“Humankind has always been very curious and driven to find out about life forms in outer space, but not so curious about life forms on the planet,” Giovanni Aloi remarked as he showed me each work of art included in “Earthly Observatory,” an exhibition that he curated with artist/scientist Andrew S. Yang. Over 30 artists are included in this expansive and almost overwhelming exploration of natural history in art, currently on view at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Galleries at 33 E. Washington. Aloi and Yang are both SAIC faculty members and chose the word “earthly” for the exhibition’s title to convey the idea that we are all of the earth and we should not see ourselves as separate from the other creatures that exist on this planet.
As Aloi was making his observation about outer space, he was looking over a glass display case containing scattered letters and rocks. The letters were received by the Field Museum’s Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies, and are on loan for this exhibition. The letter writers are inquirers who have found meteorite-looking objects near their homes or elsewhere. There is one letter dated May 5, 1979, that reads: “Dear Sir, enclosed is a small fragment of a rock found in a farm field in Marengo, Illinois. The rock appeared to have a flat top surface as if from molten metal cooling to leave a surface parallel to earth’s surface. Please identify it for me.” Since none of the rocks sent to the Center were meteorites, they were instead dubbed by the museum as “meteor wrongs.” Yang reflected poetically about this as he said, “Discovery is wonder packed in an instant; a shooting star is a wish packed in a space rock.”
The themes of the exhibition seem especially relevant while we are still in the midst of a pandemic. Much of the artists’ work in the show attempts to capture something invisible, like the virus still circling among us. In his Borderless Bacteria / Colonialist Cash, Ken Rinaldo displays bank notes in petri dishes, revealing the bacteria that lives on monetary bills. Anaïs Tondeur’s eerie rayographs capture radioactivity in plants found at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, while Dr. Walter Tschinkel offers a stunning aluminum cast of an ant nest, revealing the architecture that ant colonies create in their habitats. Erin Wiersma drags large sheets of paper onto a burning tallgrass prairie, and the markings translate as beautiful charcoal drawings. As they are capturing the not-easily visible, these artists and many more included in the exhibition make us see beauty that is not usually seen through a human eye.
The exhibition also focuses on human interactions with the land, such as the concept of creating territory. “When Andy and I were thinking of ‘Earthly Observatory,’ we knew we had to expand the idea of natural history to think about what a natural history of today looks like,” Aloi explained. “Of course, acknowledging the history of the land is part of this idea of the observatory.” Three metal signs in a row present a historical reframing of Chicago. “Today your host is Ojibwe,” says one sign, with signs for Potawatomi and Odawa following. And in an effort to spur discussion outside the physical space of the exhibition, replicas of these signs (made by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds) have also been placed in front of SAIC’s former “Columbus” building, located at 280 S. Columbus (the school recently renamed the building to “280”) to create discussions outside the space of the exhibition as well.
The exhibition also creates the space to criticize the manner in which antiquated ways of observing and creating an “other” can harm our perspective of earthly beings and their close relation to humanity. There is a wide range of art about plants, animals, the earth, and people. In Jeannette Ehlers’s video aptly titled The Gaze, a row of people of color are looking directly into the camera, their gaze almost directly into one’s own eyes as an observer. Her moving video reflects upon the history of museums acquiring (sometimes stealing) objects from different cultures and countries and forcing a particular definition upon them. The word “observatory” also emphasizes what art can capture through its mediums that transcend our own gaze.
“Earthly Observatory” is open by appointment Tue-Sat through 12/3; contact the gallery for reservations and more information. SAIC Galleries, 33 E. Washington, 312-845-5910, saic.edu/exhibitions/saic-galleries