Thursday, October 30, 2008

A morning in Athens Square Park

I claim a slat bench in the northwest corner of Athens Square Park, place binoculars in my lap, and enjoy a sip of coffee, purchased at a nearby 7-Eleven. The Japanese-owned chain convenience store was introduced to New York City just three years ago and, despite its suburban associations, has quickly spread throughout Manhattan and the boroughs. The neighborhood bodegas must learn to compete, or they will soon go the way of the dodo.

Another "invasive" colonizes Athens Park. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) chitter tirelessly in the lower branches of the park's London Planetrees (Platanus x acerifolia). Like most Americans, these birds trace their origins to the Old World. The species was introduced to the United States from Britain in the mid-19th century. Also called English sparrows, the adaptable and hearty birds are now abundant over most of the globe, particularly in urban locales.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Aitken's not-so-migratory menagerie

Doug Aitken
Production still
25-minute video loop

Doug Aitken's haunting film "Migration," currently on view at 303 Gallery's 21st street space, focuses on the behavior of a number of North American animal species, each shown displaced in a banal motel room. "Migration" is a beautiful monument to our transient American existence. Indeed, whether moving homes or traveling for business, Americans are a peregrinating people; we move more often than citizens of any other industrialized nation. Aitken's decision to use wildlife to meditate on this phenomenon is affecting. The film is dream-like and hypnotic, and it was hard to pull myself away, even when the 25-minute loop began again.

But when I picked up the gallery press release, I noticed that it described the critters Aitken filmed as "wild North American migratory animals." This jarred me from any reverie. In fact, of the twelve species that I recall offhand, only three - the American bison (Bison bison), caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and hawk (unidentified sp.) - might be deemed migratory, and it requires an almost comical ignorance of wildlife to think that an American beaver (Castor canadensis) or raccoon (Procyon lotor) will trundle hundreds or thousands of miles in search of more hospitable temperatures. I don't know if the press release mistake is Aitken's doing or that of a gallery employee. Of course, I hope it's the latter, but I'm dismayed either way.

Artists are generally urban animals. We congregate in cities so that we might feel connected to other artists and novel ideas. (Certainly, there are many exceptions, and the rural, more solitary approach to art-making is no less valid or vital. Different strokes for different folks, as the expression goes.) Some of us, though, strive to straddle the urban-rural divide. But those artists who, like me, spent childhood in the country and now reside in the city (or vice versa) often come to feel uneasy in both environments.

In my case, that sense of alienation is felt most acutely when I am reminded of how ignorant most urbanites are of natural history. Even with their relatively impressive academic pedigree, artists and art enthusiasts are no exception. What's more, most city dwellers consider those individuals who do possess a knowledge of or curiosity about other species and ecosystems quaint; natural history is considered an esoteric and incidental subject. Among my friends, I'm the go-to-guy for questions about animal behavior or physiology, but these questions are cast as if the answers are more trivial than celebrity gossip. (My friends are often surprised that I can't name a fifteen-minute celebrity pictured on a newsstand rag, but don't think it odd that they can't identify but one or two of the city's most common bird species.)

Indeed, when I mentioned my fault with the 303 gallery press release, one artist friend chuckled and said, "Only you would even notice that." Sadly, that may be true. If so, it is proof of how divorced urbanites are from the lives and lifestyles outside the proverbial city walls. Such a dismissive urban attitude is not merely an unfortunate reality for natural history buffs; with an increasingly urban global populace, it bodes poorly for the future of ecological stewardship and, in turn, our human station.

Photo credit: image ripped from 303 Gallery website


Related post: Bioephemera discusses the same here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

"Art and the Commons"

An essay I wrote for Hungry Hyaena in January of 2007, "Creative Restraint and Responsibility: Artists, Documentarians and Copyright," was referenced by Chris Desser in a lecture given at The California College of Arts on March 10, 2008. Desser is a fellow at On the Commons, an organization dedicated to encouraging cross-disciplinary engagement and an open-source approach to all resources, be they natural, artistic, or intellectual.

The text of Desser's lecture, entitled "Art and the Commons," is reprinted on both the On The Commons and GreenMuseum websites. It's worth a read, particularly on the heels of my previous post, about finding our way back to wonder via a more integrated approach.

Excerpted from "Art and the Commons":
"It is perhaps an inescapable part of the human condition to 'divide up the world' into mental categories. The categories may be immensely useful, but they are also partial and misleading. Philosopher and scientist Jacob Brownowski has described the process of science—the process by which we gain empirical knowledge—as that of decoding a 'completely connected world.' This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand, in order to create a meaningful context for study. But this division, Bronowski warned, does violence to the actual, organic nature of the real world. We must always bear in mind that we are 'certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie.'"

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Matthew Day Jackson's Wonderful Artifacts

Installation shot of Matthew Day Jackson's "Terranaut," at Peter Blum, Chelsea
Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery, New York

"The world will not perish for want of wonders,
but for want of wonder."
-J.B.S. Haldane

On the drizzly Wednesday evening past, I attended a ScienceBlogs panel at the SoHo Apple Store. ScienceBlogs bills itself as "a portal dialogue, a digital salon featuring the leading bloggers from a wide array of scientific disciplines." I'm familiar with a number of the blogs hosted by the network; among them is one of my regular blogosphere stops, Bioephemera. Jessica Palmer, the writer, artist and scientist behind Bioephemera, participated in the panel, and I attended with lofty expectations. Unfortunately, the panelists were unable to delve deeply into any of the subjects that most excite them. Instead, they answered humdrum questions that ranged from 'How often do you upload new material?' to 'What was your most popular or controversial post?' (Generally, their responses were similarly unexciting, but they delivered them earnestly and with good humor.)

Addressing that second question, one panelist mentioned the popularity of Pharyngula, a blog written by evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers. Every day, Myers' blog receives a great many visits, but a sizable minority (perhaps even the majority) of those visitors are religious fundamentalists, Creationists who beset the blog with nasty comments about Myers and the ideas he expounds. In fact, Myers has posted an ever-lengthening list of undesirables, readers now banned from Pharyngula's comment section.

It's no secret that evolutionary biologists and Creationists don't break bread together. Their enmity has a storied history. Yet many people understand the dispute to be more broad, as a fracas between scientists and the religious community at large. And it is not only bystanders that see it this way. Some scientists lend credence to the misconception by assuming that all religious individuals are skeptical of evolutionary biology, in particular, and, more generally, of science as a whole. This simply isn't true. The science/religion dichotomy is false. Only the ignorant, the unimaginative, the misguided or some combination thereof embrace religious fundamentalism, and among the ranks of the religious, there are countless educated, creative and thoughtful individuals. Within this latter group, science and evolution are accepted, even championed.

At their respective best, both science and religion (re)awaken or invigorate our capacity for wonder. Each makes use of a different approach, but they are complementary. As Albert Einstein famously said, "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called the two "nonoverlapping magisteria" because good science trades in facts to explain material phenomena, whereas religion traffics in the unverifiable and the unobservable. Where science seeks to demystify, and to build on each subsequent revelation to learn more, religion aims to make sacred that which is taken for granted, to make the ordinary again extraordinary. Both, however, offer frameworks of engaging our astonishing existence and experience. Both are compelled by curiosity and wonder. As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Enlightenment writer-philosopher, argued, if God held in one hand the Entire Truth and in the other the Eternal Pursuit of Truth, a good man will choose the latter. The same is true of authentic scientists and religious thinkers. The methodology and particulars may differ, but both science and religion are realms of the question. Although the popular conception of the scientist is the white-coated statistician ready to provide any and all answers, the caricature is misleading. It is "normative in science to be not sure," as Jessica Palmer put it doing the ScienceBlogs panel. Science, like religion, is a matryosha doll, a series of questions nested within questions.

Gould considered art and philosophy magisteria unto themselves, but, unlike religion and science, each overlaps the other. Where these two overlapping sections meet, we find ourselves in the realm of what the artist-writer Paul Laffoley calls the mesoteric. In Laffoley's cosmology, the circle of religion, dealing as it does with questions of ultimate meaning, is dubbed the esoteric realm. The circle of science, focused on material truths and the observable world, he labels the exoteric realm. The mesoteric realms. art and philosophy, bridge the esoteric and exoteric. Whereas Gould posits that the magisteria of religion and science are nonoverlapping, I would argue that, where their circles meet, the membrane is permeable. This bleeding of one into the other represents the pinnacle of art and philosophy.

Matthew Day Jackson
"Dymaxion Skeleton"
Wood, lead, Plexi-glas, light, glass mirror, steel
86 x 33 x 22 inches
Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery, New York

Because Matthew Day Jackson's sculptures draw from this leak, inspired by (and responding to) both science and religion, the very best are imbued with (and exude) hope, curiosity and wonder. Two sculptures, "Dymaxion Skeleton" and "Against the Mythology of Linearity," both included in "Terranaut," Jackson's current exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, are exceptional artifacts (literally, artful fact), notable for their humor, evocative power and awe-struck humility.

Presented within an illuminated, birch-paneled vitrine, "Dymaxion Skeleton" is a piece-meal assembly: the feet of this skeleton are tree roots; the legs, arms and spine are branches; the rib-cage and pelvis are geodesic triangle lattices (hence the Buckminster Fuller allusion in the work's title). To the guileless viewer, the skeleton could pass for a loan from the American Museum of Natural History, a relic of some lost people, but "Dymaxion" is no archaeological discovery. It, like everything Jackson produces, is a fiction.

But is it fair, really, to call it that? Because Jackson makes no claim that "Dymaxion Skeleton" is archaeology, it can not be dismissed as "junk science." It is contemporary art and, as such, is no less real than any relic released from the lower strata to be studied, interpreted and enshrined. And what can we surmise from Jackson's latter-day reliquary? To use Palmer's words, we're "not sure." "Dymaxion Skeleton" is cryptic and poetic. What are we to make of the connection between those root feet and the geodesic triangles? Or between Jackson's nod to Fuller, a half-baked scientist-engineer fascinated by Utopian machines, and this illuminated dead thing?

Admiring Jackson's skeletal creation, I think of the laudable efforts of David Wilson, the founder and curator of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Wilson's museum is an extension of the Wunderkammer, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century rooms (or cabinets, as they were then called) devoted to displaying collections of natural specimens, artwork and other miscellany. Today we usually call collections of this sort curiosity cabinets (and, indeed, they more often occupy what we now think of as cabinets). The curator of "Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities," currently on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, points out that Wunderkammen are "precursors to museums." In the nineteenth century, these general interest collections were divided for display in separate art, natural history and technology museums. This breakup coincided with the shift from generalization to specialization, and although the latter approach allows for a more extensive body of knowledge, it is a less integrated one. An astrophysicist, for example, can tell you a great deal about astrophysics, but will likely contribute very little on the subject of crocodile anatomy. As John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum, stresses, "in the earlier collections, you had the wonders of [the natural world] spread out there cheek-by-jowl with the wonders of man, both presented as aspects of the same thing, which is to say, the Wonder of God." Embracing the collage-remix instinct of the postmodern artist, Jackson shares much in common with his Wunderkammen forebears; he works to tap into the wonder current.

Matthew Day Jackson
"Against the Mythology of Linearity"
Acrylic, abalone, mother-of-pearl
7 inches tall, dimension variable otherwise
Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery, New York

"Against the Mythology of Linearity," a seven-stage transmutation, moves from a simple pyramid through five polyhedral forms before "becoming" a human skull. The increasing complexity of each stage seems to confirm linear progression rather than react against it, but Jackson has arrayed the forms on the gallery floor so that they constitute a question mark. The faceted shaping and abalone accents of these polyhedra allude to gem cutting and, with that craft in mind, I think of the Abrahamic Creation story, in which God makes Man and Woman on the sixth day, then puts down his chisel for a rest. By nodding to that story, is Jackson questioning the narrative that evolutionary biologists so vehemently defend? Perhaps, but with each additional facet, a polyhedron moves that much closer to a sphere, a "perfect" form that is emblematic of infinity. The skull, then, the seventh step, is not an end result. God can rest for a spell, but he should continue; his work is incomplete.

The economist and sociologist Max Weber said that the secularization of society and increasing specialization of methodological inquiry had led to a "disenchantment of the world." He was (and remains) correct. A world without magic is a meagre one. Jackson's best sculptures provide us with bread crumbs so that we might find our way back to wonder. They are redemptive works, and I eagerly anticipate more of them.

Photo credits: All Matthew Day Jackson images courtesy Peter Blum Gallery; Four Magisterium diagram, Christopher Reiger, 2008