Beauty, Horror of Science

Stanford Report, December 6, 2006


By Barbara Palmer

Over the course of two decades of injecting a playful irreverence into issues concerning biology, the history of science, and technology, artist Gail Wight has read out loud to fish, executed medical illustrations on black velvet and translated EEGs into music.

For Recursive Mutations, included in Sliding Scale, an exhibit of Wight’s work now on display at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery through Dec. 10, Wight, associate professor of art, collaborated with lab mice by placing maps of their chromosomes printed on edible rice paper into their cages and then framing the chewed and urinated-upon results. For Blow Out, she crushed test tubes and made prints of the patterns created by shards of glass illuminated on a dark background. And for Pinup, she created from silk and rice paper a squadron of oversized, exquisitely colored butterflies, organized in tidy rows as if in a specimen box and accompanied periodically by a buzzing sound like that of a model aircraft in distress and the mechanical fluttering of wings, representing a struggle against the oversized pins that mount the insects to the wall.

Her work, which Wight calls “a personally led exploration,” carries expressions of the horror as well as the beauty of science, she said. “There’s not a judgment call in that,” Wight added. “Science … is for me the best current definition of what life is about, the most comfortable explanation for approaching all my big questions in life. Yet it constantly brings up questions and problems in how the answers come about.”

Her work also is informed by ongoing dialogues with scientists, who themselves voice frustration with their own practices, she said. Her work is meant to suggest that with creativity and imagination, it is possible to find ways of practicing science that “take into account what we have learned about other species and have respect for them,” she said.

Much of what makes the work in Sliding Scale so engaging is that Wight uses a light touch while asking hard questions. A little irreverence is necessary in approaching our ontologies, including in science, Wight said. Although there are “fabulous” rules about the way things should be done, there are an enormous number of ways in which scientific methods fall short, she said. “I would love it if people started to approach the kind of standard pedagogy of scientific exploration with a little more playfulness.”

In organizing Sliding Scale, she focused on work that addresses how scientists think, said Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, a graduate student in art history who is curator of the exhibit. The exhibit was organized in conjunction with “Imaging Environment: Maps, Models and Metaphors,” a conference jointly sponsored by the Humanities Center and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Although Wight’s work plays with how we think about things, “just because Gail is playing, it doesn’t mean she isn’t serious,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “So much of her work for me is about having the enthusiasm and inspiration to see something a little differently and come up with different solutions.”

Wight’s works “challenge our perceptions and remind us that scientific revolutions have most often arisen when someone has come to see the same object in a new way,” the curator wrote in text that introduces the exhibit.

Scientists who visit the gallery respond to Wight’s humor, but also are very engaged with the issues that the artist raises, such as her reminders that mice and insects are living beings or her examination of the ways in which corporate funding drives research agendas, Niedzielski-Eichner said.

A former sculptor who incorporates her fabricating skills into her work, Wight earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Studio for Interrelated Media at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Prompted by the experience of mental illness in a family member, Wight began as an undergraduate to explore her interest in the history of medicine in her work.

Although her lack of a science background sometimes makes her feel like “an imposter, ” the scientific community initially embraced her work with more enthusiasm than did the art world, she said. The Boston art school was surrounded by hospitals and some of the visitors to her early shows were doctors, nurses and researchers, eager to talk with her about how her work resonated with them, Wight said. Since then, her work has appeared at such venues as the Natural History Museum of London and Ars Electronica in Austria, and is currently on exhibit at the Seville Biennial in Seville, Spain.

After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, Wight taught at Mills College. Part of what drew her in 2003 to Stanford, where she teaches classes in emerging media and experimental media art, was the opportunity to work with scientists, she said. At Stanford, Wight is planning artwork based on global warming in collaboration with Elizabeth Hadly, associate professor of biological sciences, and also has created art in response to the work of Londa Schiebinger, professor of the history of science.

A 2006 work appearing in Sliding Scale that addresses the ethics of scientific imaging was supported by the Center for Probing the Nanoscale (CPN). For The Meaning of Miniscule, Wight fabricated an oversized hollow Plexiglas microscope equipped with a dial that scrolls through a database of microscopic and nanoscopic images dating from the 1600s. Audio identifications of the images purposely don’t correspond with the visual display, resulting in a “humorous slippage” between the two, Wight said.

In the realm of microscopy and nanoscopy, the lay public is very dependent on scientists to explain what it is we are looking at, she said. “The piece plays around with our reliance on the scientific narrative and the need for some other intermediary.

“Scientists tend to build a lot of checks and balances into their own practice,” Wight said. “But when the information comes to us, we don’t have the same checks and balances.”