Modern Galileo

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#26 Burke house
center photo by Prakash Patel

Architects Carrie and Kevin Burke designed their home to be a time-telling observatory. Sunlight [shown above center] is corseted through a 24-inch glass eye suspended just beneath a skylight, making the living room double as a sundial.

It turns out that this incredible house – designed to be a functional time-telling instrument as dictated by patterns of light – was built by friends of ours, both architects, living in Charlottesville, VA. Their home, featured in Dwell magazine back in 2009, is a living laboratory, slowly but steadily marking the passage of time. The italicized excerpts are from the talented writer of the article, Shonquis Moreno.

In Galileo’s day, men counted their pulses to tell time. In 2 A.D., Ptolemy, who understood more about the movements of the sun and the earth than most of us do today, designed a tool called the quadrant that, by measuring heaven and earth, brought the infinite scale of the universe into the palm of the hand. 

The house’s primary mechanism for telling time, however, is an oculus embedded in one side of the roof through which a light beam tracks through the observatory. Forming an indoor sundial, it indicates both the hours of the day and the cycles of the season by alighting on crosshairs and lines marked on the floor with auto detailing tape. Later, the Burkes will fill incisions in the floor with powdered metal to make certain dates permanent: solstices and equinoxes; Carrie and daughter Ava’s August birthdays, when the light licks the edge of the banister; and Kevin’s birthday in January, when the beam rests directly beneath the skylight.

The fascinating article goes on to describe how the layout of the house evolved from them synchronizing their daily cycles with the cycles of the sun, identifying where light would and would not fall, and then situating the building to suit their preferences, depending on the function vs the time of day.

Thinking about the disconnect we feel when the natural cycles of life and light are obstructed and obscured randomly – living in busy cities where an abundance of artificial light glares out on unnatural schedules – it’s no wonder we try to seek relief by ‘getting out of town’ and ‘away from it all’ in order to allow our bodies to regain some sense of their natural rhythms.

I’m incredibly inspired by these folks’ efforts to reclaim a connection to the natural cycles that most of us remain largely unaware of and unattuned to. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of connecting deeply to the world around you as often as possible in the course of your daily activities, despite the temptations of ever-expanding technologies which, largely, succeed in merely thwarting our peace of mind.

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The Candle

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The candle

One of my absolute favorite projects that I’ve been working on for the upcoming show is called “The Candle” – an encaustic piece over a photograph, inspired by a meal I had in London last November on my ‘speed dating Europe’ trip. I found myself with 100,000 soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles and a raging case of wanderlust, so I booked my itinerary for a whirlwind 5 day tour of Chicago, London, and Paris. My plan was to sprint through London for just 1 full day, and I’d hoped to include the most spectacular meal I could get my hands on while there. I figured if I planned a lunch instead of dinner I could probably maximize my budget to be able to afford somewhere a bit nicer. So I google’d ‘Most amazing lunch in London’ and up popped Restaurant Story.

My lunch at Restaurant Story was a life altering meal, one of the most amazing culinary experiences I’ve ever had.

OK, I know – ‘food’s food, and even really fantastic food is still just food’ – but for anyone who proudly identifies with ‘lives to eat’ vs ‘eats to live’, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Food is not just food. Throughout the history of mankind, common to all cultures around the world, food is the glue that holds society together. It’s the fabric our social lives get pieced together from, the basis for how we come together when we come together to celebrate, mourn, discuss, debate, commiserate, nourish, or simply to meet our daily needs. It can be utterly simple or incredibly complex, both can be good; truly, both can be amazing… But as I tell my young daughter, the most important lesson in life (after be kind) is You are what you eat, and while when I say that I’m speaking in a more metaphorical sense, its truth begins in the literal sense.

Over the past year I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my incredible meal (seriously, I’ve spent innumerable hours extolling the endless virtues of Restaurant Story), and so it was with overwhelming joy that I happened to catch this closing sentence the other day on PRI, “English chef Tom Sellers told his story to producer Alex Gallafent…” (quickly followed by my silently screamed nooooooooo…!) Whew, thank god for podcasts. Don’t you dare not listen!

As it turns out, Restaurant Story is the brainchild of 26 yr. old wunderkind chef Tom Sellers (acolyte of Thomas Keller at French Laundry & Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, to name two). In reading up on the place, it had mentioned bringing a book to leave for their collection. In my mind’s eye, I imagined a thumb-worn, dusty space with books everywhere. I was surprised to arrive and find the place a study in clean modernity, clever touches of the interesting & peculiar dotted about, but barely a book in sight. An old-fashioned candle was placed on the table upon arrival, before the procession of delectables began arriving. The 6 course lunch that followed (which in truth turned out to be more like 12) was an unbelievable 3 hour succession of the most ingenious culinary feats I’ve ever experienced. Not the least of which was the bread offering. It turns out the meal’s focal point evolved around a sleight of hand of sorts. Midway through the meal, the waiter placed a lovely wooden board with warm bread and a small bowl of relish on it. He explained that the seemingly innocuous candle that had been burning for the past half hour was in fact a candle made from rendered animal fat, meant to dip your bread into.

It’s difficult to describe the peculiar pleasure of being surprised by something that has been sitting right there in front of you, staring you in the face. When an ordinary object all of a sudden appears to transform into the extraordinary. Being able to achieve this using the most humble course in the meal makes it that much more effective.

I could happily go on for hours describing each surprising course; an airy cloud of riced potato floating atop a pool of coal (yes, edible coal oil); whole flash-crisped tiny shrimps; a savory Oreo with smoked eel mousse; grilled onions in gin; wrapped leeks & candied lovage twigs; almond ice cream with dill snow, which tasted like eating Winter itself… Sigh. And the stories, remarkable stories that they only told you if you happened to ask, ‘why are the forks upside down?’ which led to the tale of a cultivated Spanish princess marrying a brutish prince whose boorish table manners – even with the addition of utensils – still necessitated the tines only touch the table in order to mitigate the filth… the fabulous bee insignia on the knives… on & on.

I hope to capture the eternal appeal of an artist transforming the mundane into the sublime.

Bioluminescence

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moon jellyfish

Bioluminescence is simply light produced by a chemical reaction within a living organism. These chemicals (called luciferin and luciferase) react with oxygen, causing light. Primarily it’s a marine phenomena, and is the main source of light in the ocean. (Because it occurs in so many different species, we assume it must serve many functions – like luring prey or mating – but we do know it can serve as both defensive and offensive tactics within the same organism.)

It can also occur on land, namely in fungi and bacteria, but also in fireflies.

It has been speculated that the 16th century Baroque painter Caravaggio used modern darkroom techniques to create his masterpieces more than 200 years before the invention of the camera. He may have prepared his canvases with a luminescent powder of dried fireflies to create a photosensitive surface on which he projected the image to be painted. He would then use white lead, mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity.

Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, painted 1599-1600

This hypothesis, by art teacher Roberta Lapucci who teaches at the Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy, was made in collaboration with research by British artist David Hockney, who wrote in his 2001 book “Secret Knowledge” that many old masters used optical instruments to compose their paintings.

In the spring of 1985, while a sophomore in college, I saw the Caravaggio show at the Met in NYC. It left an indelible impression on me, what with his incredibly effective combination of boldly intense subject matter and dramatic chiaroscuro contrasting light.

I look forward to sharing works of art in the upcoming 5050LIGHT show that are based on bioluminescence and also on artist David Hockney’s work. 

Giardino Dei Tarocchi or ‘Tarot Garden’

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Tarocchi

Last summer, on the suggestion of a friend who had heard we would be travelling through Tuscany, we visited Il Giardino dei Tarocchi or ‘Tarot Garden’ by French sculptor, painter, and film maker, Niki de Saint Phalle. The garden – fantastic, in every sense of the word – was an explosion of mosaic-filled light and wonder. It reminded me of another incredible park we had visited 10 years earlier, Parco Dei Mostri in Bomarzo, Italy – built in the 16th century and, as it turns out, one of the inspirations for this garden.

Some history about the artist: born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Niki de Saint Phalle initially rejects the conservative values of her family which dictated domestic positions for wives and strict rules of conduct. After marrying young and becoming a mother, however, she finds herself living exactly the bourgeois lifestyle she had hoped to avoid. This internal conflict causes her to suffer a nervous breakdown and, as a form of therapy, she is urged to pursue her painting. Further encouraged by the American painter Hugh Weiss, who becomes both friend and mentor, she does continue painting in her self-taught style, subsequently moving to Deià on the island of Mallorca, Spain. There she read the works of Proust, visits Madrid and Barcelona, and becomes deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí’s influence opens many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle, especially regarding the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Saint Phalle is strongly influenced by Gaudi´s Parc Güell in Barcelona, as well as Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, the Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval, and Watts Towers by Simon Rodia. She decides she wants to make a monumental sculpture park, too: the first to be created by a woman. In 1979, she acquires several acres of land in Garavicchio, Tuscany, and sets about creating her garden, which would eventually contain a series of 22 fantastical and monumental mosaic-covered sculptures, each a representation of 22 of the mysteries of the Tarot, in addition to numerous other sculptures.

After nearly 20 years Giardino Dei Tarocchi finally opened in 1998, and 16 years later it remains a remarkable wonder for both the eyes and the spirit.

droplets, drips, waves, & streams

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PHouk plates

After 13 years away, I recently had the good fortune to be back in Boston, and was able to spend time with one of my 5050LIGHT collaborators Peter Houk – a fantastically creative glass artist – who also happens to run the MIT Glass Lab. I became a fan of Peter’s work back in the late 80’s while volunteering at The Society of Art & Crafts in Boston and commissioned him to make a set of etched glass plates (who doesn’t love geckos?). A few years later, we collaborated on a grouping of vases with etched copper tubing lengths which became the necks which he blew the glass through. We discussed plans for our upcoming collaboration which, hopefully, will include a splinter study of a light installation he did based on the Rayleigh instability.

droplet wave illustration

In a nutshell, the Rayleigh instability is part of a greater branch of fluid dynamics which explains why and how a falling stream of fluid breaks up into smaller packets with the same volume but less surface area. The driving force is that liquids, by virtue of their surface tensions, tend to minimize their surface area. The resulting effects offer some compelling visual possibilities for artistic pursuits. (Coincidentally, on a more mundane note, I’ve noticed numerous recent examples of the Rayleigh instability featured in the opening title sequences of films and in other popular media.) 

You can read Rayleigh’s original research here, or another fascinating MIT research paper on the physics of surface tension here.

Art, isn’t that a man’s name?

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semiconductor photoresist

I come from a family of geeks. Not internet geeks, mind you, but living, breathing, original 60’s, 70’s, & 80’s geeks. Father, mother, both brothers – all computer nerds. These people were online about 20 years before Google even became a word. We can even lay claim to a family member (to remain nameless) making national news for an entire week as a young teenager for cracking his school’s computer code, narrowly escaping notoriety only by wisely choosing not to do anything malicious. He just did it for the challenge.

As the lone artist living amongst a houseful of computer folk, I always felt like a bit of an outsider; my focus was always, and has only been, art. Not that I don’t enjoy computers, I do, I just never delved into it the way they did because, frankly, in comparison I would always be behind the curve.

It was, therefore, with great pleasure that I recently felt our worlds finally collide in a fortuitous manner. The following thoughts on light are excerpted from a note from my dad;

I was very involved in the design aspects of semiconductor memory chips. One technology used was very much like silkscreen art, but on a much finer scale, with dimensions in the millionths of centimeters. The 1 cm x 1 cm semiconductor chip would be coated with a photoresist, then exposed to visible light shined through a mask. The exposed areas not defined by the mask would be acid-etched away, and a pattern of millions of conductors would be left on the surface
of the chip. Then another layer, etc… As the demand for memory grew, larger and larger chips would be needed, which exponentially increased the cost, unless the masks could be made to smaller and smaller tolerances.. which is what we did, until the lines on the mask were so close together that visible light would not penetrate through the mask to expose the photoresist. Technically, the issue was that the wavelength of visible light was longer than the spaces on the mask it had to go through. The solution was to go to a different light source – ultraviolet – which had a shorter wavelength than visible light, and to develop a photoresist that would work with it.

A fascinating process, finding the art in science, and the science in art. 

‘Art, isn’t that a man’s name?’   quote by Andy Warhol

Looking at Art

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Hiroshi Sugimoto's Glass Tea House in Venice Biennale, photo by Martino Piertropoli
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Glass Tea House Mondrian’ at the Venice Biennale, photos by Martino Piertropoli

Recently, dear friend and collaborator Martino Pietropoli posted images from his visit to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Glass Tea House Mondrian at the Venice Biennale, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore . While googling it, I came across a notice that Sugimoto also currently had an exhibition up at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, which would be ending the following week.

My daughter and I rushed into the city late that Saturday afternoon to catch the show an hour before closing. We entered, realizing to our delight that we were the only ones there, able to view & discuss the art freely. A short while later, however, we heard someone behind us enter and begin snapping photos. When we moved to step back so he could get a better shot he demurred, explaining that he wanted photos with us intentionally in the shot. He turned out to be professional photographer Richard Nagler, who’d just published Looking at Art, the Art of Looking, a book about the relationship between artwork and the viewer, and their interdependant dynamic. He was kind enough to forward me a photo of us examining Sugimoto’s piece titled In Praise of Shadows, itself a tribute to the Jun’inchiro Tanazaki’s book, with the following text:

Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki disdained the “violent” artificial light wrought by modern civilization. I, too, am an anachronist: rather than live at the cutting edge of the contemporary, I feel more at ease in the absent past. 

Domesticating fire marks humankind’s ascendancy over other species. For tens of thousands of years, we have illuminated the night with flames. Reflecting upon this, I decided to record “the life of the candle”. Late one midsummer night, I thre open the windows and invited in the night breeze. Lighting a candle, I opened my camera lens. After several hours of wavering in the breeze, the candle burned out. Savoring the dark, I slowly closed the shutter. The candle’s life varied on any given night – short, intensely burning nights and long, constantly glowing lights – each different, yet equally lovely in its afterglow.

-H.S.

I left thinking about a Paulo Coelho quote from the book The Alchemist: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Sadie and Deb looking at Hiroshi Sugimoto's In Praise of Shadows. Photo courtesy of Richard Nagler.
Deb & daughter Sadie looking at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s In Praise of Shadows.                                     Photo courtesy of Richard Nagler.