Oceans inspire awe and activism in art 1

There’s more than meets the eye to Colleen Flanigan’s “Zoecam with Trunkfish” photo in the “Science Inspires Art: Ocean” exhibit at the Hall of Science.

The cradle of life, a lightless and crushing void, Gaia’s fury and serenity itself — the ocean is all these things and more. It is a testament to the leaps human curiosity will make that space should be named the final frontier when we have explored less than 5 percent of the oceans. Their vastness belies their fragility. While the seas contain power and beauty unrivaled by much of the planet, the latter is at risk of being lost forever while the former may grow to threaten our way of life on land.

Oceans are the subject of this year’s “Science Inspires Art” exhibition at the New York Hall of Science in Corona. The annual show is organized by Art & Science Collaborations Inc., and shows throughout the winter at the museum every year. Both scientists and artists serve on the selection committee, and both scientific and artistic qualities are considered for submissions to enter the show. “Images deeply rooted in the sincerity of science unify this exhibition where art is the vessel for vital truths,” said Diana Moore, art juror for the exhibition’s selection committee, in a statement.

The vast majority of the artwork concerns itself with conservational and environmental matters. That has been true of previous years’ exhibitions, but both Moore and science juror John Stegeman take direct interest in the ocean’s health.

Moore “work[s] at the intersection of art and bioethics, particularly focused on conservation biology and biotechnology,” while Stegeman studies (in part) the effects of chemicals on living ecosystems, hoping to assess the health of the oceans on a global scale. But beyond these occupational connections to the subject, a cursory walk through the gallery fills a viewer with wonder and dread, and visitors are reminded of the more personal connection we all share with the water.

Perhaps all art is conceptual, but some work is more straightforward than others, and “Science Inspires Art” is at its best when its informational captions are read diligently. In viewing an image of a contorted fence-like object under the sea, you would almost certainly not ascertain that it emits a low-voltage electricity to precipitate mineral growth. Colleen Flanigan has installed such a structure in Cozumel, Mexico, and her photograph in the exhibition is titled “Zoecam with Trunkfish.” And the explanation of the structure is only half the story. The so-called “zoecams” are named for Zoe Anderson, a young woman who was interested in the welfare of coral reefs and died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The zoecams stream a 24/7 video feed to the web, providing a real-world virtual aquarium to anyone with internet access. How fitting that an ocean-themed exhibit would lend itself to such depth in one photo.

Some of the work is a bit more abstract, but carries a message nonetheless. Bob Barancik’s “Fukushima Disaster” highlights the harm that large-scale energy production can cause the environment, in massive plumes of color. Wo Schiffman’s “Reef” is a watery depiction of coral marred by bleaching, but resilient in its recovery. A spot of oil remains on the surface — a reminder of the damage that humans foster through indifference or carelessness.

Not all of the artwork overtly takes a conservationist’s focus, and some of it centers on the ocean’s pristine beauty, such as Karen Cohen’s photograph of calm waters under a clementine sunset, or Anna Davidson’s tribute to the Arctic, deep blue waters forming a perfect mirror to a floating chunk of glacier that is accompanied by a mournful poem. Carrie Bodle’s “Waveforms” and “Wavelines” are captures of embroidery and a video projection, respectively. Through her work, Bodle hopes to translate the invisible or inaudible to immersive experiences adapted to our senses. Sandra Gottlieb, who has photographed Rockaway Beach since 1996, captured a photograph depicting the ocean near the height of its powers — just hours before Hurricane Sandy would wreak havoc in the community.

This year’s “Science Inspires Art” is as engaging as previous years’, and offers an experience full of wonder for the children who visit the pop-science museum for its interactive exhibits as well as informational depth for parents, who might come away having learned something, all in the name of natural beauty.

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