STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment

Art and science are more similar than they are different. Artists and scientists use similar methods or habits of mind such as theory testing (concept/hypothesis, trial and error), flexible purposing (ability to shift aims while working), and weighing alternatives (the ability to see things from multiple perspectives). Furthermore, artists and scientists explore various organic and synthetic materials and change their properties or qualities to create something new. In today’s volatile climate, where science and the humanities are eschewed in favor of ‘alternative facts,’ artists can fight back by presenting awe-inspiring work that unites disciplines such as science, technology, and history. There is a lot of potential for the artist and scientist to collaborate inside and outside of the studio or laboratory. Additionally, when scientific research is presented in the form of an art project (such as Love Motel for Insects), it humanizes the data and communicates an empathetic message that is accessible to everyone in the public sphere.

The common thread between the artists discussed in this post, is their use of organic and inorganic mediums as a vehicle for promoting a conversation about our relationship with the world and our fragile existence within nature. Referencing their knowledge and research of biology, ecology, medical science, climate science, and social history, their artwork is a visual metaphor for the paradoxical conflation of the human made and natural world. Juxtaposing organic materials and phenomena with synthetic art materials and processes, contemporary artists: Vanessa Albury, Nene Humphrey, Kristen Holcomb, and Jordan Eagles, explore the association between the body, mind, and the environment. At large, these works of art present aesthetic reflections of mortality, spirituality, and scientific inquiry.

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Vanessa Albury, Arctic, Future Relics (Distant Mountains), 2016, Selenium-toned Gelatin Silver Print mounted to museum board and wood, 42″ x 32″ x 8″.

Vanessa Albury’s photographs take glacial ice-caps in the Arctic Circle as subject matter. Her series Arctic, Future Relicswhich was realized during a residency in Svalbard, Norway, documents the melting of glaciers due to climate change. The ephemeral essence of these glaciers are memorialized in time through the photographic process. Ghostly in their aesthetic form, these epic photographs capture the essence of these majestic ecological forms throughout the process of decay.

Microscope_Hand Drawing Amygdala from Nene Humphrey on Vimeo.

In her series of layered drawings created by using high-powered microscopes, Nene Humphrey explores the connection between aesthetics and the deep cellular workings of the amygdala where our emotions reside. The resulting images are intimate artistic expressions of our psyche that deals with themes of loss and mourning.

Jordan Eagles ‘paints’ using animal blood mixed with multiple layers of clear resin. His unique style of work came about through rigorous theory testing and trial and error. He incorporates gradations of “aged blood” that create various deep black fields in stages of decomposition and illuminates the consistency and texture of the blood. These abstract works of art can resemble other natural and synthetic imagery such as Rorschach inkblot test patterns, magnified biological cells, and lava. The work explores how we think about our bodies and address issues of mortality.

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Kristin Holcomb, Transformations #81, pigment print, 11.5 x 17.5 inches.

Similarly to Vanessa Albury, Kristin Holcomb observes nature taking its course and captures the transformative process through the lens of her camera. Her abstract photographs are of surfaces of walls after years of being changed by weather, paint, rust, and algae. The walls themselves become complex, organic or synthetic ‘paintings’ with the passing of time. The Transformations series of photographs are about rebirth and the possibility of beauty in destruction.

The aforementioned artists are just a few inspirational examples of how art, science, and technology can have a symbiotic relationship and result in strong inter-disciplinary learning capabilities. Having students reflect and respond to their natural surroundings through art is a good way for them to develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge and become more environmentally and socially conscious.

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Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully

There are many theories and practices that focus on living ‘artfully,’ which means that the very act of living is a constant yearning for means of expression, and as Oscar Wilde stated, “art offers it (life) certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” We simply have to take the time to look around us, because there is already an abundance of materials and experiences for us to work with.

Vik Muniz is a Brazilian contemporary artist who is renowned for his large scale photographic works that often comment on the plight of poor communities throughout Brazil. He appropriates iconic imagery, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, which he re-conceptualizes using unconventional materials such garbage. His Marat (Sebastião) (2008), depicts Tião Santos, a garbage picker from Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in Latin America. Muniz started by photographing Santos, in the exact pose as Marat in David’s composition. Next, the photograph was ‘painted’ with garbage so that the image of Santos was developed by arranging layers of debris from Jardim Gramacho. The resulting ‘painting’ was then photographed again.

Exploration of materials is a major component of artistic learning and development. Through exploring a material’s properties, an artist discovers ways to change the material in order to make visual matches that convey symbolic meaning. Muniz’s work is a good example of how an artist thinks within the material (even better that the materials he uses are unconventional) and creates something entirely new and unexpected. Because of the lack of funding for the arts across the nation, it is even more essential for art educators to get creative with the materials they introduce to their students. Everyday objects are especially useful because they can be sourced for free or little cost, and provide a wealth of affordances for the maker to create expressive works of art. Using materials that we’re familiar with in our everyday lives, adds a level of personal and/or collective cultural significance to a work of art. In the case of Muniz’s art, his materials embody the essence of the work’s subject matter and add a uniquely poignant humanist outlook on the value and agency of human beings.

Furthering his response to issues regarding the human condition, Muniz has been a proponent of art education in areas where children have very little exposure to the arts. He is opening a school in Brazil where young children from diverse backgrounds can develop studio habits of mind that will help them become critical and visionary members of society.

Performance of the Oppressed

Tania Bruguera’s politically charged performances present a challenging and worthwhile approach for the radical art educator. Her work is forceful and if it makes you uncomfortable, that is evidence of its success. She considers her artistic discipline to be”Behavior Art,” which is a movement rooted in performance and pedagogy that is more concerned with socio-politcal ramifications of art making than with aesthetic or material outcomes. It is a concept, not unlike Joseph Beuys’ ‘Social Sculpture’.

Bruguera’s performances are experiential education experiences where the artist and the viewers enter into a social and emotional dialog for the benefit of contributing positively within their community. Bruguera’s work often comments on the oppressive forces in government, which have detrimental effects on society. For example, in 2015 she completed 100-hour performance, a reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), in her Havana based studio. Shortly afterwards she was arrested by Cuban officers. The Burden of Guilt (1997), is a metaphor for resisting colonialism and authoritarianism. The performance was inspired by a legendary Cuban narrative where the indigenous people resisted Spanish occupation by eating dirt until the collectively died. In her performance, Bruguera consumed a mixture of dirt and salt water.

By challenging the physical, cognitive, and communicative limits of the body, Bruguera’s shocking and corporeal performances raise a critical conscious within the viewer who realizes the need to break free from oppressive societal structures.

The State of the Art…In Schools

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra teaser from Temple Contemporary on Vimeo.

A Symphony for a Broken Orchestra aims to fix the crisis of our nation’s ill-fated funding for the arts in public schools…One instrument at a time. This project began because Robert Blackson, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Temple Contemporary (Temple University’s on-Campus art gallery), learned that public school children in Philadelphia weren’t able to take music classes because their schools’ instruments were broken and the district didn’t have a budget to fix or replace them.

Blackson displayed 1,000 broken instruments from these schools inside Temple Contemporary to raise the public’s awareness about this issue as well as the general lack of funding for the arts in schools. Each instrument on display symbolizes a student that’s unable to take a music class in their school. Additionally, Pulitzer Prize winning Composer, David Lang, composed a special arrangement to be performed by local musicians playing these instruments. The performance, as well as the ongoing ‘adopt and instrument’ campaign will raise funds to insure that the show will go on for Philadelphia’s music and arts education classes.

In a study of American High Schools, Chapman (1982) reported that 100 percent (of schools) require no study of dance or theater; 98 percent require no music; and 97 percent require no visual arts. These are troubling statistics and even though these studies took place in late 1970s, it is evident that it is an ongoing problem.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its nature. Arts education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture, and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this environment is typically positive as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art and other art and language forms that express individuality are repressed through systems of control. This is evidently seen throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany, and in contemporary totalitarian dictatorships like North Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

In Western Civilization there are major facets that dictate the course of a nation’s curriculum, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Efland (1990) explained: patronage, education, and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets have greatly shaped our educational system. The government, with this No Child Left Behind policy, has driven the motivation for schools to focus on training students to do well on standardized tests, which has reduced the amount of time, money, and passion devoted to arts education in public schools. Add to this fact the idea that many believe the arts produce beautiful objects but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, and it is evident that our society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating blows through politicians like Ronald Reagan and Rudy Giuliani denouncing artists and works of art, and Obama’s remarks that art history isn’t a practical area of education.

It is our job as arts professionals, to make explicit, the connection between our field and the greater human experience. Compelling arguments from educators like Elliot Eisner and psychologists like Jean Piaget have been made on the overwhelming, well-rounded benefits that art has on a child’s development. If the arts are given a sustainable chance, we can show the patrons, the education hierarchy, and the policy makers that its payback will be invaluable. In a country that values its independence, a rejection of art, which promotes self-expression and creative cognition, is a glaring invalidity of our autonomy.

The current state of the arts, or rather the lack thereof, is visually apparent through the poignant display of the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.


Notes:

Chapman, Laura (1982). Rites of Passage: Art in the Secondary School in Instant Art Instant Culture. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Efland, Arthur. (1990), A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freedman, Kerry, and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning

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Lenka Clayton, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Lenka Clayton’s art practice investigates the history of art and culture by making work in response to historical and iconic themes. In her current exhibition Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clayton collaboratively realized the creation of unique works of art in dialog with Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920). Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) espouses the idea of social sculpture, a term created by Joseph Beuys to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society. Brancusi’s sculpture is a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art’s collection, however, it’s display makes it completely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. The museum’s display of the piece is paradoxical in that the only way a visitor can access it is through sight. The tactile nature of Brancusi’s sculpture could easily be beneficial for blind individuals to envision its unique form and material through touch, yet the museum wouldn’t agree to let Clayton use this piece to have a critical discourse and embodied learning experience with a group of blind art enthusiasts. Therefor, Clayton decided to put similar materials in the hands of visually impaired individuals and described the piece in great details so that they’d be inspired to create a response to Brancusi’s original piece.

Through both social interaction and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. Asking engaging questions; passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images; and encouraging individuals to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning will give a wide range of individuals the confidence and joy that art should contribute to their lives.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Mitchell (2005) asserts that there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. This might come as a shock to an art theorist, especially one devoted to modernist ideologies. He argues that painting is associated with language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all, in fact he states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258). Sculpture is the most tactile of all artistic mediums therefore it isn’t as shocking to think that a sculpture can be experienced in ways other than sight. Because sculpture is three-dimensional, it has the affordances of occupying the same physical space as we do so by its nature, it seemingly welcomes haptic interaction. While many galleries and museums would be aghast to letting visitors touch priceless works of art, it is also a disservice to deny someone the experience of great art.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind dispels the myth that the artistic experience for the sighted is far more extensive than it is for a visually impaired individual. Renowned art educator and theorist Viktor Lowenfeld published a seminal book in 1939 called The Nature of Creative Activity, which was based upon his fifteen years teaching art to blind and visually impaired students in Vienna. Lowenfeld (1939) proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments. His work with the blind became the basis for the totality of his breakthroughs in art education. Castellano (1996) says that there is a certain bias that sighted individuals have about the blind. She says that as educators we should set high expectations for visually impaired students to succeed at the same level as sighted students. This statement is also pertinent to Bird (1991), who says that given the proper tools and situations we can all understand art. She quotes psychologist John Kennedy who said, “Blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” Kennedy’s research and work with blind students has shown that visual impairment isn’t a hindrance to the appreciation, understanding, and creation of symbolic imagery.

Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind is a great example of collaborative learning and inquiry based learning and supports Kennedy’s statement that sight isn’t a precursor to understanding or creating works of visual art. By utilizing instructional scaffolding, Clayton made the implicit and sacred knowledge of art an explicit learning experience for blind and visually impaired individuals.

Lenka Clayton’s Object Temporarily Removed will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through July 9, 2017.


Notes:

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Mitchell, W.J. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.