Art and Awe at Djerassi | Leonardo/ISAST

Art and Awe at Djerassi

By Thomas Skalak


Sometimes the connection of people to nature seems very far off, but in this place, with this quiet, this air, this sky and sun - the connection feels closer.  An island floats, or seems to, all the while connected solidly to the earth.  And so it must be for life, connected back over eons to what has come before us … our families, our ancestors, and this same land they touched.  People find meaning through the awesome tragedy of not knowing.  Uncertainty.  An elixir to be savored as the stuff of life.  Are we not a mirror of the universe?  And so unfolds, in our lives and experiences, the questioning, perhaps controlling, surely finding, our way back to the mirror.

This is what I shall be writing about – the awesome mirror of the universe.  It is us, and our only solace, our resolution in each other and our shared connection to the natural world.

In my distracting and absorbing reading over our first week here, I read a piece in the Leonardo journal, The Image of the Change, by Yuting Zou (LEONARDO, Vol. 48: pp 257-263, 2015).  The article deals with the visual representation of symbols for changes in the ancient I Ching (Book of Changes).  In this treatment, I was struck by the symbolism for changes driven by the forces of yin and yang, combining in a single trigram for “Fire”, produced by the upward flow of sun/light and the inward flow of dark/moon which combine to create the conditions to spark up a fire.  In the same way, the interface of art/science and indeed the multitude of forms of human creativity combine to produce the burning flame of human expression in all its forms - whether music, literature, sculpture, architecture, science, engineering, medicine, visual arts, sport, politics, or new media. 

Based on the intersection of this symbolism for change, the historic reverence for the geometric “plane” of Methodologists, the guiding principles of the Djerassi art-science program, and the natural collision here of coastal fog with the intellectual energy contained in the studios, I created a photographic work entitled The Mirror of the Universe. 

In the work, shown in this blog entry, one sees a Middlebrook writing studio at the left, intersecting in a geometric plane with the fog on the right - a collision producing fire.  The superimposed trigram symbol contains three Yin-Yang lines, with a Yang line on top and bottom and a Yin line in the middle, which together create a swirling upward flame.  Aesthetically balanced work traps the essence of life inside of it.

Now I would like to thank Margot Knight, the Executive Director of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.  Margot is a gentle and visionary pioneer, an uncommon and precious combination of qualities.  She does more than she knows for us.  In giving resident artists the gift of time, unfettered by normal daily demands and scheduling of life, she delivers us into another realm of being – a way of living that feels not of this world.  As she wrote in the Leonardo Gallery (LEONARDO Vol. 51: pp227-238, 2018) for the Leonardo-Djerassi 4.0 program, “Let’s bend the rules of the academy to reward rather than pigeonhole big thinkers.  Discoveries that change the world are often the work of the brave people working on the edges.” 

Sometimes we will even fall off the edge, and look into the abyss or up at the heavens.  Having once looked, we are in possession of the profound awe that comes only to those who watch.  Having possessed it, we may find peace. 

Thank you, Margot.