Hybrid Artifact #2 (for John Bartram), 2013 – created with Matthew Hebert
John Bartram’s garden and collecting expeditions provided the first systematic exports of the botanical wonders of North America to England and then on to Europe. This happened in the midst of the European Enlightenment and the materials that Bartram supplied helped establish the foundations of the modern scientific fields of taxonomy and plant hybridization. The transport of these specimens in ‘Bartram’s Boxes’ was a technical (and often logistical and political) accomplishment in its own right. The seeds, seedlings and plants that travelled on the long and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic ended their journey in the hands and glasshouses of some of the most advanced plant biologists living at the time. In effect they inspired and provided the substance of a revolution in biological science that is still being played out today. Interestingly enough, this happened through a direct correspondence between two individuals on opposite sides of the ocean. Two men who both displayed extraordinary passion for the North American flora, a certain impatience and frustration with the tyranny of the distance between them, and a long-standing friendship and collegiality, which was never consummated by them meeting face to face. These two men were John Bartram, striving to both farm and explore the newly colonized East coast of America, and Peter Collinson in England, working hard to both enrich his own modest garden and to help distribute Bartram’s Boxes to the leading gardens and research facilities in England and Europe.
The seeds for “Hybrid Artifact#2 (for John Bartram)” originated from Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia. Donald Fortescue milled a freshly fallen Willow Oak tree on site and made 16 green wood ‘Fortescue’s boxes’ A group of enthusiastic students from the University of the Arts, the Buck’s County Community College and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, hand whittled small wooden sculptures from wood from the Gardens and provided a hypothetical text description of the completed pieces.
These small sculptures were then individually and carefully packed in the ‘Fortescue’s Boxes’ and shipped across the country to Matthew Hebert waiting with great anticipation in San Diego, California, all the way across the US – 2,700 miles (a tad less than the 3,550 miles covered by Bartram’s Boxes). Matthew then opened the boxes (conserving them carefully) and began work on his technical translation of Donald’s specimens. Utilizing an array of reverse engineering (3D scanners) and digital fabrication technologies (CNC machines and 3D Printers), Matthew translated the hand-hewn objects into 3D computer models, manipulated them in software, and then re-created them as physical objects. He created negatives of the whittlings and then remounted these in the original boxes; framed and lit from within like Victorian cameos. The descriptions provided by the whittlers were read by artists in Australia and then linked to their respective cameos.
The 16 artifacts are arrayed to reflect notions of hybridization, mutation, and genealogy. The subtle textures created by both the hand of the whittler and the processes of digital fabrication highlight the problematic space of contemporary making. The radical changes in society resulting from the scientific revolution in John Bartram’s time are drawn into parallel with the radical changes in contemporary society arising from digital manufacturing.
aWay station, 2011
“aWay station is an installation at the Headlands Center for the Arts in West Marin, Northern California. It entails several discrete elements arranged in the Project Space of the Main building for the month of August 2011. These elements will be changing and accumulating during the month as I interact with the space and with the immediate physical, historical and cultural context of the Headlands.
The studio will be constructed as a site for inquiry and exploration. The processes and actions carried out in aWay station will be displayed as a set of evolving tableau displayed in the space. The intention is to blur the walls of the space by mapping the external experience of the Headlands directly onto the space. The traditions of a scientific field station and encampment will be hybridized with those of the artist’s studio and the library or museum. An audience will be invited into the space to take part through conversation, interaction and creation.”
Sounding, 2008 – created with Lawrence LaBianca
Sounding is a collaboration with the San Francisco–based sculptor Lawrence LaBianca and was developed for Bay Area Now 5 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Sounding derives from the book Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, which has long been a source of inspiration for both of us. Our fascination with Moby-Dick comes in part from its detailed evocation of the bygone crafts of sailing and whaling and the struggles of men at sea, and also from its powerful and ever-relevant dissection of monomania. Through this work we hoped to conjure the era of the book’s writing through the use of period forms such as a cabriole-legged table and hailing horn, while making it also very much of the moment by incorporating contemporary sound recordings and digital fabrication technologies. We constructed the table out of steel rods and filled it with beach rocks, then lowered it into the ocean near Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, where over the course of two months it accumulated living accretions from the ocean. Atop the table is an oversize sound-amplifying funnel reminiscent of the hailing horns used on whaling ships, which is constructed of laser-cut panels of polycarbonate lashed together with nylon zip ties. The horn amplifies and concentrates a sound recording made by a hydrophone close to where the table was submerged.
Sounding provides a direct link to the living oceans surrounding the Bay Area through sight, sound, smell, and touch. In both form and concept it also links to the historical, literary, and metaphorical oceans of Moby-Dick.
This piece in the series was constructed far from the ocean, on the Continental Divide, in fact, at Anderson Ranch Arts Center just outside of Aspen in the Colorado Rockies. It consists of another matched pair of cabinets mounted on tripods. Each 12-sided cabinet is made of ash and walnut, and on each of the 12 sides is a lens that focuses the viewer’s eye onto a circular digital photographic transparency at the cabinet’s center. One shows a panorama of an aspen forest under snow. The other shows a macro view of the circumference of a single aspen tree. Aspens are clonal, and an aspen grove is usually a single genetic individual—one of the largest organisms on the planet. Panopticon presents two views of the same organism – one looking inwards, one outwards. By interacting with Panopticon, a viewer’s attention is focused both inward and outward. The digital images are contained and distanced so that the experience is both intimate and removed.
The word panopticon originally referred to a form of prison architecture with a central viewing hub from which all of the inmates could be viewed simultaneously. This structure was proposed by the extraordinary 19th-century British social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose embalmed body (self-titled Auto-Icon) is still on display in a glass-fronted cabinet at University College London.
Under the Bridge, 2003
The second in this series was developed for a traveling exhibition entitled Convergence, which originated at the Oceanside Museum of Art near San Diego. It took as its premise the interconnectedness and mutual influence of two communities of artists—one Tasmanian, one American—who use furniture as a key component of their work. The connection has largely revolved around the School of Art of the University of Tasmania (the southernmost island state of Australia) in Hobart, where all of the American artists have visited or worked for some period.
Under the Bridge includes two small, finely crafted, lidded cabinets standing opposite each other on tripods. Raising one or the other of their lids reveals and activates a small screen set deep into the cabinet body showing looped video footage of moving water. The footage was shot from the centers of the famous bridges of Sydney and San Francisco, but no part of the bridges or surrounding landscape appears in the frame. The waters are from my two “homes” on either side of the Pacific Ocean, and they are superficially similar yet fundamentally different.
The inlay in the top of each cabinet is a map of shoreline that each bridge spans oriented in the same way as the view of the water shown in the video. The maps were taken from the first western maps made of those shorelines. Sydney’s shoreline was mapped by John Hunter as the first European colony was established in 1788 (Hunter became the 2nd governor of the new colony in 1795). George Vancouver mapped what would become known as the Golden Gate in 1798. Vancouver himself had intimate (if only 2nd hand) knowledge of the European discovery of Australia – he was a member of the famous James Cook’s second and third voyages of discovery. Cook mapped the Eastern coast of Australia on his first voyage (1768-71).
The two distant shores were apprehended for the first time by Western explorers only 10 years apart. Both maps essentially represent a first look at the new shoreline. Our first attempts to understand and incorporate a new world into the old.
I chose shell for the inlay to continue the trope of the collector’s cabinet and to emphasize the concept of the ‘liminal’ in these pieces – the borderline at the edge of the ocean, the edge of our perception, the edge of our understanding, the edge of our memory.
The ocean for me has always represented longing and separation as well as a bittersweet combination of evanescence and duration. The boxes contain “samples” of the Pacific Ocean taken in two very distant locations . . . but is it possible to tell them apart? The work raises the questions: What constitutes home and homeland? What makes one place distinct from another? How can one capture and contain a sense of place? The gently rolling water represents both the distance and the similarity between these two “homes.”
The work draws on the iconography of collectors’ cabinets, early cameras, and surveying instruments. Under the Bridge presents contemporary views from contemporary, primarily urban locations but doesn’t reference the urban environment. In fact, the videos portray a world largely devoid of human presence—the “wilderness” of the early collectors’ imaginations.
Permutations is one body of work with many components, divided into two main parts. The first part, on the level, is made up of 68 spindle forms, each spindle varies from four inches in diameter and two and a half feet tall to twelve inches in diameter and eight feet tall. Each spindle is formed from two coopered cones joined together at their bases. The cones are connected 23 inches above the ground (that is, the bottom halves are all 23 inches tall). In the gallery they lean against the wall in single file, as if facing a firing squad. Each piece just touches its neighbor. Their total running length is over about 45 feet. The wood is raw, unfinished, recycled redwood.
The second part, lean, is a disk of Australian rosewood, six feet in diameter, also comprised of two coopered cones joined at their bases. But the fundamental geometry of its construction might not be readily apparent, as the thin edge thickens toward the center, where it is pierced by a void 10 inches in diameter. This piece is oiled and polished to a warm luster. It also leans against the wall, resting on its edge.
The title Permutations derives from the fact that each piece is a variant of the same basic form. My chosen constraint was to work with this one form and see where the exploration would lead. I was drawn to the fact that it resembles many familiar things (tools, parts of machines, natural forms such as seeds, pollen, and diatoms) but it is also quintessentially geometric, and hence abstract. I regard it as a Platonic ideal, familiar yet not quite everyday. The connections among these forms are as important as the autonomy of the individual objects. The various pieces have varying degrees of individuality and autonomy. The experience of each is enriched by the presence of the others.
Self-Contained is, for me, a very metaphorical piece, and the first piece I made after moving to the United States. It is about passage and transition, and entering into a different life. It was also a matter of resurrecting my working process. I needed to find some space in my life to go into the studio every day and immerse myself in a very repetitive task (the 70,000 or so marks burned into its surface are a rough equivalent of the number of working hours in an average person’s life). It recalls the Zen notion of practice. For me, that is what craft is all about.
Empty Vessels, 2000
All of the pieces in this series reference traditional vessel forms and traditional craft processes. They resemble seedpods, perhaps, or vases, but they are closed, and thus they have lost their theoretical utility as vessels to become purely conceptual. Hence the title Empty Vessels. Each one is created using simple, repetitive techniques. I glued innumerable rings of birch plywood on top of one another, turned the segments on a lathe, and then joined them into single forms, which I hand shaped and polished. The resulting pieces are visibly layered. Their “sedimentary” strata indicate the investment of many layers of labor. Their large, almost human scale pushes them into curious zone, giving them a strangely looming but unthreatening presence.
I am very interested in the traditional role of crafts as industry rather than art—the era when every workday was essentially identical, and an artisan’s skill and fluency improved over time, with practice, into mastery.
(For more information on this body of work read Glenn Adamson’s article from ‘Craft US’ – a copy of which is transcribed in ‘Articles’)