Wichita Art Museum exhibit integrates nature and technology

The Wichita Art Museum is exploring the dynamic between nature and human innovation in a new exhibit. “Vital Signs” uses video, animation, motion sensors and other technology to trace the connection people have with the natural world in a digital age.

The new media exhibition from the San Jose Museum of Art is a departure from the typical gallery experience. Viewers will find themselves immersed in a multi-dimensional maze of technological intrigue, where sound is just as important as sight.

“This is art that doesn’t behave itself,” said Wichita Art Museum director Patricia McDonnell. “The general public has certain expectations of what art is; it’s in a frame and it hangs on the wall or it’s a bronze sculpture and it sits on pedestal. Well, artists are innovative and imaginative people. The genre of new-media art-making is full of smart artists who are seeing that amazing new technology can be worked with and manipulated for artistic comment and expression.”

The show offers something fresh for Wichita, an aspect McDonnell finds exciting. She said that the exposure is in line with the museum’s overall goal to bring new trends in art to the city.

“Wichita doesn’t see much new-media art,” McDonnell said. “To have an entire exhibition devoted to this new vein of art-making I knew would really win fans to the work itself and also provide the art museum the opportunity to have so many more people become aware of this phenomena that has been going on in the art world for a while.”

Viewers who step inside the dimly lit, reverberating exhibit will immediately notice a sea of vibrant colors mixed with whirling sounds as video projections and physical installations fill the space. The artworks mine physiology, biology, environmental science and other related fields to develop a framework for understanding how human beings affect the world around them. Andrea Ackerman’s “Rose Breathing” is a large, 3-D projection of a rosebud that opens and closes to human breath, with inhales and exhales punctuating its movements. Jennifer Steinkamp offers a computer-animated projection of a tree in “Fly to Mars” that jumps to life with vivid movement as it cycles through the four seasons. Viewers experience the natural cycle of a tree’s foliage while watching it bow up and down in an almost human-like manner. Gail Wight turns dyed slime mold that she cultured into a radiant piece with Creep. “Star Fields” is a holographic-like installation by Ruth Eckland designed to offer viewers the experience of discovering pulsation within darkness.

“The digitally enhanced black and white video may be a microcosm of wave motion at one moment in time, an artist’s conception of the firing of neurons or a mapping of the radiant denizens of the great macrocosm itself,” Eckland said in a statement about the piece on her website. “The only certainty is that light cannot exist without darkness, nor darkness without light. It is the contrast that makes each knowable.”

“These works are seductive and calming. They are just gorgeous, lyrically beautiful,” McDonnell said. “There is an undercurrent in many works of both the vulnerability of us as humans and the sensitivity of the natural world or ecology.”

“Vital Signs” originated at the San Jose Museum of Art, where it was on display in 2010 and 2011. Jodi Throckmorton was curator of the museum at the time and now works in Wichita. She started her position as the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University three months ago. She will be part of a symposium Nov. 8-9 at the Ulrich that will focus on artistic commentary on nature, ecology and technology. It’s a way to bring together the creative energy of “Vital Signs” and a similarly themed exhibit that’s on display at the Ulrich.

“What’s great is that the Ulrich has ‘Nature’s Tool Box,’ a show focused on nature and biodiversity and this idea that art can be used for awareness. We’ve decided to come together and do a symposium devoted to the two shows,” Throckmorton said.

Fourteen artists offer 15 works as part of the “Vital Signs” exhibition. Throckmorton said most of the works were created from the 1990s through 2012, covering a 20-year period when technological advances radically altered how we work professionally and how we relate to each other personally. Most of the artists, she noted, are well established and respected in their fields, with many having scientific backgrounds. Jim Campbell and Alan Rath both attended MIT and studied engineering, while Bill Viola and Gail Wight are considered to be pioneers of video art.

“It’s certainly interdisciplinary,” Throckmorton said of the exhibit. “It’s mitigating how we all feel with all of this technology around us every day. There is everything from videos done with animation, to a forest of core samples that people can walk in between. As you go through, sound comes off of them. There’s a sculpture that is like an alien form with sound coming from it. There are a lot of pieces that you feel really enveloped by. All of the artists are using technology in some way.”

Throckmorton said she thinks this exhibit will give people a new way of seeing and appreciating art.

“It’s interesting to see how people experience videos that are art-related rather than paintings on a wall,” she said. “Some people walk in and walk out because their definition of art may be different, but other people have a more relatable experience.”