Saturday, June 17, 2023

Curiosity and Wonder: Gingko Butterfly Installation

How long ago did humans discover that, with a little artful manipulation, gingko leaves can be transformed into wondrous butterflies? The discovery could date back to the dawn of humankind. The gingko, a living fossil that hasn't changed for more than 200 million years, is a living link to the dinosaurs. 

In this ephemeral installation project on the eastern shore of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, I am using the illusion to entertain our species during what sometimes feels like the twilight of the apocalypse.

Butterflies in progress

I played with various mediums and discovered a few basic principles in creating gingko leaf butterflies:

• Always split the stem into antennae when fresh-picked (otherwise it will be too brittle to split)
• Acrylic paint is the only medium I tried that worked; pens and markers do not
• Create a base layer of color first and let it dry before adding the decorative details
• Metallic acrylics produced my favorite results
• I used little blobs of museum wax to affix to trees; scotch tape would be an alternative


Mixed metallic and regular

The installation's focus is on attention to detail, beauty, curiosity and wonder. My hopes for viewer participation are as follows:

1. Notice: What is that? A butterfly?
2: Curiosity: Wait a minute, is it real?

3. Awe and wonder: It's a leaf! A gingko leaf on this beautiful gingko tree...

Below are a handful of photographs of the butterflies installed on the trunks of the gingko trees at the edge of the lake.

For those wondering whether I lurk around post-installation to see the results, the answer is no. Whether it is little people vacationing in a pothole, or a miniature luxury apartment for rent installed in a newsstand, the idea is to set it up and walk away. I have done my part, let the world carry on. During this install I got caught in a passers-by back-flow by surprise. By the time I had finished posting butterflies at the far end of the block, strollers were already noticing and stopping to inspect the first ones posted. A nice surprise since my curmudgeonly expectation is that most people walk around blind to their surroundings. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

Folding Time With Cake and Cigarettes


Anyone else fascinated by the idea proposed by physicists that time doesn't really exist? I certainly am, and spent time reading several dense but informative article explaining the idea from the quantum perspective. . . and then tossed those aside and launched into this ephemeral installation of public art.

Forty or so years ago, I regularly rented a little house on the island of Ios in Greece (before the island had cars, electricity, or running water back in the valley where my house was situated). I kept returning over a period of 20 years, and my landlord was a fisherman so prototypically Greek that he appeared mending his nets on one of the most popular postcards in Greece at the time. I became friends with his family over the years and when Panayiotis asked if I could paint a sign for their cafe at one end of Milipotas beach I said, "Sure!" I asked what he wanted the sign to say and he said, "Cake and cigarettes," which struck me as a sort of quintessential, slightly evil form of word play or poetry. It delighted me. I made the sign and they hung it on the outdoor terrace to lure people in from the beach.

Signs in progress - 2023 time zone

After a trip to the paint store to get just the right shade of Mediterranean blue used everywhere on the islands in the Cyclades, I set out to fold time by recreating the sign and using it as a time travel/ transposition tool. Then I headed out to Lake Merritt in Oakland to amuse myself, engage the public, and outwit the physicists.

An Oakland native tries time traveling

Near the colonnade at the top of the lake, I was trying to figure out where to post the sign so I could then step back and take covert photos of the time warp process. I immediately encountered Darnell, who had settled into a folding chair to enjoy a cigarette. He thought the sign was funny, enjoyed the story behind it, and after posing obligingly for the photo above, became a co-director of the shoot, though he was worried that our biggest problem was going to be people coming up wanting to buy cake and cigarettes. I noted that what I really wanted was a shot of the sign with the drum circle that assembled at the colonnade every weekend, but was uneasy about intruding on that scene., Darnell announced, "Well, those drums belong to me, and I think the sign should be hung on that post right above the drummers."

He grabbed the sign and posted it exactly where he thought it should be.

A good time was had by all, and when the session concluded I reposted the sign just inside the colonnade for a series of people shots.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Why do all of this? What is the point? Every once in a while when I wake up in the morning the world seems like a dismal, boring, unfriendly place. That is the point at which I turn to public art installations. If nothing else, it makes the world more interesting to me. And I get to meet people like Darnell.


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