Gail Wight, artist of science

NATURE|Vol 462|3 December 2009

By Marc Weidenbaum

Gail Wight, artist of science

Restless Dust

by Gail Wight Imprint of the San Francisco Center for the Book:
2009. 36 pp. $280

Gail Wight explores the habits and history of scientific practice in this installation of pinned butterflies.

The artist Gail Wight has examined X-rays with neuroscientists, pored over skeletal remains alongside archaeologists and thawed insects with animal behaviourists.

Wight, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University in California, likens her role in these short-term apprenticeships to that of a “lurker”. The term is characteristic of her approach, in that it simultaneously diminishes her stature and emphasizes the tension inherent in the relationship. Some of these professional associations are internship-like shadowing sessions; others develop into something akin to collaboration. Each has led Wight to produce unique works of art that, over 20 years or so, have spanned media from photography and sculpture to film and performance art.

Among Wight’s videos are colourful grids of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum, its growth visible using accelerated footage. Her Ground Plane large-format prints, depicting fossilized materials collected by Elizabeth Hadly’s lab at Stanford University, include what might be termed ‘mandible mandalas’. The massive, snowflake-like patterns are hand-constructed from photos of tiny fragments of animal bones, some of which are more than 10,000 years old.

Wight’s sculptures include large-scale Plexiglas musical instruments that are ‘played’ by the mice captured inside them. If the captive mice bring to mind those that are probed and dissected in laboratories, the parallel isn’t misguided. “I’m really interested in a critique of science, and one that scientists would appreciate,” says Wight. “Scientists are the best [placed] to understand what’s wrong with their field. I’ve been pretty delightfully surprised to find that they really love the critique aspect.”

Another piece in which she aligns herself with the specimens of science, rather than with scientists, is one of her early performance works from 1992, School of Evolution. Its form took that of a day-long eminar, during which her audience was a fountain full of fish; she encouraged them to get on with evolution and thus escape their aquatic confines.

Humor is never far from Wight’s artistic toolbox; nor, of late, has been the topic of evolution, through another collaboration — not with a living scientist but the ghost of one. For Restless Dust, an artist’s book she completed this autumn during a residency in California at the San Francisco Center for the Book, Wight imagined taking Charles Darwin on a tour of the San Francisco Bay area to record his impressions. A visit to a genetics lab makes him think about inbreeding — something that Darwin, who married his cousin, feared may have precipitated the premature deaths of three of their children.

Wight’s book marks the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the result is a leather-bound, letterpress-printed journal not unlike the one in which Darwin made the notes that eventually became The Voyage of the Beagle. These journals, which Wight produced in an edition of 50, are housed in small pine boxes — “little coffins”, she jokes — that also contain life-sized, rice-paper models of a pair of mockingbirds, modelled on Darwin’s own research material. The body cavity of each bird pulses with the dim light of a small, battery powered bulb. The ghost may be Darwin’s, but his specimens are memorialized too.

One of Wight’s many scientist-collaborators is the animal behaviourist Lucia Jacobs at the University of California, Berkeley, who praises the depth of Wight’s engagement: “There’s a lot of ‘pretty’ art about science, and there’s a lot of art that involves technology,” says Jacobs, “but that’s not the same thing. Science is a way of pursuing truth, and Gail really loves that about science — but she’s also kind of calling us on it, and in spectacular ways.”

Jacobs likens Wight’s research to playwright Tom Stoppard’s use of maths in Arcadia, and mentions several artists-turned-scientists, such as Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose efforts in founding the field of neuroscience succeeded his early career as a painter. “You could say she is a scientist about science,” remarks Jacobs. “Her subject is science, and she’s experimenting with it, using art, to understand the truth of it.” Wight, however, would never apply the term scientist to herself. “Science is not my forte, it’s not my world,” she says. “But I live in the world largely constructed by science, so I want to understand it better.”

She 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. Consider her piece J’ai des papillons noirs tous les jours (2006), a series of colourful, handmade butterflies, each affixed to the back of its own narrow box by 100 pins (pictured) — the overkill begs the question: how many pins is too many? As with the mockingbirds in Restless Dust, the butterflies’ abdomens glow.

For all Wight’s concerns about scientific practice, she has a firm sense of where the art ends and the science begins. Ultimately, she reserves her strongest critique not for scientists, but for her fellow artists, saying: “I have a lot of problems with the contemporary idea that an artist can enter into the world of science and practice science on living creatures without any of the background that should come with that.”

Marc Weidenbaum is a writer based in San Francisco, California. e-mail: