A fungus floats on a flat black background. Below it are a ball and an infinite loop of yarn. How are they connected?
They are connected, as it turns out, by scientific inquiry and collection of natural specimens — the main idea behind “Ark/\Hive,” an exhibition at the Institute Library on Chapel Street curated by Martha Willette Lewis.
“Ark/\Hive” features the work of 17 artists who use their art to explore the ways in which we collect, contain, and document nature — for better and for worse. The exhibition runs through May 18, and celebrates with an opening reception Thursday night at 6 p.m.
As curator, Lewis was drawn to artists who questioned the “suspicious nature,” as she slyly put it, of our desire to collect things, whether it’s animals in zoos, dead animals in museums, or knowledge in libraries. Collecting and organizing things is, of course, integral to the scientific process and the accumulation of knowledge. It’s also a method of control.
“We have a really weird attitude toward nature,” Lewis said. “In magical traditions, if you want to control something, you name it.” The idea is embedded in the world’s major religions, as Adam names the animals. Today, “everything is so cultivated — we don’t have a lot of nature left,” Lewis said. “We’ve worked hard to put ourselves out of harm’s way.”
For Lewis, this meant that “collection isn’t a neutral activity.” It can further our understanding of nature and our place in it. It can also give us a false sense of security, of attempted “domination over nature by man.” There’s tension in that idea. How do we work through it?
In some cases, not well. Photographs from Jeremiah Dine’s 1983 book Natural Selection drive home the point with uncomfortable images of the taxidermy specimens of animals from around the world at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Through Dine’s lens, they become images of quiet horror, conjuring all the questions we don’t like to ask ourselves about the ethics of it all, or of keeping animals in zoos. It gets dicey fast. Likewise, Helen Cantrell’s piece, in which panicked animals move in a frenzy across a landscape of scraped lines, conveys her response to a visit to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which has animals from around the world on stuffed display. As Lewis said, the last great auk was killed because someone wanted it for his collection.
This line of thinking reaches a playfully sinister apex in Alexis Brown’s “A Matter of Time,” a coloring book full of extinct and endangered animals, of which Brown produced several copies. Here the impulse to collect, to pin down, to categorize is cast in a childish light. Why do we feel that impulse?
And meanwhile, the crayons Brown has made to use for the coloring books — shaped like people — are a reminder that maybe in the process of depleting the environment in the name of collecting and preserving it, we damage ourselves, too.
But “Ark/\Hive” isn’t anti-science. Lewis herself is currently the artist-in-residence at the Yale Quantum Institute, and put “Ark/\Hive” together with help from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Lewis was quick to point out that the station’s own collection work is an example of how to do it right.
The agriculture station’s long history of collection — some of the physical artifacts of that collection are on display in the exhibit — means that the station has been able to monitor changes in our local environment, with effects on everything from fostering better cultivation practices to helping curb disease by keeping up with changes in the deer tick population. The collection also, of course, draws attention to the obvious aesthetic beauty of nature itself.
And next to the pieces that shine a light on the scientific sins of the past, there are those that draw attention to the present, and point toward the future. Stephen Grossman’s ink-and-brush paintings capture the life cycle of an amaryllis. Grossman created the images by letting an amaryllis in his house cast its sun shadow on the wall, where he fixed a piece of paper and got painting. The shimmering shapes suggest a shadow in motion, and highlight how fast the flower lives and dies. “They’ve been cultivated for centuries,” Grossman pointed out, and yet the flowers suggest something much more primal. “It’s incredibly sexual,” he said. “This penis rises up out of the pot, and then it bursts into this multitude of vaginas.” Is it OK to keep such a flower in captivity? And on the other hand, at this point in their cultivation, could certain varieties of them survive any other way?
Two artists use glass to explore the idea of fragility in collecting natural specimens. Adam Waimon’s larger-than-life re-creations of seeds from maples and oaks let the viewer appreciate both the stunning architecture in the seeds themselves and the artist’s ability to match it in another medium.
Judi Harvest, meanwhile, created glass-blown scuptures inspired by the Global Seed Vault in Norway, the security of which is now threatened by climate change as the permafrost around it melts. The artist also keeps a bee garden, and Lewis explained that the artist “sees bees and glass-blowing as on the road to extinction.” In her pieces, both the subjects and the methods used to create them are under threat.
And Lys Guillorn’s “Tinctoria Study #1: Magenta from Punctilia rudecta” (see the top of this article), demonstrates how scientific knowledge, responsible collection, and artistic practice can all work together.
“‘Tinctoria’ is my love song to dye and the hidden potential of plants and fungi,” Guillorn wrote about her piece. “During research into natural dyes in 2017, a few interested me more than others, in particular magenta dye from certain types of lichen, blue from indigo, as well as a rainbow of colors available from mushrooms.” Guillorn’s art led her to follow a path learning not only how to extract the color from the lichen, but how to collect it sustainably. Lichen is so slow to grow that overharvesting could wipe it out easily. “Contemporary dye researchers,” Guillorn said, “have developed a dyer’s code of ethics involving salvage botany (using only lichen that has already detached from its substrate or is on firewood), leaving lichen alone where it is growing happily, as well as adjusting dye formulas to use less lichen.”
Guillorn learned to identify lichens that she could extract pigments from, and learned how to get the dye she wanted. “I ‘fermented’ a handful of it in a 1:3 solution of household ammonia and water in a mason jar for three months, periodically shaking it and exposing it to air. It went from a thin, muddy brown to blood red in about a week. When it became a deep, viscous purple the color of grape juice, it was ready to be used.”
She then used the dye to color wool that she had spun into skeins. And she continued experimenting and learning. “My primary goal was to grow plants from the few seeds I obtained, and to save more seeds for 2018.” The plants she grew weren’t Connecticut natives, “but will tolerate our climate for the warm growing season, and they are not invasive.” She dried her plants and dyed “a few small silk scarves.”
The more she learned about how to collect, cultivate, and process natural dyes to produce her art, the more she learned about nature, and how to reach a kind of balance, and joy. “My online and library explorations of dye techniques led me to the Mushroom and Lichen Dyers United group on Facebook,” she wrote. She took a class and “was introduced to a world of color available using regional dye mushrooms.” Using mushrooms, she learned, was more sustainable than using lichens, and “mushroom foraging also adds an element of near-instant gratification to the much slower pursuit of dye gardening.”
A musician as well as a visual artist, Guillorn did the “Björk-like move,” as Lewis put it, of writing a song to accompany her exhibit. For now, you can only hear it by going to the show itself, where it’s available through headphones mounted to the wall. The first line: “To live is to dye.”
For Lewis, the idea circles all the way back to the magic and religion at the beginning of humankind’s defining itself in relation to nature, and the ongoing conversation about whether the relationship now is adversarial or adaptive, combating or conciliatory. “You are responsible for making whatever scenario you want,” she said. In the heady collision of artistic, scientific, and religious ideas, “Ark/\Hive” suggests that we could turn the planet into a hell for ourselves, or maybe create another Garden of Eden. It’s up to us.
“Ark/\Hive” runs through May 18 on the third floor of the Institute Library, 847 Chapel St. Click here for hours and more information. The opening reception for the exhibit is tonight, from 6 to 8 p.m.