Mixed Messages: Exhibition Pushes Artistic Boundaries

Exhibition piece contributed by Alyssa A. GoodmanExhibition piece contributed by Alyssa A. Goodman
By Colleen Walsh

It’s an eclectic exhibition.

An interstellar image hangs next to videos of tiny ocean organisms swimming through their own vast universe. Close by, a slab of black shale stands out atop a white stand. Language doubles as visual art in a series of photos with bits of graffiti from the occupied West Bank and Jaffa, Israel.

The Art of Discovery, which ran this fall in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery at Radcliffe, showcased work by 13 current fellows, including scientists, a mathematician, an anthropologist, and an urban planner.

The show “exemplifies the core Radcliffe principle of commitment to the arts as a method of inquiry integrated with other forms of study,” said Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen, delivering brief remarks during the exhibition’s opening reception.

That integration was well under way at the crowded afternoon event. An astronomer discussed her work with a visual artist, and a wordsmith carefully surveyed the gallery that included a video about a housing project in New York as well as her own “acrostic elegies.” Nearby, a historian with a passion for science explained to onlookers how hydraulic fracturing releases the gas contained within shale like the small sedimentary slab she’d found along a highway in Arkansas and included in the show.

“By bringing a piece of Fayetteville shale into an art gallery, I wanted to emphasize the beauty and wonder that are part of the technologically complex, economically vital, and scientifically complicated questions of how we produce our energy,” said Conevery Bolton Valencius, the 2016–2017 Katherine Hampson Bessell Fellow at Radcliffe and a history professor at Boston College. During her fellowship, she is working on a book about the link between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes.

The biologist Chris Bowler, the 2016–2017 Grass Fellow at Radcliffe, added to the show the mesmerizing Plankton Chronicles, which attracted a steady stream of viewers. The video, created by Christian Sardet, Bowler’s colleague at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Lyon, aims to expand the understanding of plankton beyond simply “food for the whales,” according to Bowler, and encourages viewers to “appreciate their beauty and their importance for keeping our planet habitable.” Bowler will use his time at Radcliffe to study the potential effects of climate change on plankton.

The visual artist Tania Bruguera, the 2016–2017 Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at Radcliffe, whose Manifesto on Artists’ Rights is based on a talk she delivered at the United Nations office in Geneva in 2012, called being part of an exhibit that blends works by artists and nonartists “fantastic.”

“It actually proves that there is an easy overlap between all our practices,” said Bruguera, who is devoting her fellowship to further work on the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt, an art institute in Havana and an online platform that promotes civic literacy in Cuba. The opening lines of Bruguera’s Manifesto highlight her point.

“Art is not a luxury,” it reads. “Art is a basic social need to which everyone has a right. Art is a way of building thought, of being aware of oneself and others at the same time.”

The reception attracted a Harvard newcomer with a deep interest in interdisciplinary collaborations and merging art with science and other fields of inquiry. Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, encouraged the fellows to stop by the museums and, in particular, to explore the Art Study Center, where visitors may request works for upclose inspection.

The Harvard Art Museums are “a resource for you if you are looking for some kind of visual inspiration that might spark a conversation,” Tedeschi said.

Exhibition pieces contributed by: 2. Conevery Bolton Valencius; 3. Adam Tanaka; 4. Tania Bruguera; 5. Alexei Borodin.Exhibition pieces contributed by: 2. Conevery Bolton Valencius; 3. Adam Tanaka; 4. Tania Bruguera; 5. Alexei Borodin.

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Gazette and has been edited for Radcliffe Magazine.

Photos by Jonathan Kozowyk


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