Embodying Experience: A Conversation with Artist Gail Wight

Tucked away in an almost bucolic spot on the Stanford University campus, conceptual artist Gail Wight’s well-lit studio bears witness to her love affair with art and science. A large bookshelf and reading nook showcases her wide-ranging reading interests — from obscure scientific texts to books explicitly titled “Art and Technology.” On one far wall is a mandala made of tiny photographic representations of bones. In the middle of the room, is an enormous clear sculpture of a microscope. Neither the studio nor Wight harbors a trace of the pretension one finds in some international experimental artists. She interacts with the entire world — its objects, living things, and her own art — as if it were a child’s living laboratory.

Ironically, since Wight’s medium tends to be experimental media, I first became acquainted with her through her playful, more traditional artist’s book, Restless Dust. Deconstructed, the box is separated into two chambers by a clear pane. Two paper birds lie in the back and a traditional, letterpress book sits above the pane. The title of the work is part of a quote by the author of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft: “It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust.” 

The book was the direct result of Wight’s residency at the San Francisco Center for the Book — one of the rare places in the Bay Area that celebrates the beauty of a tangible paper book as opposed to its electronic relatives. She had never made a book before — as with the rest of her work, the depth of her curiosity drove her to learn how.

Restless Dust takes as a point of departure an invitation to Darwin: What would you show Darwin if he visited the Bay Area? The idea came to Wight as she was driving around, listening to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — I want to meet Darwin at the bay and walk around with him. Uncertain of what to write, Wight sent an email to 30 artists, scientists or theorists of some kind, who shared an interest in Darwin, asking them, “If you could show Darwin one thing around the Bay Area — what would you show him?”

The resulting book was a conversation between art and science, full of allusions and wordplay that looks at our culture and our endangered environment. At one point, for example, Wight plays with the double meaning of The Red Queen Effect. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen said, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." A biologist coined the term “The Red Queen Effect” from Carroll’s book to describe the need for any species to continue evolving in order to keep control of its space and keep up with the system within which it is striving to survive. The same sort of linguistic and visual whimsy occurs in asking how Darwin would solve the local problem of an invasive species of crabs that flow into the Bay Area and decimate local species. In a poetic turn, she writes that they would be pushed to sea in eucalyptus canoes; eucalyptus is also an invasive non-native species that crowds out native species, even killing local foraging birds with a suffocating tar-like substance.

Several of Wight’s other pieces also re-contextualize beautiful 19th century objects, images and scientific discoveries, thus revealing the way that both beauty and terror — the good and the bad — coexist within science, medicine and technology. She explained, “[i]t’s easy to fall into a romantic notion of science by addressing the 19th century. But I keep coming back to it because I realize how many ideas come back to it. What is medicine? What is illness? Why do we have jails? They all come out of epistemological questions of the 19th century.”

114 In contrast, the objects of modern-day science can feel “sensationalized and glossy” to Wight, but a number of her pieces make use of the beautiful strangeness of these as well. In an interspecies, interactive piece called Rodentia Chamber Music, mice scurry around in specially-constructed instruments and set off pre-recorded phrases of sound with chance results. In another collaboration with living things, Wight planted sixty-four discarded CPU (memory) chips in an agar nutrient resulting in flourishing biological residue. Two forms of memory grew together for a number of weeks until they seemed one, illuminated by a series of bug lights and titled Residual Memory.  

In Wight’s artistic excavation of science and technology, as well as their effects on our culture, the sacred and the profane exist side by side. A 2009 work called Hydraphilia uses a time-lapse video of the many-headed slim mold Physarum Polycelphalum. “Hydra” refers to an ancient nameless serpent-like water beast that possessed many heads (for each head that was cut off it grew two more) and “philia” refers to a Greek term that incorporated not just friendship, but also loyalties to family and polis — one’s political community, job, or discipline.

Wight’s movement toward art that reflects on scientific, medical and technological themes began with her interest in learning more about a family illness that was prevalent, but never talked about. Her early interest in more traditionally political art changed when she came to believe contemporary biology is one of the most controversial topics out there. She explains, “Our epistemologies largely come out of science, where we’re doing our best as humans to solve problems and fix whatever it is that we’re doing wrong.” 

She was studying at the Center for Interrelated Media at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the 1980s doing some painting and a lot of video and performance art. Her professors there encouraged her to integrate the research she was doing on medicine in her personal life into her works of art. Her subsequent oeuvre can be read as a continuous interaction with the worlds of science and technology. 

She developed her interest in ‘interactivity’ at MassArt (before it became the trendy, ubiquitous concept it is today). She took a computer class with sculpture students who showed up in steel-toed boots. The students were asked to pull all the motherboards out of six computers before the instructor even began to talk about them. As part of her interactive, computer-based work, Wight dressed up a computer as a tarot card reader. In another interactive piece at the time — which calls to mind a social science experiment — she assembled a group of people, fed them bread and chocolate and talked about the substances inside bread and chocolate as well as what we think about minds. By the end of her talk, she had convinced them that they had just consumed two substances that would powerfully impact their emotional state. From the start, Wight was interested in interactivity as not merely machine-based, “but also as an element where you plant an idea in somebody’s mind when you engage them in an act.”

There are aspects of Wight’s work that are deeply critical of science, medicine and technology — whether it’s the reductionism of cognitive science and psychopharmacology or even the treatment of rats in scientific studies — but she says her experience with scientists and doctors has been amazingly positive. Usually scientists and doctors see the problems of their fields, but can’t comment on them. Many have been generous and more than happy to have her be an “interloper” and “lurker” at their labs or expeditions. Her “lurkings” have included a paleontological dig in an 18 inch-high cave in Mount Shasta, reading aloud to fish, watching surgeries where animals get micro-chipped and documenting the dissection of human beings.

Profundity in Wight’s work arises not only from the formal shape of it (which is incredibly well-crafted), but also, as in other interactive art, the quality of dialogue between her mind’s objects and the chance viewer’s input into those physical forms. This profundity dwells in science, too. If you examine the mandala print in Wight’s studio, you will find that it is made up of bones. They’re reproductions of bones from Stanford professor Elizabeth Hadley’s Lab, which studies the ecology and evolution of vertebrates from both fossil and modern assemblages. Hadley brings back a bucket of stuff from a dig and try to reconstruct a climatic map or environmental map of the area. While we usually think of the scientific process as one of “discovery”, in some ways the attempt to build a meaningful conception of prior times in this type of science is a process of construction (much as art is a process of construction).

Wight created the bone mandala print from the idea that a mandala is a definite structure built to embody the four corners of the world. She notes that the mandala on her wall, started to look “like snowflakes. A molecular diagram that’s utterly ephemeral. It’s an absolutely perfect structure. Then a whiff of breath and it’s never coming back. Models of things that are really unattainable are helpful for me in thinking about what science tries to do — constructing a world that you can never actually touch or embodying a knowledge that you can never actually experience. A lot of times, for me, it’s trying to find an artistic probe or material that will embody an experience that belongs to a scientific process.”


View more of Gail Wights' work here.


Persistence of Vision

The San Francisco Film Society presents an annual “Persistence of Vision Award” to filmmakers. On April 30, 2011, however, SFFS presented the award to someone who stated onstage that he does not identify as a filmmaker: art world giant and San Francisco resident Matthew Barney who has been dubbed the most important artist of his generation by the New York Times.

Best known for his epic five-film avant-garde opus, Cremaster Cycle, Barney also works in sculpture, installation, painting and drawing. Cremaster is a spectacular work that blends art and technology and took 8 years. Starring Barney, it explores the processes of creation, taking as its metaphorical point of departure the role of the male cremaster muscle during embryonic sexual differentiation. Art critic Arthur Danto has described Cremaster as the poetics of ascent and descent.

Barney began his more-subdued Drawing Restraint film/performance series in 1987 while an undergraduate at Yale. A former high school football star, Barney once again draws upon biology: just as a muscle grows through resistance, form takes shape only when it struggles against resistance. The series is less flashy than Cremaster — the installments of the series are not ambitious in scope and feel in some ways like breathers. In conjunction with the presentation of its “Persistence of Vision Award,” SFFS presented the North American premiere of Barney’s latest Drawing Restraint installment— Drawing Restraint 17.

Drawing Restraint 17 opens with a split screen, one of which shows a farm and a woman digging into the earth and the other of which show a few people building a structure in an empty museum space. From the outset, it’s apparent that the two stories will eventually merge on a single screen. For the first time in the Drawing Restraint series, Barney does not star in the film/performance. Perhaps because its starting point is the powerful painting Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung Grien, this one stars a young woman. 

As usual, Barney’s pace is slow, but unlike other works, the images are somewhat plain and unimaginative.  However, the final scenes depict a woman scaling a gigantic white museum wall using inset knobs. Barney himself has performed similar ascents and descents in other works. The woman’s ascent and descent in Drawing Restraint 17 is a very powerful visual metaphor for the internal phenomenon of an artist making a graphic mark. Was it CGI? Was it staged? Her fall and the “mark” it makes are stunning.

As mentioned, Barney’s concept in Drawing Restraint is that the development of art requires self-imposed restraints. You might think that the “Persistence of Vision Award” also turns on restraints: a great artist persists irrespective of roadblocks or audience because what his or her internal vision is ultimately more powerful than anything outside him or herself. Prior winners of the award are: animator Don Hertzfeldt (2010), documentarians Lourdes Portillo (2009), Errol Morris (2008) and Heddy Honigmann (2007), filmmaker Guy Maddin (2006), documentarians Adam Curtis (2005) and Jon Else (2004), experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill (2003), filmmaker Fernando Birri (2002), avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger (2001), animator Faith Hubley (2000), documentarians Johan van der Keuken (1999) and Robert Frank (1998) and animator Jan Svankmajer (1997). These are all relatively under-appreciated artists who had to persist in their vision in the face of considerable opposition. However, Barney is so celebrated in the contemporary art world that he no longer encounters resistance and so the persistence of his vision doesn’t seem quite as extraordinary as it is in the case of other winners’.

He has more corporate sponsors, it seems, than any other artist does. The restraints he imposes on himself in his work seem to be physical or technical production challenges- his work itself appears decadent: incredibly expensive, time-consuming and wildly imaginative. Of the award, Rachel Rosen, San Francisco Film Society director of programming stated, “We are delighted to present the persistence of vision award to Matthew Barney, an artist who continues to make innovative use of moving images as a vital part of his unique cosmology of provocative and memorable work.”

Watching him in conversation with Bay Area art curator and critic Glen Helfand, it was interesting to see how different Barney was person than I would have expected from his visually-flamboyant Cremaster performances. Soft-spoken, with movie star good looks, he noted that he will continue to challenge himself physically in his art, but that the challenges will be different as he ages. 

While accepting his award, Barney commented that he was glad it was an award for “persistence,” because that sounded better than getting an award for obsession. And it’s true that while we commend innovative artists and entrepreneurs because we believe they have made a choice to persist, we rarely commend anyone for knee-jerk “obsessing” or self-indulgence.

After creating a cosmology, wouldn’t true artistic innovation result from challenging that cosmology rather than continuing to build upon it? In light of widespread acceptance and adulation and apparently no restraints except age to persist past, it should be interesting in the coming years to see whether and how Barney challenges not just his physical muscles, which he has done for years, but his artistic muscles, too.


Director of “Empire of Silver,” Christina Yao, Speaks at Stanford University

This Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 pm Director and screenwriter Christina Yao will be speaking at Stanford University about her experience making the film Empire of Silver. Yao holds a Ph.D. in Asian Theater from Stanford and comes from a strong background in theater as an actress, playwright and director. 

Yao’s theatrical flair shines through in Empire of Silver, which will play in multiplexes in the United States this summer.  Starting with the question of how a man should live his life, Empire is a financial opera, epic in scope, covering the history of the “Chinese Wall Street.” Winning “Best Director” in China in 2009 at the Shanghai International Film Festival, the film was nominated for three Hong Kong Academy Awards.

The story revolves around a hedonistic black sheep character played by Aaron Kwok (“Third Master,”) the third son of Lord Kang the head of one of the most powerful banking houses in the Shanxi province. When his son’s wife is kidnapped, Lord Kang pressures the Third Master to follow his own path. The father-son dynamic and the Confucian question of how to live one’s life are complicated by the Third Master’s love for his stepmother, who was stolen from him by his cruel father.

Yao’s narrative is ambitious and complex, covering several years of Chinese history, philosophical issues, political intrigue and questions of women’s rights. Shot on location, the film itself is lovely to look at, moving deftly between tender close-ups and sweeping panoramic views of landscape as well as an elaborate scene with computer-generated wolves. Layers of metaphysics, history, violence, dramatic crisis, as well as a poignant ending, offer the viewer an opportunity for enjoyment and detailed analysis.

Several Stanford scholars will add their expert commentary on aspects of Chinese culture to the evening with Yao. The event will be held at Braun Auditorium, Mudd Chemistry Building on Stanford campus. It should be a fascinating, multi-perspectival evening on a film that has enormous scope.


Finding Nostalgia for the Light

Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s latest documentary, beautifully-titled Nostalgia for the Light, is not so much journalistic as it is an essayistic meditation on the power and ubiquity of the past as it exists in four parallels in the desolate Atacama Desert in northern Chile. A palette of blue, pale desert-copper and white visually ties together what seem to be images from disparate worlds: astronomy, archeology, geology, and the death of political prisoners.

Narrated by Guzman, this deeply moving yet intellectual film moves through Guzman’s personal interest in astronomy toward an exploration of one Chilean astronomer’s comment that everything that happens is already in the past, rather than the present, due to the time it takes for light to travel to the viewer. The Mars-like soil of the Atacama Desert is believed to be virtually sterile-nothing grows there, not even insects.  Astronomers flock there because of its incredibly clear skies.

The film moves nimbly from astronomical wonder into interviews of archeologists and geologists, both of them digging into the past on and below the desert sands rather than searching for answers in the skies. Then, from these more contemplative subjects, the film steers into an intense and difficult subject, closer in some ways to Guzman’s other documentaries. In addition to being a locus for intellectual and physical discovery, the Atacama Desert was the dumping ground for kidnapped and murdered political prisoners during Pinochet’s rule.

Two haunted women share tragic stories of searching for the bodies of their dead family members, scraping and scrabbling through the desert sand. As scientists delve into the deep past for celestial bodies and pre-Columbian petroglyphs, these women search for “the disappeared”. Without venturing into the sensationalistic or grisly, the film shows the uncovering of fragile remains — one pair of arms is outstretched, reaching for something beyond its grasp. Coming full circle, Guzman films one astronomer trying, but mostly unable, to recover from the murder of her parents under Pinochet’s regime, as she sits with her baby. This is probably the strongest sequence of images about an inability to move beyond death that I’ve ever witnessed. 

The only nitpicks I had about the film were the interludes of star imagery accompanied by classical music. I occasionally felt as if I were watching an episode of Nova — even though the images themselves are jaw-dropping, they were used and shown in a clichéd way, sporadically detracting from the power of the film.

Known today for his epic chronicle of political tension, “The Battle of Chile,” Guzman started out as a writer of science fiction. It’s interesting that Atacama Desert, with its futuristic landscape, is the place where Guzman delves into his subjects’ obsessions with the past.

Some may be reluctant to admit it, but most of us are preoccupied by something from the past — while, as the astronomer in the film comments, the present may always be past, the past is also always present. Nostalgia for the Light demands to be watched for the rare beauty and painful truth about the human condition that Guzman has found by documenting the life’s work of these searchers.