Chandelier for Ernst Haeckel
(Installation view 1)
Mixed Media Installation
Chandelier for Ernst Haeckel is a sculptural installation inspired by the observations and studies of 19th-century naturalist Ernst Haeckel. In 1866, Haeckel traveled to the Canary Islands where he met Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published seven years prior. A great admirer of Origins, Haeckel also realized that the technical weight of its subject limited the book’s exposure to the masses. Via his own research he gave name to many previously unknown oceanic life-forms; he sought to marry art and science, and won his greatest popularity when he began visually documenting the species that he discovered. His drawings and engravings would later be published in collections such as Art Forms in Nature and The Radiolarian Atlas, best-sellers in their day. They highlighted Haeckel’s sense of order and detail, but also drew criticism for their exaggerated hyperrealism.
I rediscovered these prints while teaching a sculpture class a few years ago. Around the same time, I had begun work on a new piece, a large, 8’ diameter mandala that was reminiscent of an old ceiling medallion for a chandelier. The main elements are cast-plaster spindles from a Victorian architectural detail, arranged in a circular pattern. I attached thin strips of Plexiglas to each spindle, and then wrapped each strip with electroluminescent wire. Flicking the switch, I was suddenly looking at the underbelly of a massive jellyfish.
Like Haeckel’s prints, Chandelier inspires contemplation in its morphing, mandala-like composition. The Victorian ceiling medallion motif serves as a point of departure in both scale and material, further exaggerating the sculpture’s physical makeup. In contrast to the fluidity of the jellyfish, Haeckel’s tight, oversize geometric renderings of microscopic radiolaria began to intrigue me. I decided to add a radiolarian element to my piece, which, like Haeckel’s own imagery, was many times larger. Using an armature of plywood and perforated steel, I poured liquid plastic over it and added cast elements to create a hybrid form. I then covered it in glow-in-the-dark safety paint, activated by UV lights from above. Small, mirrored discs attach to the ceiling medallion, which offer glimpses of parts unseen from below.
Aspects of Haeckel’s work that further inform Chandelier are the synthesis of art and science, and the systems at work that communicate with each other. Tangential to this is the subculture of parlor microscopy that was all the rage in Haeckel’s day. The well-to-do of Victorian society often gathered to compare slide samples, marveling at one another’s discoveries under the glass. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and man’s impact on nature is increasingly self-evident, with climate change wreaking havoc on populations of fauna and flora around the world. Warming ocean temperatures are causing population explosions in jellyfish, massive bacterial and algae blooms, and widespread destruction of coral reefs. I see the Chandelier as a rogue plankton life-form that has mutated and outgrown the microscope, taken over the parlor, or in this case the carriage house elevator shaft, like some architectural parasite. Nature running amok in response to the indulgences of mankind.
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