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|Into the Nanolandscape
by Victor M. Cassidy
|During May, Frances Whitehead, a professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, exhibited "Arguably Alive (the virus taxonomy)" at the Northern Illinois University Gallery in Chicago. This dramatically lit, gallery-sized installation consists of 50 canopic jars, each 22 inches tall, placed on 50 stainless steel tables.
Canopic jars in ancient Egypt held mummified internal organs of the dead. The lids of these jars were often molded into a shape, such as the head of a cat.
In Whitehead's installation, each jar lid supports a scale model of a recognized category of virus. (The installation comprises 50 virus models, but there are at least 80 categories of virus all told.) The artist made the jars, lids and models from Egyptian Paste (faience), one of the oldest known ceramic materials. The jars are just below eye level so we look down upon the virus models.
"Arguably Alive" embodies Whitehead's concerns with science, classification and death. She makes large, conceptual installations and often works with atypical art materials, such as plants. Because "Arguably Alive" consists of objects placed on tables, the artist calls it totemic and suggests a Brancusi influence. This can only be formal, for Brancusi's work is deeply human while Whitehead is concerned with things and ideas.
Neither dead nor alive
Viruses are infectious particles made from protein and DNA or RNA. Some scientists declare that viruses are not living because they neither breathe nor convert energy. But viruses invade plant, animal or bacterial cells, multiply by tricking the host cells into replicating them, and cause disease. Thus they are -- in the words of one virologist -- "arguably alive." Paradoxically, viruses cannot be killed because they are not alive.
Only 18 categories of virus affect humans. The most familiar is the common cold. Other viruses attack plants and animals.
"There's no iconographic tradition for viruses," says Whitehead. "They've only been seen in the past half-century and virologists study them according to genetic sequencing, rather than morphology. To get a clear notion of what some viruses actually look like, I downloaded verbal descriptions from the Internet, adapted drawings from a medical textbook and consulted electron microscope photographs."
Viruses range in diameter from 20 to 400 nanometers (one nanometer equals ten to the minus ninth power meters). Oddly, virus shapes are more often geometric than biomorphic. Whitehead scales her representations at 5 inches = 100 nanometers, so the models on the jar lids range from about one-half inch in diameter to three feet long.
Neither clay nor glaze
Egyptian Paste is "a self-glazing silica body," the artist explains, "not a typical clay and not glazed as a separate process at all." She mixes sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate with the silica and adds colorants so the final work is chartreuse instead of the natural pale pink-beige.
"I've been fascinated with Egyptian Paste for years," Whitehead says, "and always wanted to do something with it. But it has no plasticity, so you can't throw it -- or form it by hand. Mostly, it's been press molded to make beads or statuettes."
Whitehead began "messing around" with Egyptian Paste in 1997, tested clay bodies for about 18 months and solved technical problems with timely help from a ceramist colleague at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As Egyptian Paste dries, salts leach from within to the surface by evaporation, covering the surface with crystals that create the glaze during firing. "The inside comes outside," says Whitehead. "Crystal growth disrupts the surface, obscuring the artist's touch and distancing the maker. Sometimes the surface produces salt crystals after firing -- it's not inert."
Variety of surfaces
The artist made many canopic jars as she was mastering her process and these came out with a variety of surfaces -- smooth and crackle glaze, orange peel, small pores and lines, even a suggestion of rice grain. The salt crystals leach unpredictably to the surface, which means that each jar is uniquely patterned and toned, often with curiously shaped islands of salt-grain white. Acknowledging that her material is "unreliable," Whitehead states that this project had a "pretty wide shop tolerance."
Whitehead used wax molds to make the virus shapes. Sometimes she incorporated industrial materials -- hex nuts, pull chain and electrical conduit, for instance -- into the molds to save time. Each virus model has a crisp form; some are extremely complex.
Herpesviridae, for example, is a cutaway, whose outer sphere looks like a rubber ball with cloves stuck in it. There are three smaller spheres inside this one, each with a different surface pattern and each cut away so we see to the very center.
The models vary widely in size. Whitehead placed some directly on the lids, but others were too long for this, so she had to fold them over. She's not always dead serious. One model looks like a handle and another suggests dreadlocks. Others recall spring-loaded cylinders, dog droppings and crystals.
"Object and Image"
The artist made her canopic jars from Egyptian Paste -- rather than clay, which would have been far easier to work with -- because she wanted them to be "real," not models, mock-ups or stand-ins. "In this way," she states, they are "both urns and, due to their recognizability, iconic representations of historic urns. Object and image."
Each canopic jar "has no meaning as a discrete object," she continues, and "only comes together in installation." To install "Arguably Alive," she covered the gallery windows, designed the lighting to accentuate her "horizontal nanolandscape" of virus models, and arranged the tables in a grid. "I'm a control freak," she says. "Presentation and theatrics are as important as the work itself."
Frances Whitehead has one foot in the academic world and one in the studio. She feels an odd need to over-intellectualize her work and to explain it at tremendous length. But "Arguably Alive" is a beautiful installation that embodies the highest standards of craft. The artist draws on fresh graphic sources, finds new ways to work with an old material and engages us with paradoxes. We cannot ask for much more than this.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.