Visual Arts

Silkworms and Science

In the bumpy 1960s, a number of irascible artists reached the neo-Dada conclusion that an "installation" could be something other than a military depot with radar, missiles and rusting weapons from earlier wars. It could be a room filled with unlikely materials and even more unlikely experiences in the arts.

What mattered more than the whirring gizmos, auras of light, heaps of refuse, or scraps of cloth that artists assembled and arranged--or not, as was often the case--under the guise of installation art was their exuberant gesture against the status quo.

Their loud aim was to undermine the conventions for making and exhibiting art and, ultimately, to unseat collectible objects as the primary sources of visual art.

The two flawed installations under the heading "Double Vision" at Galeria Mesa are hardly in this spirit of anarchy. If anything, their mundane, institutional character indicates just how far into the bowels of cultural acceptance the concept of art installations has moved over the years. What had been a guerrilla assault on artistic standards has become just another way of getting some fairly ho-hum messages across.

The messages in these works created by Tucsonan Gail Hewlett and the local team of Laurel Hunter and Paul Stout are strikingly literal and contain what graduate seminars might characterize as scientific themes.

Hewlett's "The Elements" draws heavily from her observations as a former biochemist of the differences between artistic and scientific interpretations of the world. The largest feature in her scene is a game-show-like puzzle of 49 15-inch squares--seven rows of seven--hanging from the ceiling. The gray-scale tone of the assemblage shifts black to white from top to bottom on one side, then reverses white to black on the other. Skeins of color squiggle throughout, and a good deal of verbiage and written symbols have been thrown in to further complicate the mix. Eleven of the squares contain spindles that pose images of pensive people with chemical symbols and their atomic weight from the periodic table of elements.

Hewlett plays out this contrast between the nature of man and the nature of science in four smaller side panels. They contain more vague pictures of people, scientific symbols and equations, and quotes from Aristotle's ruminations On the Heavens, which offer the ancient view that the world was composed of fire, water, earth and air.

Hewlett obviously put a good deal of thought into this piece. Talking to her, one gets the feeling that "The Elements" is the tip of a larger mass of ideas about the differences between the language of science and that of art.

"We are programmed to believe that science is just objective and analytical," she says, "that there is no emotion concerned with it, and that art touches every heart, pushes every button, grabs at every gut. Yet there are times in scientific work when your heart just leaps, when you know something works."

Hewlett's convinced that the experience of elegance and beauty associated with this well-known "Eureka!" belongs as much to science as it does to art; that the periodic table is an ideal expression of this; and that her installation is something of an ode to the contrast between the elegant order of the table and the evident disorder of human affairs.

Nice thoughts all. But the term-paper efficiency of the installation is numbing. Not because the piece is what Hewlett characterizes as a "think piece"--what artist doesn't do think pieces?--but because there's little here but a smattering of messages: scientific order versus human chaos, the unpredictability of human relations and probably several more.

There are no visual conundrums, no spatial, atmospheric or material intrigues, nothing to engage the eye--and then the mind.

The problem is not just Hewlett's. Too few installation artists have, for example, James Turrell's knack for commanding the space and materials of their installations. Too many suffer from the academic notion that tidy ideas or messages mean more to visual art and meaning than vital experiences do.

Laurel Hunter, a graduate printmaking student at ASU, and Paul Stout, who recently completed his undergraduate studies there in sculpture, suffer a bit from the same affliction. But the larger problem with their "Spinnerette" is that their silkworms died.

"Even though Paul's more of a butterfly/insect man," says Hunter, "he actually had been thinking about doing something with silkworms. I knew whatever we did would have to say something about moths. I guess you could say I'm sort of obsessed with them right now."

"Our plan was to raise a small colony of silkworms," says Stout, "and have them spinning their cocoons in these small habitats in the gallery."

The natural silk produced by domesticated worms was intended to pose an interesting contrast to the manmade silk that Stout's spinning machine issues from pucks of hot melt tool wrap--the plastic goop you find on the tips of new router bits and other tool blades.

Sometime in July, the pair ordered 38 bucks' worth of silkworm eggs--about 100--from Carolina Biological Supply and tried to make them as comfortable as silkworms could be in a swamp-cooled studio in Arizona.

"But I think the heat got to them," says Stout. "The humidity was about 50 to 60 percent. The temperature was about 86 degrees, but it went above 86 a couple of days. And that might have done it."

"Only three of them hatched," recalls Hunter. "They lived for a little while, but they just didn't make it. It was depressing, really."

"So we scrapped the idea of presenting live habitats," adds Stout, "and had to go with exhibits showing preserved specimens."

Now the six specimens, spanning the various stages of silkworm development, hang in the gallery in wooden frames right about where the live worms would have been busy with the mulberry leaves and cocoons in Plexiglas habitats.

The walls behind and adjacent to this memorial to domestication and the spinning machine are filled with splotchy green stencils depicting cocoons, moths, worms, mulberry leaves and other silkwormy icons behind an obsessive grid of black thread attached to laboratory insect pins.

One could easily begin to discuss the various "ideas" behind the work--the worn complaint and implications about industry/man's control of nature, etc., etc. But with the meaning stuck--as that of Hewlett's installation is--on a fairly uninteresting message, the real lesson seems to be, as Hunter put it, "Start your silkworms in the winter."

"Double Vision" continues through Saturday, October 5, at Galeria Mesa in Mesa Arts Center, 155 North Center. For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow