On the evening of Feb. 8, 2020, almost 1,000 art-lovers and techies turned out for the opening of “Illumination,” at San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) in Balboa Park. Subtitled “21st Century Interactions with Art, Science and Technology,” the show paired 16 local artists with scientists from seven different La Jolla-based research institutions to see what kind of artworks could result from their interactions in the fields of Global Health, Climate Change and Sustainability, and Touch-Screen Technology. The artists and scientists seemed to appreciate the opportunity to connect with each other, and an additional 10 artists were invited to create their own works on similar themes.
Walking down the stairway into the gallery, one of the first things to notice is William Feeney’s toothy shark, a life-size Great White, shown inside out. It’s the artist’s attempt to reverse our primal fear of sharks, which are in fact a vital part of our ecosystem, eliminating weaker elements in the food chain and acting as indicators for ocean health.
Some of the most interesting installations were inspired by the experience of looking through powerful microscopes at human cells. Videographer Cy Kukenbacker spent three days at La Jolla Institute of Immunology (LJI) with his scientist partner, Zbigniew Mikulski, who uses advanced imaging methods to observe how living cells function and study the onset of disease.
Kukenbacker was awed by his experience in the microscopy lab, where he got to see a world “inconceivably vast ... and breathtaking.” He created a 36-second video of cells dividing, accompanied by an open book of 10,000 pages containing the complete data sequence in the nucleus of Chromosome 22, smallest of the 23 human chromosomes. (Like some of the artworks here, this one doesn’t photograph well; you’ll have to see it for yourself.)
Glass artist Hugo Heredia Barrera partnered with Vipul Shukla, a dedicated cancer researcher at LJI’s Rao Laboratory, it started him thinking about how delicate, strong, and easily breakable human cells are — like glass. His piece combines fused and inflated glass, steel cable and plastic tubing to show the impact of cancer on a cell, and it’s a stunner.
But the most attractive installation is about addiction: Sheena Rae Dowling’s walk-through fiber-optic piece, “More,” which has a room of its own. Inspired by her time poring over scans of healthy and addicted brains with Dr. Oliver George in his Addiction Research Lab at UC San Diego, “More” lets visitors change the suspended strands of rhythmic, multicolored lights to motionless red with the touch of a button, much as the brain is overwhelmed by an addict’s obsession with drugs.
Interestingly, I heard several people at the opening say: “I’d love to meditate in there!”
Anne Mudge’s intricate cell nuclei, made of six-foot strands of coiled and twisted wire — the same length as DNA strands — are also attractive, as are Alexander Kohnke’s photos of magnified barn owl pellets — undigested owl dinners that look like modern art. And then there’s the interactive back room devoted to Trish Stone, an artist/technologist who is Programs Coordinator for Qualcomm Institute/Calit2 at UCSD and hopes to change the world. After examining her hand-painted, protest-sign-wielding Tiny Trishes, you can join her search for connection and wander through some of her landscapes in two separate video games.
There’s much more to experience at SDAI, which keeps becoming more inclusive, collaborative and engaging, and now has free admission.
Don’t miss this exhibit, and try to download the Artists’ Words on sandiego-art.org before you go (scroll down under Exhibitions to Read More) or spring for a $3 catalog when you’re there — it’s illuminating.
• IF YOU GO: “Illumination: 21st century interactions with art, science and technology” is on exhibit through May 3, 2020 at San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego. Hours: noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. (619) 236-0011. sandiego-art.org