Since 1996, the San Francisco Center for the Book has been teaching bookmaking and related skills and showing work that expands the boundaries of the book arts. The current exhibit, "Restless Dust," by Gail Wight is no exception. The source of the book title is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
“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.”
It was Wight's idea to issue an invitation to Darwin's ghost to wander around the greater Bay Area and the metaphysical colloquium between them led to this elegant and poetic dialogue between art and science. In looking at the ways in which Darwin's legacy has impacted our culture, she examines the fragile and endangered state of our environment.
Gail Wight, Cabinet of Curiosities -2001Touch any image on the top of the cabinet and it will lead you to another series of images (some with sound) to a time-based meditation on the nature of evolutionary science.
In an e-mail exchange with Ms. Wight, I asked her "what actually led you down this artistic path in the first place? You've been working in the intersection of art and science for quite some time. Was there an "ah-ha" moment or was it slower, more organic (as it were)? How did you come to link Mary Wollstonecraft and Darwin? Or was it "just" an artistic leap? I was also looking at your CV - do you think of yourself as an artist who uses scientific images or a scientist who uses art to convey ideas? Or is that misframing the question?"
This is her response, "A good two decades ago, while an undergrad at Mass Art in Boston, I was going through some medical difficulties. The entire world of medicine - its history, altruism, and vagaries - just overwhelmed me. My fantastic professors gave me "permission" to think of medicine and science as subject matter for art, not so popular an idea back then. I am, happily, still stuck in this rut. It's an deep and cavernous rut filled with seemingly endless inspiration for art."
"I'm absolutely an artist, not a scientist in any way. I do rely on the generosity of scientists. I like to think that while I'm using scientific imagery, I'm also tapping into scientific methods, practices, habits, abnormalities, culture, tools, and a certain way of viewing the world, in order to construct artistic allegories that might have some relevance for people."
"Wollstonecraft and Darwin... They're both on my personal list of favorite "great thinkers." I think they were both trying to think outside of the rigid constraints of their times, and expand our understanding of our own humanity. That quote by MW just breaks my heart. Darwin was so determined to do so much, discover so much in the little things of life. Barnacles were his favorite, but he studied SO many aspects of the living and geological world. When I started to think about him as a person, rather than just a figurehead, Wollstonecraft's quote came to mind."
In addition to the completed limited-edition book and documentation of Wight's residency, the exhibition includes earlier referential work such as The Cabinet Of Curiosities, Ghost and Ground Plane, among others. In the glass case lining one part of the exhibition space, the Center is displaying some of the paraphernalia that went into the making of the book - steel letterpress alphabet shapes, lino cuts, hand made stamps, tags with fragments of 19th century copper plate writing, pages open to show some of the quirky and poetical texts in the book.
The snowflake mandalas (Ground Plane, 2007-08), on the wall are actually digital prints, with individual images from hundreds of exact scale photos of squirrel, marmot, snake, frog and other animal bones. Taken from the Hadley Lab Collection, each mammal was between one to ten thousand years old. Wight states: “These images became a way for me to think about deep time and the Earth's crust as a crowded record of that time, a conduit of information about the past, and the space upon which we draw our present lives.”
The end wall of the exhibit has the following quote from from Stephen Jay Gould:
"The most important scientific revolutions all include as their only common feature the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another and previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos." By combining 19th century scientific images with 21st century technology, Ms. Wight's work is playful, poetic, elegant and insightful. This is art that is made with the intent of making us think more deeply about our place in the world and our imprint upon it without being pompous or, worse yet, boring and trendily obscure for the sake of being obscure.
Michael Bartalos is a board member for the SF Center for the Book and provided the photos for this article.
Blog of her work in progress: http://bartalos.com/2009/07/31/gail-wights-sfcb-residency-in-progress/
Gail Wight's website: http://www.stanford.edu/~gailw/
Restless Dust - A ghost walk with Darwin, up until April 17th, 2010
SF Center for the Book
300 De Haro St. Ste. 334
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery Hours: Sat 12-4; M-F 10-5.