I had the pleasure of hearing artist Gail Wight speak at a symposium organized by the Wichita Art Museum and the Ulrich Museum of Art in conjunction with two recent art-science exhibitions, Nature’s Toolbox: Biodiversity, Art and Invention at the Ulrich, and Vital Signs: New Media Art from the San Jose Museum of Art at WAM. Wight is an associate professor of art at Stanford University whose work critiques the practice of science in imaginative and sometimes humorous ways. On of my favorite pieces that she discussed was Rodentia Chamber Music, a set of five musical instruments (piano, carillon, drum, harp, and cello) built partially of plexiglas with hollow interiors. Several mice inhabit these interiors, where they “play” the instruments by tripping various switches and sensors. The idea is to work with the mice as collaborators, rather than as objects or specimens.
Wight’s work appeals to me not only because of its humor, but also because of the depth of her engagement with the ideas of science as well as the forms of science. Despite her inclusion in the new media exhibition at WAM, I do not see technology as a central concern of her work. While it frequently involves technology, the technology is not the focus of the work: there is meaning beyond creating objects that look cool or do tricks. As a review of Wight’s work in the journal Nature notes, Wight employs art to understand science from the perspective of an “outsider” who nonetheless inhabits a world largely constructed by science.
“She [Wight] is an ‘artist of science’ in the same way that there are historians and sociologists of science. Wight explores the habits and history of science by using its materials as her materials, and producing art that serves both as work open to interpretation and as a pointed appraisal of scientific analysis.”
To see more of Wight’s work, visit her online portfolio.
Unfortunately, both of the exhibitions in Wichita have closed, but you can find more information and the exhibition catalog for Nature’s Toolbox at Art Works for Change.