The Spencer Museum of Art has a new exhibit titled “knowledges” that seeks to break down the dichotomy between art and research to prove that artists are also researchers, said Joey Orr, the curator for research at the Spencer Museum of Art.
The exhibit opened Aug. 24 and will be on display until Jan. 5.
“The idea behind the exhibit is that knowledge doesn’t just happen in laboratories or lecture halls,” Orr said. “The idea is that the Spencer is an art museum embedded in a research university — the museum should be serving the research community.”
“Knowledges” features four major contemporary artists and represents a conversation with the four areas of research the Integrated Arts Research Initiative supports: ecology, data visualization, immigration and social histories.
Orr said the museum sought out artists “who view their own work as research.” One of those artists is Andrew S. Yang, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Orr said Yang plays roles “sometimes as an artist and sometimes as an expanded scientist,” a combination that exemplifies the goals of the exhibit.
One of Yang’s pieces that exemplifies his background as a biologist is “Stella’s Stoichiometry.” The piece is named after his daughter and follows her elementary composition at her birth weight to when her cells have regenerated at 7 years old.
The piece is positioned on two tables, and Yang has filled jars with the chemical elements that are known to be present in all human beings — they’re also things one could buy at a neighborhood grocery store.
The changes do not stop at weight. Yang switches the materials in each jar from benign elements humans are made of at birth to toxic materials one absorbs throughout life by coming into contact with materials humans have added into the natural environment, such as fossil fuels and fertilizers.
“He specifically wanted to try to use materials that the body would have incorporated like fossil fuels and fertilizers,” Orr said.
Yang’s piece isn’t an attempt to reduce his daughter to a chemical equation. Yang had another explanation for it.
“We need to feel intimately connected to the earth,” Yang said.
The exhibit also has a case of books by the door to the exhibit. Some of the books include the volumes in James Hutton’s “The Theory of Earth." Hutton was the first person in Western tradition to suggest the earth isn’t static. Instead it, like a human body, grows and decays.
However, Hutton’s fourth volume is missing. He died before he could finish it, but his work is still in progress at the Spencer.
Yang entitled his installations at the Spencer “Theory of the Earth Volume IV” because “we are all collectively writing the fourth volume,” he said.
Orr said the exhibit also asks people to reflect on their connection to the Earth because knowledge is inextricably tied to it.
A decal above the entrance to the exhibit shows Earth’s temperature over the past 100 years.
“You start to feel that Earth is changing and that we are a part of that changing,” Orr said.
To motivate reflection, the museum is hosting an essay contest asking people to write their own “Theory of the Earth.” The prize is $700.
Orr said he hopes those who come to the exhibit bring “a robust, imaginative experience on their own” and appreciate the surprises in the exhibit.