Thursday, January 17, 2008
UB artists bring lunar voyage to life
Installation in Montreal contemplates 17th-century plans for moon
By PATRICIA DONOVAN Contributing Editor
Most of us have never heard of him, but Jacobean scientist and theologian
John Wilkins had grand plans for a lunar landing that have been hauled out
of 17th-century England and planted firmly in a Montreal art gallery.
They are the focus of an art exhibition, “Vegetable Rites—Birds in the Moon,”
a work by conceptual artist Gary Nickard and sculptor Reinhard Reitzenstein,
both assistant professors in the Department of Visual Studies, College of Arts
and Sciences, and media artist Patty Wallace of Williamsville.
The show will run through Jan. 27 in the Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe-
Claire, Quebec, a neighborhood of Montreal.
Peculiar, beautiful and visually mysterious, the installation offers an
intellectual meditation upon both the cosmic and the everyday scale of the
world we live in.
It is an attempt, the artists say, “through the dark art of necromancy,” to
bring the Jacobean space program back to life—to pick up where both Wilkins
and his brother-in-law, Oliver Cromwell, left off. Necromancy, a form of
divination that seeks to summon “operative spirits,” was one of Wilkins’
The exhibition features a variety of alchemica, historical and sculptural
representations and installations, among them a literal representation of the
“celestial chariot” powered by harnessed geese and gunpowder that the
artists say would have had to defy gravity and the vacuum of space in order
to send Wilkins hurtling toward the moon where geese were, in his day,
commonly believed to shelter during the winter.
“As you enter the gallery, the space is dominated by the ‘Celestial Chariot’
and by the conceit, supported by sculptural constructions, that you are on
the moon in the 1600s and Dr. Wilkins has just walked off scene,” writes art
critic Karen Elliott.
“On this imagined moon, vegetation is firmly clamped in forceps, as if to
form a collection of samples; enigmatic antique electrical devices are clipped
to an enormous bronze pinecone within a hut constructed out of dried leaves,
and iridescent flightless ‘moon birds’ congregate as if trying to decide how to
react to the intruder.
“Wallace’s meticulously realist oil paintings of lunar craters and bird nests are
interspersed throughout the installation, providing contextual ground for the
artists’ sculptural constructions,” Elliott says.
These constructions include Reitzenstein’s signature sculpted trees, wall
hangings of Latin necromancy incantations, the portrait of a dour Roundhead
and a facsimile of the 1653 treatise by Calvinist Bishop Godwin written
during Wilkins’ lifetime titled, “The Man in the Moone; Or, a Discourse on a
Voyage Thither,” illustrated by a flying vehicle carried by geese.
The exhibit also features a 1647 drawing of “the modern moon,” a poem
titled “A Roundhead Moonshot” and further articulations of the alchemical
theme in the form of glass “alembics” and a “flower cannon” (a stainless
steel rack of hand-blown glass vials) all filled with pungently aromatic flower
and tree oils. Combined with Wallace’s naturalistic paintings of craters and
bird nests, the installation facilitates meditation upon belief and world view.
Taken as a whole, says Nickard, “our assertion is that art is not a flamboyant
game of competing styles or a vehicle for egocentric displays of virtuosity. It
is, rather, an opportunity to contemplate an intellectual adventure, no less
fascinating for being impossible to complete.
“From our perspective, Wilkins’ effort may seem ludicrous,” Nickard says,
“but he was the principal founder of England’s Royal Society and lived in a
period marked by the astronomical revelations of Galileo, Copernicus and
Kepler; the discovery of new continents; and the great sea voyages of
Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh.”
Wilkins and Cromwell were quite serious about science and about this
Wilkins was prominent in his day, the only Englishman ever to head a college
at both the University of Cambridge and Oxford University. He was the first
in Europe to propose the adoption of a metric system, as well as a universal
language; served as Bishop of Chester; and was the author of several
influential books, among them “The Discovery of a World in the Moone.”
Nickard and Reitzenstein, both Canadian nationals, are widely exhibited and
well-published artists who previously have collaborated on installations that
explored the interstices between visual art, culture, literature, nature,
science—specifically physics—and technology.
Wallace, whose principal mediums are painting and video, is the former
photographer for the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Brooklyn Museum. Her
work has been exhibited in the U.S., Canada and Germany.