Sandbox, 2017. Beach detritus on birch boxes, 33 x 102 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

At the Edge: A Conversation with Gail Wight

Gail Wight’s cavernous studio on the Stanford University campus had never looked as curious as it did when I last visited. Dozens of abalone shells huddled on the worktable. Foaming waves curled down banners that hung from ceiling to floor. An entire wall was taken over by a corps de ballet of mutant seaweeds, swaying to a liquid rhythm. Forces of nature apparently had taken the upper hand, preempting the experimental laboratory vibe that usually fills her high-tech workspace.

When I asked Wight about the dramatic shift in her work, she talked about her love for the Northern California beach coves that she has explored for decades. While our prior studio conversations were lessons in the fascinations of botany, paleontology, and fractal theory, Wight’s latest works are liberated from systems of thought. They are more visceral in the making and in the viewing—fueled by empiricism and the basic joy of being outdoors. Wight invited me to visit her “real studio” a few hours north, on the Pacific Coast where she resides part-time. Our outdoor discussion took place at Salt Point State Park, by the tidal pools hidden below a strip of rocky coastline in northern Sonoma County, where the Coastal Range slopes down to the edge of the continent.

Hexapodarium: Passi ora canus, 2014. Archival pigment print on Moab Slickrock Pearl, 16 x 16 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Susan Krane: Why is this rugged cove on the Pacific Ocean your primary studio space?
Gail Wight:
Start with the ocean: the ocean is an explosive, creative, evolutionary space for shape and form. I don’t think that we could possibly find the same variation of form anywhere on land. The intertidal zone is a bubbling kettle of experimental evolution, happening right here. There are so many vertebrates, invertebrates—microscopic and macroscopic. I’m mesmerized by all the variations of shape and form in this very limited space. Evolution is happening all the time everywhere, but the amount of variation in this tiny space is mind-boggling.

SK: You started out as a sculpture major at MassArt, before you became interested in technology. You seem to approach digital media with a DIY, maker sensibility.
GW: In one of the first computer classes offered at MassArt, they realized that if they were going to get the sculpture students’ attention and be able to teach us anything, they had to let us take a computer apart first. So, they handed us a screwdriver before we learned the first thing about programming. It was brilliant.

SK: And you’re still taking things apart.
Absolutely. I’m constantly experimenting with materials, looking for new ways to engage with the materiality of the world. I have been working with seaweed and with tide pools and wind as subject matter. I am trying to stretch my ability—my mediums and materials—to push up against technology. I’m not so enamored of new technologies per se, but of what they can do in relationship to our older traditions and technologies.

Installation view of “Cerulean Blues,” with Copepodilia, 64 pigment prints, and Pool, video installation with water, sound, and custom electronics, 15 x 4 x 12 ft., both 2017. Stanford Art Gallery. Photo: Gay Outlaw

SK: Can you give an example of that push and pull?
GW: Victorian seaweed pressing is a very old art form. But the immediacy of the color, the translucency, and the details can’t be preserved other than with vast amounts of formaldehyde. I can preserve them, though, with an extremely high-res scanner. That’s not possible without technology. I press seaweeds, recombine the forms (I’m experimenting with laser-cutting, too), and scan them at 12,000 dpi as in Copepodilia (2017). Then I use inkjet printing on Arches watercolor paper—a mash-up of new and old.

SK: The sensory input down below the ridge of the cliff is dramatic. The sun is intense and the wind is gusting to 40 knots, yet it’s completely silent in some corners. We’re engulfed in the salty smell of the ocean, the roar and spray of waves. To get here, we hauled ourselves through huge boulder fields exposed at low tide, slippery with algae and kelp, and climbed over rocks covered with sea anemones. Does this very physical experience stay in your mind when you’re back at the computer screen, absorbed in production?
GW: Yes. My work has shifted, with growth and aging, because of a frustration with my toolset. The technology is constantly changing. It’s frustrating to constantly have to relearn my tools. I am sometimes very jealous of colleagues who have used the same paintbrush for years. I’m jealous of that old-friend familiarity that you can have with your tools. Having this place as my material-gathering environment (and being able to delve into my subject matter in an indulgent way) makes the time in front of my computer much more rewarding.

I look for tools that bring my body back into the technology, that allow me to be physical with things, to partly solve the disembodiment of technology. I had a real breakthrough when I was working on Ground Plane (2008). I needed a more fluid way of working, but I couldn’t be fluid with a mouse and 1,000 pictures of bones. I bought a Cintiq monitor that you can draw on with a pen. I could touch the image, move it around with my wrist, turn it. That impacted everything I’ve done since. I have three little video projectors that I can move around, instead of a big heavy projector that has to be rigidly mounted in space. I want to be able to use projectors sculpturally. I’m also pushing back against the garish palette of technology by showing video in ambient daylight. I love how daylight makes the images a little soft around the edges. You have to let your eyes adjust. It’s not what we expect. We expect full saturation from video.

Ground Plane #9, 2008. Archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle Sugarcane, 42 x 42 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

SK: You’ve also been making geometric “drawings” such as Sandbox (2017), with tiny shells that you collect at Stillwater Cove and glue onto small boxes. Much of your work lives at this fingertip scale, made with intimate delicacy. These pieces seem to look squarely at attitudes about women’s craft—homey, trivialized activities like pressing flowers, découpage, and “shell art.” What is your intent in invoking traditionally domestic, female endeavors and decorative crafts? There’s quite a contrast with the vast scale of your thinking about evolution—or the geological scale at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There’s nothing dainty or human-scale about this environment.
For me, it is about the process of having climbed over these rocks. The women who made Victorian seaweed pressings wore hoop skirts and long dresses to do the same thing. This was their way to be included in scientific discourse. I think they sought out any place where they could be useful. They weren’t allowed to go on ship voyages: they were allowed to categorize, preserve, and illustrate the specimens that explorers brought back.

There were many women who analyzed the seaweeds that came back from big 19th-century expeditions. It became a popular, accepted art form for women, but also an adventurous one, and one that allowed women to go climb on rocks. I grew up on Long Island Sound and spent my childhood climbing around rocks. I feel like I’m back in that tomboy childhood, which was so heavenly. It’s deep within me, but I am not a 10-year-old tomboy anymore. I have faced down plenty of sexism, especially around the use of technology, which is a very controlled power space. The one-upmanship around technology is not just experienced by women. Men experience it, too, and it’s ludicrous. With seaweed pressing, I knew I was going to be (excuse the bad pun) wading into this feminine territory. I wanted to reclaim it seriously, as a contemporary artist.

There’s nothing rigorously scientific about Copepodilia. It’s about the euphoria of my imagination in regard to copepods, small crustaceans that I had not known existed, but are the most numerous things on the planet. I invite others to delve in and enjoy this exuberance, too. I’m not going to apologize for how funny or ridiculous or frilly they are.

SK: There’s a degree of meticulousness in everything you do, in art and in life. The task of making feels very apparent—very self-absorbing, pleasurable but demanding.
GW: I had a wonderful teacher as an undergrad, Donald Burgy, a fantastic conceptual artist. He convinced me that I should let go of the world of objects and only make art that was constructed in thought. I tried my hardest. I thought it would be good for the world and for me to give up all this material excess, but I just couldn’t do it. I love the physicality of the world. I can’t keep my hands still.

In the Time of Anemones, 2018. Video, holographic film, Plexiglas, wood, and metal endings, 12 in. diameter, 20-min. loop. Photo: Courtesy the artist

SK: You circle back to knowing the world directly through touch. How do you negotiate the dance between the sensory and conceptual sides of your work?
GW: As a maker, I think about the aspects of fabrication that resonate with my subject matter. When I am meticulous and take an enormous amount of care, then I’m resonating with the care and attention that I want you to take when looking at, say, a fly wing and with the discourse of natural history, which I want you to think about, too.

It is about the suspension of disbelief, as in cinema. I want you to have a moment with the work that transcends its materiality. When I am shooting video, I get lost in the detail out here in the tide pools. I want to give that back to the viewer—the chance to get lost in the intricacy of this creature or plant.

SK: You’ve said that people can be judgmental about the craft in your work. I admit that when you first showed me the fly-wing flowers on the computer, I thought the patterns were just literal. I had to trust you and look more closely. Is that what you mean by confrontation?
Absolutely. There’s a side of me that doesn’t want to apologize for the vernacular. I don’t want to be talking just to an isolated and astute art audience; I’m much more interested in reaching a broad public. Scientists who look at The Hexapodarium (2014) see certain envelopes of shape and form that occur over and over again in nature. These are things I thought about in the construction of the piece.

My long friezes of fly flowers refer to Rudolph F. Zallinger’s The Age of Reptiles (1947) at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which had a huge impact on me. Scientists have told me that my work reminds them of these murals, which depict the earth’s evolution. I felt then that I had reached a broader audience—people who read other books, look at other things, who are not only thinking about the latest Venice Biennale. I desperately want that.

Installation view of The Hexapodarium, 2014. 60 archival pigment prints on Moab Slickrock Pearl, 16 x 16 in. each. Photo: Courtesy the artist

SK: On our drive to Salt Point, you mentioned the urgency that scientists feel to get proof about climate change into the world. In contrast, you said, “I want to make people fall in love.”
I’m not interested in illustrating the science because I don’t think we’re dealing with rational thought in terms of people’s decision-making. We can make a rational argument that people need to drive less, eat less meat, think about their carbon footprint. It just doesn’t go very far. But the beauty, the falling in love? In my work, I’d rather try to appeal to the irrational. I’d rather have you gasp at the unexpected beauty of a strange little oceanic worm underneath a clamshell in a tide pool that peeks its head out and does a feathery little dance. I want people to be smitten by these strange creatures.

I want to bring experience and emotion into the art-viewing moment. Maybe next time someone reads an article about why it’s important not to use so much plastic because there are plastic nurdles in every teaspoon of ocean water, they’ll think of my feathery sea worm. They’ll want that creature to live because it was beautiful. Their response may be emotional and caring.

SK: You often mention 19th-century scientific sources. Do the era’s practices of observation appeal to you?
GW: Actually, I have read very little from that era, but I do read contemporary books about it. It’s the jumping-off point for contemporary science. I don’t want to be trapped in the 18th- or 19th-century naturalist world. I’m very interested in scientific critique from pre-Darwin on—the scientific critique of scientific pedagogy. I’m interested in looking at the paths not taken. What ways of looking at the world did we ignore at the behest of technology? Reading about the past two or three centuries allows me to understand the cultural funhouse glasses that I’m wearing all the time. I also read quite a bit about chaos theory, complexity theory, deep time. Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction (2014), writes that human civilization will be compressed into a layer on the earth’s surface about the thickness of a cigarette paper. I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind—this is what will be left of us, this papery skin of a future. The Anthropocene is now accepted scientific terminology. We have made the kind of impact that will show up in the geological record.

Center of Gravity, 2008. 15 digital pigment prints on kozo washi paper, Plexiglas, light, electronics, motion sensor, and sound, 96 x 3 x 3 in. each. Photo: Courtesy the artist

SK: When you’re at work out here, is that context key to your perception of the natural world?
GW: Absolutely, our moment of extinction will come. If today we can save one creature, that’s an exponential gene pool out in the future. For every thing that we can save today, the world will be exponentially richer. I find that to be the most inspiring thing.

SK: Do you ever get footloose with the science? How does science interact with your imagination?
The most playful part of conceiving the work is being completely irreverent with the science—completely irreverent—and at the same time getting the science right. That’s a tricky back and forth.

SK: How did you make your fictional copepods?
I read just a pinch about copepods. I deliberately stopped so that I wouldn’t over-structure my imagination and wreck it. If I knew too much, there was absolutely no way I could be as playful as in my ignorance. But I did need to know enough so that a scientist would recognize them as copepod-ish.

SK: Is it important to you that working in the tide pools is physically hard? Even collecting tiny shells on the beach is painstaking.
It is super physical down here. It’s exhausting in a good way and exhilarating. There’s something very real about using your body like this. Being out here feels like honest labor. I am working hard to get this footage. I’m using a little, ordinary camera. You know it’s my footage. There’s a legitimacy to the ownership of the production that’s important to me personally—to having my hands on something, to getting dirty.

In the Time of Anemones, 2018. Video, holographic film, Plexiglas, wood, and metal findings, 12 in. diameter. Photo: Courtesy Patricia Sweetow Gallery

SK: What is your take on art and science?
Everybody loves to talk about art and science as one glorious love fest of two symbiotic things. They are not at all. Scientists have to be so careful, to measure everything. They can’t go hog-wild crazy. Art doesn’t work unless you do just that. You just have to go wild—throw an egg on it.

SK: You love taxonomies, and there is often such order to your work. When do you “throw an egg on it?”
GW: Almost never. Many painters just go at a blank canvas. I can’t do that. Some people plan before they touch anything. Some people hurl at it like it’s a wrestling match. I am somewhere in between. I’m still hunting for things in the tide pools. I don’t know what they are, because I’m still learning what’s down there. There is a point when I just dunk the camera in the water and see whatever is happening. Frequently, I take my bendy tripod and set up the shot, and the camera sits undisturbed for 10 minutes. And then there are moments when there’s something moving and I desperately want to keep the camera on that creature, but the ocean is pounding and the wind is trying to knock me over and I’m sliding, and I didn’t quite get my position right and all my muscles are tight. All I’m thinking about is the thing in front of the lens.

There’s a great tension to play with between the tender and the wild. There are moments when it’s really beautiful and things are moving slowly. Then a giant crab will stomp through and poke the anemones to get them to close up so that it’s easier to walk across them. It’s a fabulously aggressive, wild moment after a previously very lovely, tender moment.

SK: The poignancy of your work comes from your transposition of nature, taking it out of the wild.
GW: Yes, into a place where it doesn’t really belong. I have given myself this limitation, this section of shoreline. This is my palette. I can’t go outside of this. Everything I want to talk about is at Salt Point. I would like to honor this little section of Northern California coastline.