Paul Brooks wrote in his 1971 book, The Pursuit of Wilderness; “We shall never understand the natural environment until we see it as a living organism.” Jeni Wightman goes there, and takes us with her.
Wightman is a special kind of translator—she has braided science, technology and her instincts as a conceptual artist to create and exhibit “living” portraits of the oldest forms of life on earth—microbes—in the form of bacteria, housing them in viewable habitats exposed to photosynthesizing sunlight.
Each “portrait”—there are three created for the SANDBOX exhibit—includes mud and other materials from specific locations in Chestertown and will grow into regional signatures of pigments as they clash, wax and wane like spectral colonies in conflict one moment, coexisting another, dying and thriving, all the while creating multiple palettes of color.
Wightman wrote on her website, “I choreograph microbes to create transforming colorfield paintings. As the organisms metabolize their environment to synthesize pigments they exhaust their ideal habitat and give way to successors that thrive in this changed habitat. The change in pigmentation allows the viewer to witness an evolving landscape of a particular place.
Wightman, who teaches at Cornell and has degrees in biology and environmental toxicology and cancer cell biology, is one of four visiting artists collaborating on an environmental art project for Washington College’s SANDBOX Initiative. The “Waterlines” project is designed to engage students and the community in an exploration of our local environment by creating an interdisciplinary public art installation along the Chester River waterfront that integrates dance, temporary architectural elements, and sound.
The exhibit of three beautifully framed panels—made by local craftsman Bob Ortiz—of evolving microbial pigments will be accompanied by a sound composition created specifically for Wightman’s project by esteemed composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, another of the “Waterlines” artists.
It’s a fascinating introduction into the micro-world. And humbling. Wightman says that if microbes and human cells were able to vote, cells would be outnumbered 20-1. At 200 trillion microbes per adult human, and a 1,000 species of them, the attitude of “kill all bacteria in sight” is now being challenged and reviewed. Since we are 90% bacterial, a review about nuking every microbial bacteria in sight might be a good thing.
For now, however, you can watch bacteria create their ever-changing colorscapes and discover a new appreciation for the microscopic world beneath or feet, and under our skin.
Wightman’s “mud paintings will open Friday, February 6th from 5-7 at SANDBOX studio on Cross St. The exhibit will continue through March 6.