With nearly 400 members and no space to call home, the Washington Sculptors Group has nevertheless regularly managed to find wide exposure for its artists, many of whom are among the region’s finest and deserve to be seen. The group’s recent venues have ranged from such ad hoc spaces as office lobbies and parks to more traditional galleries including Artisphere, the Mansion at Strathmore and the BlackRock Center for the Arts.
The group’s latest exhibition, “Gedankenexperiment,” is a good fit for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which for several years now has devoted a chunk of its lobby — along with a small dedicated gallery space — to science-themed art of both the 2-D and 3-D variety.
Taking its title from the German word for “thought experiment” — a term coined by Albert Einstein to explain the conceptual, rather than empirical, process used to formulate his theory of relativity — the show is held together by a loose, somewhat less than literal, interpretation of the phrase. Chosen by curator and critic Sarah Tanguy, the works by the the show’s 24 artists were inspired by such “hard” science as biochemistry, optics, geology and physics, as well as by such pseudoscientific systems as the I Ching and animal magnetism.
The disparity helps to lighten what might otherwise have been a wonky show, letting in a healthy amount of poetic license in the interpretation of what constitutes “science.”
Alan Binstock’s “Life Code Prototype,” for instance, straddles biochemistry and anatomy, evoking both spinal vertebrae and the helical structure of DNA. The largest work in the show, the steel-and-glass piece has a muscularity tempered by elegance. Similar wit can be seen in Roger Cutler’s “Scale of Archimedes,” which balances a feather and an anvil at opposite ends of a long wooden beam.
Christopher Bathgate’s untitled aluminum-and-steel object seems based more on science fiction than on science fact. Resembling a prop from a futuristic Hollywood movie — is it a tool? a weapon? a vehicle? — the sculpture is a marvel of streamlined design, even if it does nothing other than look fabulous.
Not so Paul Daniel’s contribution to the show. Physically, it’s almost ugly. But it embodies a truly beautiful idea.
Created in collaboration with the conservation and design group Biohabitats, Daniel’s artwork is a prototype for a wind-powered machine that would harness the energy of the breeze — replicated by an electric fan at AAAS — to power a rotating siphon. That in turn would carry water from Baltimore Harbor to a proposed wetland garden on the Chase Pier, a blighted structure in the Fells Point neighborhood. The small model on view at AAAS is a little awkward-looking, but what it does is amazing.
Every physical object in “Gedankenexperiment” started as an idea, or perhaps as a sketch on a pad of paper (or computer screen). Bathgate’s comes with blueprints and schematics, which are artworks in and of themselves. Several pieces are accompanied by long written explanations that illuminate their origins.
The best sculptures need no labels. Jeffery Cooper’s “Mutant” is exhibited next to a statement that reads, “I seek to make sculptures that have associations beyond those of the physical object, but that do not need extensive explanation.” That’s good advice for any artist.
Not every sculpture in “Gedankenexperiment” works without extensive explanation. One or two pieces are unsuccessful, even with their treatises.
By and large, however, the show is an experiment that succeeds more often than it fails.
One work in “Gedankenexperiment” does require a bit of backstory: Elsabé Dixon’s “Black Pod.”
At first titled “Yellow Pod,” the pedestal-mounted artwork resembles a hollow alien seed pod, or a lattice-like oblong abstraction. Its black surface is partly covered with golden filaments, and it was originally intended, by the end of the show, to become slowly encased in a shimmering shroud of yellow silk spun by several silkworms living on it (silkworms are always part of Dixon’s sculptural installations).
The problem? At one stage in the silkworm life cycle, the insect turns into a silkmoth. A somewhat noisy moth.
The domesticated versions of Bombyx mori — the creature’s scientific name — are almost entirely flightless. Nevertheless, they do “twirr,” or vibrate, their wings loudly when people walk by. Not only did this startle a few entemophobic visitors, but the prospect of a colony of creepy-crawlies in the lobby was also just too much to handle for the building’s management. “The show is supposed to provoke thought,” said Ginger Pinholster, director of public programs at AAAS, “but this piece did that in ways we hadn’t anticipated.” The artist says she rejected a proposal to display her installation under glass, noting that her work is meant to be experienced by all of the senses. Her winged collaborators were evicted.
Though “Black Pod” still sits amid a ring of fragrant “frass” (silkworm poop, which is slightly redolent of tobacco), as far as the artist is concerned, the piece, in her words, “no longer exists.”
— Michael O'Sullivan