A melding of art and science
Exhibit is deCordova’s latest to link outdoor sculpture park with indoor museum
LINCOLN — The grounds of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is a gold mine for mushroom foragers. That’s just one thing deCordova staffers learned while the artist team of Paul Bartow and Richard Metzgar worked on a project there that melds artistic strategy with scientific methodology to create several lenses through which to view the museum, its collection, and its environment.
“PLATFORM 5: Bartow + Metzgar: Stratimentation: Investigations of a Metamorphic Landscape’’ is an unwieldy title that sounds like the heading on an article in a scientific journal. Don’t let it put you off. The exhibit is part of the deCordova’s PLATFORM series, in which artists make site-specific work that ties the outdoor experience of the sculpture park to the indoor experience of the museum.
It’s also the subject of a program at the museum on March 19, when the artists will discuss the topic of exploring sites for artworks.
For “PLATFORM 5,’’ Bartow and Metzgar spent a year outside collecting information and specimens from the deCordova’s grounds. They invited specialists, such as mycologists, to join them sometimes. Their findings are on view in the Dewey Family Gallery, the museum’s venue dedicated to the permanent collection.
It’s a rich, surprising exhibit that touches on Thoreau, Darwin, and Duchamp. Like Thoreau, the artists built a hut as a home base, their “Morphology Field Station for Sensing Place,’’ which stood on the grounds for a year and is now tucked into a corner of the gallery. Strangely curved and arched like a hill, the building’s footprint mimics the deCordova’s property lines, and its rounded roof follows the land’s topography. Inside, there’s a shovel, a bucket, labeled pebbles, and dozens of plastic zipper bags stuffed with dried earth, leaves, sticks, and trash. Cozy and spare, the hut is the heart of the installation.
Bartow and Metzgar proceeded to sample, collect, and classify, à la Darwin. But the methods they contrived were more Duchampian — random systems to generate art. For instance, they drew lines between sculptures on a map of the park; wherever several lines intersected became a collection site, revisited throughout the year. A scientist would likely have drawn a grid on a map to locate sites.
Their findings, in the form of scans of items found at each collection site, are arrayed around the Dewey Gallery in yet another map of the property. The effect is sweeping and exacting, a look at time as well as space. Rocks have been spliced and swabbed, and scans of petri dishes containing microbes from the rocks’ innards are included, reaching back in geological time.
The scans hang in magnetized frames. If a geologist visited the exhibit, he or she might rearrange the samples to fit a geological narrative. A biologist might arrange them to tell a more biological tale. (Regular museum visitors, however, should not touch the art.)
For me, the poetry of the exhibit comes in the additional data-collecting systems Bartow and Metzgar applied. They sandwiched a sheet of vellum in Plexiglas and buried it a foot in the ground at many sites, and left it for up to a year. Bacteria crawled inside and fed on the vellum. Several of these “Microbial Drawings’’ hang in one nook of the gallery, streaked, smudged, and strangely silky. The artists also attached pens to low-hanging branches for several hours. The “Tree Drawings’’ fascinate with their variety — the stuttering dots, little hash marks, and long, meandering lines of one tree, or the crazed thicket of diagonals drawn by another. It’s impossible not to read human intention into the marks.
When the artists apply their systems to the museum’s collection, the installation really coalesces. They laid their map of linked sculptures over a list of the deCordova’s acquisitions — which are cataloged according to the year they were acquired, and so they also have a temporal element. The artists chose which artworks to include according to the intersections on the map.
It’s a delicious coincidence that one piece, a monotype by Jan Arabas, “Forest Fragment, from the Workshop Portfolios, Artist’s Proof Studio, Cambridge, MA,’’ echoes many of the scans on the wall. Then there’s Aaron Siskind’s black-and-white photo “Providence 15,’’ a close-up of wood grain touched with black paint, which somehow reprises the intimacy of Bartow and Metzgar’s examinations.
Scientists might question some of Bartow and Metzgar’s methodology, and the connections they draw between natural history collecting and art collecting. But for an art lover, the unlikely correspondences are thrilling, all the more because they spring from such a precise, albeit random, method. Duchamp would be proud. Darwin, though, might be baffled.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.