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Science Spring @ Blaffer Art Museum

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How can a sculpture clean up a Superfund site? What can a crystal cavern teach us about Alzheimer’s and memory loss? Why would a scientific protocol ever win a National Endowment for the Arts grant?

Those are just a few of the questions raised by two exhibitions kicking off the spring 2015 semester at Blaffer Art Museum, as we showcase two artists, Mel Chin and Janet Biggs, whose practices bridge many artistic and scientific disciplines. During Science Spring @ Blaffer Art Museum from January 16 through March 21, ideas explored in both exhibitions are serving as catalysts for a rich array of programming at the museum and beyond.

The Blaffer presentation of Mel Chin: Rematch, part of a citywide homecoming for one of the most important artists Houston has produced, will showcase Chin’s science-based projects and dovetail with components presented at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Asia Society Texas Center and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. Meanwhile, a smorgasbord of lectures, gallery talks and panel discussions across campus will position the Blaffer exhibition Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown as a bridge between disciplines as seemingly unrelated as neurology, music and the geosciences.

About Mel Chin: Rematch

Downstairs, the Blaffer presentation of Rematch will highlight such research-driven, collaborative projects as Revival Field (begun in 1990), in which he worked with agronomist Rufus Chaney on monumental “sculptures” that used phytoremediation—the use of metal-accumulating plants to absorb toxins from contaminated soil—as a reductive technique, similar to the way a sculptor carves away marble. Chin used the term “invisible aesthetics” to describe the transformation occurring under the soil and between various collaborators and civic agencies in what became the first replicable field test of its kind.

Chin’s research on soil again bore fruit when he turned his attention to lead contamination levels in New Orleans, where dust from paint scraping and gasoline exhaust have settled into the ground and remained concentrated at unhealthy levels around nearly two-thirds of the city’s households.

Alarmed by the link between lead poisoning and violent crime, particularly given New Orleans’s high murder rate, in 2006 Chin devised Operation Paydirt/The Fundred Dollar Bill Project, an ongoing interdisciplinary endeavor that continues to generate thousands of children’s drawings in an effort to end childhood lead poisoning.

Through these works and others—from intimate drawings to monumental installations— Rematch will illuminate how Chin looks toward biological and evolutionary models as the underlying framework for his multidisciplinary practice. Chin describes his willingness to change as a survival strategy, no different from that of a cell, or a virus, which, upon encountering danger or an obstacle, adapts in order to continue reproducing.

About Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown

Upstairs, Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown is a multidimensional exhibition combining video, sound, and objects that explore the role of memory in the construction of a person’s identity. Drawing from her personal experience of the effects of Alzheimer’s on family members, heroic stories of public individuals dealing with memory loss, and research conducted with neurologists and geoscientists, Biggs raises fundamental questions about why and how we become the person we are. Following the thread of memory, Echo of the Unknown weaves together various narratives connecting science and experience to draw metaphorical connections that amount to a nuanced and variegated investigation into the notion of losing a sense of self.

An avid collector of gems, Biggs’ grandfather was able to recall even the most obscure names of samples in his collections and the locations of their acquisition even as he was losing the ability to remember or identify family members and close friends around him. At the core of the exhibition is a four-channel video installation inspired by memories of the artist’s grandfather that juxtaposes footage shot in the crystal caverns below the German Merkers salt mine with documentation of neurological research conducted in laboratories in New York and Houston.

In 1980, Merkers miners discovered a unique and extraordinary geological anomaly 800 meters below the surface: a cavern filled with giant, glistening, geometric crystals, some measuring more than a meter in length. Entering this natural wonder is like walking into a mammoth geode, an experience that is both immersive and otherworldly. Combining the cavern footage with that of the scientists’ research and lab work, Biggs draws visual connections between the structure of these crystals and the proteins that determine the biochemical conditions of a hyper-excited brain, such as one afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

By physically exploring the Merkers crystal cavern, Biggs figuratively sets out to investigate the diseased brain of her grandfather, tracing fading memories and making astonishing discoveries as she herself experiences disorientation and confusion, some of the same symptoms endured by Alzheimer’s patients.

A two-channel video installation focuses on the solace one of Biggs’ relatives found in his residual memory of birds. After his diagnosis, he would gather dead hummingbirds found in his garden, carefully seal them in clear plastic bags, and place them in his freezer. Only after his death did the artist learn of this ritualized attempt to sustain beauty and hold onto life as he felt it fade away. Juxtaposing imagery of gravity-defying hummingbirds with footage shot in the Arctic and in neurological research laboratories–in particular of freezers preserving everything from simple worm cells to human brain cells–Biggs paints a tender picture of life caught between hope and futility.

A single-channel video follows an aging mineral collector as he searches for the perfect specimen at a trade show. While pursuing this elusive goal he loses his way among the many aisles of vendors and displays. Uncertainly wandering, he recounts memories from his youth, quietly bemoaning the passing of time without truly connecting these memories to the present.

All three pieces share a musical soundscape that is loosely based on Glen Campbell’s song, Wichita Lineman. In 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with the disease but decided, with the consent of his family, to continue to tour as long as he was able. Footage from his performance of Wichita Lineman on that tour shows him in moments of confusion and yet with an unyielding need to continue. Inspired by Campbell’s tenacity, Biggs asked several composers to write a score based on their memory of Wichita Lineman. Their fragmented invocations add a haunting sonic layer to Echo of the Unknown.

A separate sound installation pairs lyrics by Biggs with a score by Grammy-nominated jazz composer Barney McAll performed by the University of Houston’s renowned chorale choir. Inspired by the modernist composer Charles Ives’ 1906 piece, The Unanswered Question, it echoes one of Ives’ favorite compositional strategies of combining harmonic and dissident lines at different rates of speed, taking the exhibition’s line of questioning into an aural arena. And finally, Biggs juxtaposes a halite crystal from Merkers with a reproduction created with the help of the University of Houston’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Displayed side by side, and echoing each other visually, the two crystals question ideas of what we perceive as reality.

In conjunction with Echo of the Unknown, the Blaffer Art Museum Innovation Series is the most ambitious lineup of public programs the museum has ever organized around a single exhibition. Designed to amplify the exhibition’s role as a catalyst for cross-disciplinary learning, the series’ lectures, presentations, gallery talks and interactive programs will highlight collaborations across the UH community and beyond.

Support

Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown is organized by independent curator Janet Phelps. The exhibition is made possible through the Innovation Grants program of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts which is funded in part by the Houston Endowment, Inc. The production was underwritten in part by Allison and David Ayers, Carlisle Vandervoort and Gabriela Trzebinski, Bridget and Patrick Wade and Robert Wennett and Mario Cader-Frech. Additional funding was provided by First Take patrons Jereann Chaney, Cullen Geiselman, Heidi and David Gerger, Pablo and Maria Henning, Cecily Horton, Ann Jackson, Kathrine G. McGovern/McGovern Foundation, James A. Prell, and Lea Weingarten. Additional support comes from the Cecil Amelia Blaffer von Furstenberg Endowment for Exhibitions and Program, the Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, the Texas Commission on the Arts through the Arts Respond project, the Jo and Jim Furr Exhibition Endowment at Blaffer Art Museum, and The George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation.

Educational outreach programs are made possible by Dorothy C. Sumner, the Kristin Saleri Art Foundation and Quantum Reservoir Impact.

Mel Chin: Rematch is organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art. Major support for the exhibition is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Creating A Living Legacy Program of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Suzanne Deal Booth and David G. Booth, the Bertuzzi Family Foundation, Susan and Ralph Brennan, and Stephen Reily.

The presentation of Mel Chin: Rematch at Blaffer Art Museum is made possible through the generous support of The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation, James Bell, Marita and Jonathan B. Fairbanks, Dorene and Frank Herzog, the Oshman Foundation, an anonymous donor, and Major Exhibition Fund patrons Jim Petersen, Jr., Leslie and Brad Bucher, Vitol, Inc., and the Nightingale Code Foundation. Additional funding comes from the Cecil Amelia Blaffer von Furstenberg Endowment for Exhibitions and Programs, the Houston Endowment Inc., the Anchorage Foundation, BP Corporation North America, Inc., the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Jo and Jim Furr Exhibition Endowment at Blaffer Art Museum, and the George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation.

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