Climate change as art
From data, delight: An artist pulls her sculpture and music from the climate change numbers in the news.
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It hasn't always been science for art's sake. Miebach originally sought to use art as a way to articulate climate change. One of her installations was based on NASA's ozone hole data. Using stacked sheets of tracing paper with a cutout center to represent one day in the polar region, Miebach built 3-D models of the hole representing two-month periods over 10 years. That work, which was exhibited in the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., revealed not a linear progression of the breakdown of the protective gas but a "pulsating being that is contracting and expanding all the time," says Miebach.Skip to next paragraph
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The idea for combining scientific data and art emerged for Miebach in 2000. She enrolled in a community basket-weaving class and a Harvard University astronomy course at the same time. Studying images of stars felt far removed from the tactile experience of weaving. To reconcile this, instead of a final astronomy paper, Miebach turned in a basket that depicted the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, or the life span of a star. "I had a very open-minded professor," jokes Miebach.
Between 2006 and 2008, she spent two seven-month stints on Cape Cod at the Fine Arts Work Center recording and observing the elements. As she did so, her focus shifted. Instead of viewing weather through "the lens of climate change," she strove to understand it "on its own terms," she says. Meibach eventually relied less on her scientific instruments and more on her peripheral sensory observations, the key, she feels, to understanding complex relationships.
As she began to experience and translate the interplay of the wind, the water, the sand, and even the birds Miebach incorporated toylike visuals into her work. Now she spends time in toy stores, mining for more ideas to engage viewers.
"The first time I saw Nathalie's 'Gulf of Maine' [wall sculpture] I just wanted to lie down on the floor and stare at it for hours," says Amy Holt Cline, a marine-science teacher who taught a high school course about the Gulf of Maine in Gloucester, Mass. "Art is a perfect tool to understand science better because students need to be able to see their ideas in 3-D" and not just as computer images.
In order to push the limits of her own weather "language" of basketry, Miebach seeks new perspectives and audiences for her data, including those of scientists.
"Specification has eradicated a sense of playfulness in discovery," says Brian Knep, an artist in residence at Harvard Medical School who invited Miebach to present her work there. Mr. Knep frequently brings in artists working with scientific data to lecture as a way to engage different viewpoints.
"When [the scientists] meet these artists ... they say 'I want to do that,' " says Knep. "They just want the freedom to explore."
Miebach says she is now content to stay in the questions presented by weather data instead of trying to resolve their scientific meaning.
"What is wind? You could spend a lifetime answering that question," says Miebach. "There is a lot of beauty that can come out if you allow that question to linger."