October 29, 2015
On my bookshelf is a dog-eared and ragged copy of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, the “revised pocket edition” from Yale University Press. I picked up this small paperback at a second-hand store in Boston in 1986. It came with a tiny packet of colored paper chips and a few loose leaves for comparing colors. I’ve always loved this little treasure.
The original version was published in 1963 as a glorious set of one hundred fifty silk-screens, with die-cut overlaid pages and accompanying text, all within a slipcase. Yale describes it as “a masterwork in art education.” It’s been in print ever since, and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013 with a beautiful, clothbound, two-volume edition.
Put yellow on top of yellow on top of yellow, and the effect is a little dizzying.
Albers’ theories about color—the culmination of a life of experimentation, expressed through Interaction of Color as well as his signature series of paintings and prints, Homage to the Square—revolve around contextualized experience. We experience a particular hue of yellow, for instance, because of the gray background that surrounds it. Move that same yellow onto a green field, and our perception of the hue will change dramatically. Put yellow on top of yellow on top of yellow, and the effect is a little dizzying and immediately defies yellow as a simple category.
A few years ago, I pulled my yellowing paperback of Interaction of Color off the shelf and thumbed through it once again. For the first time, I realized the greater impact of Albers’s work. His ideas about context offer insight into my inability to perceive the everyday. When I look at pristine landscapes––the sea, the redwoods, grassy fields––familiarity somehow makes them disappear. Their hues always seem the same. I look up and see “sky” from day to day, but it is, of course, never the same sky. Could I use Albers’s methods to force a fresh perspective? Would I be able to see that the sky looks the way it does because of its context? And by using his tools for perceiving color, would I see “sky” change, in the same way that I see Albers’ little squares of yellow change?
While a resident at the stunningly beautiful Montalvo Arts Center, over many stiflingly hot days, I took out my video camera and aimed it straight up. I shot foggy dawns, cloudless and mercilessly hot afternoons, and moody evenings. When the residency ended, I drove up the northern California coast and pointed my camera at the ocean, trees, grassy fields, tide pools. Back in my studio, I began to layer the videos. I put sky on top of sky on top of sky, the same way Albers had put yellow on yellow on yellow. I did likewise with the ocean, trees, grasses, and seaweed, building up five composite videos with the formal structure of Homage to the Square.
Anyone who edits video will understand the sort of familiarity that grows from looking at minuscule bits of footage over and over again, until one becomes attached to odd little nuances that viewers might never notice. I began to anticipate a scuttling cloud or a pelican cutting across the frame. Then, after hundreds of hours in front of my stacks of landscapes, I realized that what I was seeing––what was consistent across all five terrains as a ubiquitous presence––was wind. In a sense, Albers’ structure had worked. It allowed me to see the sky in context. That is, I began to understand that the color and texture, the hue and saturation of the sky—or of the ocean swell, the arching trees, the rippling seaweed—are constructed largely by the presence, or absence, of the otherwise invisible wind.
My friend Lucia Jacobs is an animal psychologist studying brain evolution and spatial mapping, among other fascinating things, and has received a National Science Foundation grant to study olfaction. She sees the brain’s olfaction as a mapping tool. She wrote in a recent email:
Everyone thinks the nose tells you only what or who you are smelling, I’m saying it also tells you where you are in a landscape of slowly drifting odors, that you are unconsciously coding all the time, to keep a crude map of where you are (and tagging all the places with emotions, by associating each odor with an emotion). So it’s a kind of olfactory GPS, as one reporter said. Your dogs may be spatially oriented in the kitchen but could be missing the details—“new food on floor!”—because the wind isn’t moving in the right direction (or at all). Try an experiment—add a fan and drop [kibble] in front/behind the fan and see what they do! Really, I’d be very curious to know!
The wind is responsible for us understanding where we are.
Lucia says that the wind is responsible for us understanding where we are, for helping us to navigate the world. If some animals have echolocation, then many animals (including us) might also have olfactolocation. Maybe that’s why exceptionally quiet moments—late at night under the stars, or a hot and still afternoon—are so strange. In those moments, we experience an uncertainty of place. Without wind, we are lost.
In my videos, I was seeing that the wind was creating all of these textures and colors and movements that defined what I was looking at and gave me specific information about local conditions––a visual understanding, and appreciation, of my environment. Without wind, we would experience another type of loss: a visual impoverishment that would condemn the ever-changing beauty of our world to an insufferable banality.
Shortly after making Homage to the Wind, I embarked on a new body of work called The Hexapodarium. This project spun out of finding hundreds of dead flies in my studio one summer. Suddenly struck by the persistence of the species over millions of years, I couldn’t throw them out. So I began to photograph my dead flies. Their tiny bodies crumbled at my touch, like the fine crust that can form over sand at the beach, but the wings remained intact. The wings became the sole focus of the project, eventually morphing from pieces of tiny dessicated cadavers into unexpectedly beautiful flowers that recalled herbariums of the seventeenth century.
The writer DeWitt Cheng recently sent me some questions about The Hexapodarium, and published them in an informal interview on Facebook. Until then, I was dimly aware but hadn’t put into words that wind was the key to a fly’s raison d’être. The fly’s wings were a pure adaptation to wind, bound in an essential relationship. The wind had, over millennia, whipped these diaphanous yet tenacious blades into being. Here is the heart of our exchange, reproduced courtesy of DeWitt Cheng:
DeWitt Cheng: Hexapodarium designates a collection of six-footed creatures (or plants), and most of your prints depict one bloom, centered on a white ground, like a scientific specimen. Two panoramic pieces, Winter and Fall, however, are landscape panoramas akin to the paintings of prehistoric life we’ve all seen in museums. Rudolph Zallinger’s classic 1947 depiction, The Age of Reptiles [at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History], comes to mind. Of course the stylization of the blooms, with each presented facing the viewer, has a visionary, otherworldly feel, too: This is thus a museum display of a new life form, 240 million years hence. Any thoughts on how humans will look by then, if we’re still around?
Gail Wight: This is really the crux of this project for me. I visited Zallinger’s murals all through my childhood, and the Peabody became a favorite place to hang out and draw in high school. I’m so happy that you would make that connection. The trajectory of my work has taken me from a fixation with neurology, mental illness, and medicine to the animal state of mind, and the vast world of animals brought me to pondering evolution and deep time. What struck me first, in gathering up these flies, is that they’ve been around for more than 200 million years. That’s one of those fabulous numbers that’s utterly incomprehensible to me. But if the Anthropocene is ground zero, your 240-million-year projection is the flip side of their time here, so far. Houseflies evolved during the age of mammals, about 65 million years ago, but that’s still a pretty impressive history.
What will humans look like? I’m pretty sure we won’t be around. We’re in the process of eliminating the largest of mammals, our closest kin, and thousands of other species of reptiles, amphibians, plants—you name it. Sadly, I believe that our legacy is the sixth extinction—this massive culling of the gene pool—and it will impact our own sorry survival. Flies, however, seem outside the range of our current bloody massacre and adapted for the long haul. I think they’ll be around…if anything will be around.
Anyhow, in thinking about what flies might look like in the far future, I kept thinking about the concept of convergence in biology, in which unrelated plants and animals tend to develop superficial physical similarities over time. I’ve always loved this idea, since it offers such a visually playful smorgasbord of evolutionary forms. Think of sea urchins and porcupines and hedgehog mushrooms.
DC: Discuss your process a little. Presumably you removed the wings of dead flies with tweezers and then photographed them at great magnification. Did you know from the start that you would be able to create such stunning images? I can’t help but think of Leonardo, alone at night, dissecting corpses—quite illegally—for the pleasure of gaining knowledge. Any unusual problems in creating this unusual body of work?
GW: I was traveling a lot one summer. I moved my electronics equipment out of my Stanford studio for the season and covered everything I left behind with sheets. When I came back, a wall of stench hit me as I opened the door. I went looking for the source, and found a dead wood rat that had decomposed to a pile of bones in the middle of a dark, slightly furry puddle. As I looked around, I saw that huge cobwebs were hanging everywhere, and all of the sheets were covered with dead flies. I didn’t see a single living spider or fly, though. A whole ecosystem had come and gone in my absence.
I swept up all the flies and nearly filled a large dustpan. I was just tipping them into the trash when my wrist reflexively pulled back. The hesitation was just enough to make me think: 200 million years, and they’re just trash! I put them in a mason jar instead. Eventually, I thought I’d look at them under a microscope, but they were super dry and their bodies just disintegrated. The wings, however, stayed intact. They must be incredibly resilient to do the job they do, flying all day long in sun and wind.
So there it is again, the wind at my back.
I photographed the wings under a microscope, which gave me huge files to play with. I printed the images—four feet long, on paper and fabric—and played with hanging them. Then I printed them tiny and tried making little motorized sculptures. And then, almost accidentally, I spun a wing in Photoshop, the way you’d spin the arms on a clock. I was completely perplexed by the result. It looked so botanical and had all these characteristics of a flower that weren’t at all apparent in the original wing. I tried it with another wing, and it came out utterly different but still looked like a flower. And then I went crazy. The variation in the radial flowers seemed to mimic real plants—sunflowers, dahlias, asters—and I just couldn’t stop. That eventually led to more complex hybrids, versions of unusual plants like the fritillary, lotus, and jack-in-the-pulpit. Thinking about convergence really helped to tease out the possibilities. How might a fly develop superficial similarities to a hyacinth, or pine cones?
In the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that I ended up with this project because the wings were all that survived. And in both the short and the very long term, I had the wind to thank for this. So there it is again, the wind at my back. It shapes the colors that I see, the textures of my world, an understanding of where I am in space, and the very subject matter for my work.
There’s a wonderful engraving from 1853, of a New Year’s Eve banquet attended by some of the most prominent evolutionary theorists of the day. It took place in the vast studio of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who was sculpting the giant bronze lizards that would inhabit London’s Dinosaur Court. Hawkins was midway through constructing a massive iguanodon, and the dinner was held in the beast’s open belly. The iguanodon was large enough to hold more than a dozen men, an attendant wait staff, and a sumptuous table.
Apparent in the engraving is a triumphal spirit, with the revelers seated beneath a chandelier, champagne glasses on a tray, and the walls draped with banners displaying the names of the era’s great dinosaur hunters: Buckland, Cuvier, and Owen. One can imagine that the omnipotence of man is the reason for the festivities: Dinosaurs: 0, Humans: 1. Despite the fact that the diners in the cavernous belly look devoured, they clearly have outlived those lumbering beasts.
They took to the air, like flies, and they survived.
Nearly two centuries later, however, we have a new perspective. It seems that before they ever expired, the dinosaurs developed feathers, wings. They took to the air, like flies, and they survived. Outside Hawkins’s celebratory banquet, London’s beloved pigeons were undoubtedly having their own victory dance, having the last laugh. I imagine them pecking the grounds outside Hawkins’s studio, squawking over the din from within. I imagine them today, perched on the statues of Dinosaur Court, creating a murky patina on the iguanodon and his fellow beasts. And I imagine them long after we are gone, when our cities are a dingy layer of the Earth’s crust, no thicker than a pencil. The winds of time will carry them into the future that Cheng imagined, aloft on a soft updraft, a shore breeze, into the ever-changing sky.