suburban/urban viewpoint. Still, what is wild is what I am most fueled by, and human interaction with the inhuman is a constant fascination. Let’s be clear– the greenhouse is a quaint quote of wilderness brought into the urban framework– just like zoos, aviaries, aquariums…
While my most fluent language is drawing, I am filled with admiration for artists who engage wilderness more directly. I’m in the middle of a project in which I hope to embody these things more directly (more to come on that). In the meantime, here are some other recent and local (to Seattle) inspirations:
The Long Walk was a recent four-day-long 45-mile walking experience directed by and including a host of fantastic artists. The result seems like the opposite of an aviary– a group of earnest urbanites bringing their culture into the wild in order to help make sense of it.
Nat Evans is a Seattle composer who has been writing music for specific times and inviting people to experience the debut of these pieces as a collective listening party. My husband, Zack, got to experience Nat’s piece for sunrise, waking in the dark and traipsing down to a park where a small group of people pressed play on downloaded copies of the piece at Nat’s direction, and then watched as the light slowly increased into day. I was able to attend the recent sunset version at Carkeek Park. On a beautiful evening, which made the participants visible among the many other visitors only by their attachment to iPods or other listening devices, I joined a group of people as we watched the sun go behind the Olympics, making Puget Sound into a shimmering throb of shifting light. It was a memorable synesthetic orchestration… the music creating a vehicle for the patterns of water and cloud to click out of their representation into an abstraction.
Mark Dion‘s installation at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Neukom Vivarium, is an angled green-glassed green house in which an enormous fallen tree does what it does. Transported along with its massive ecosystem of decomposers and other plant and animal species (banana slugs, false Salomon seal, goat’s beard, Oregon grape, salal, red elderberry…) it quietly and slowly becomes something else– namely, a rich loamy soil that would be a great bed for new trees of its kind. A mother giving her body for her children, maybe.
Tonight at the vibrant new art-sharing space in Seattle, The Project Room, Mandy Greer has invited artist Anne Blackburn to share her more modestly-scaled but still intriguing endeavor– The Shelf Fungus Project:
Carved of out-of-date law books from 1880-1935, these shelf fungus forms were inoculated with mushroom mycelium, soaked in water, coated in wax and installed on cedar nurse stumps that are the remaining scars of old-growth logging around the turn of the century. Originally installed in August of 2009 at Smoke Farm, a multi-disciplinary non-profit on a retired dairy farm outside of Seattle, the piece was intended to change and decay with the elements in this very rainy river valley, and eventually to return the wood pulp of the books to the logged area via the appetites of the mushrooms implanted within.
Nature had other ideas.
To date, two years later, the only fungal growth has been black mildew growing under the wax, and a white mycelial growth that seems to have originated in the cedar stumps. However, much more exciting things have happened, including some sort of creature slowly carving small holes into the surface of the wax (slugs?), the slow cracking and peeling of the wax under stress of snow, rain, and periodic flooding, a bright blue/purple stain on the pages of the books, and a bear or series of bears that appear to be interested in the wax covering them and have several times bitten and damaged the installation.
And, in a grainy and pixelated triumph, I have a wildlife camera photo of what appears to be a young black bear at the site.
I picked up the book James Lavadour: Landscapes from the library and was so struck by his description of his process that I’d just like to re-present it some of it here:
You see how round these hills around here are. I would walk down the canyon and out of the canyon and I would become aware of every step and every breath I made. I felt like I was walking on an egg– this huge, immense, evenly formed sphere. The first thing I realized is that the world is round, circular and that everything I do is circular– the way I move, the way my blood pumps, is a rhythmic pulse. ..[.]
I did the drawings because I could not take it all in. I could not look at the complexity of the world and discern a rock from a tree, when it came to drawing. But when I began to look at these things in elemental form, and realized that they’re all based on concentrated masses of organic movement, I began to break things down into elemental rhythms and patterns and motions.
It was all kinetic. I would learn these things not by looking at them but by walking. I began this whole process of extracting a certain kind of knowledge from nature just by engaging with nature. I tried to tell myself not to think– just walk, just see, just feel, just hear. So I went through a whole period where I did nothing but walk and collect elemental little bits and pieces. All of a sudden I realized that what I was looking at and what I was doing were the same thing. Whatever is out there is in her. Everything that I wanted to do as an artist I realized that I already possessed as a being, I was an event of nature myself. I could become a conduit for making art, a conduit of nature, a conduit of this extraordinary event.
[…] I had this movement going on, I had this paint erosion going on, and I couldn’t quite put them together. I was looking for something that had as much life as the nature I was experiencing. I did not want a representation, or a depiction, or a portrayal. I wanted something that was an actual event, that was as lifelike as the land that I was walking on.