By Katherine Duke '05
I’m in a gallery of the Mead Art Museum, examining three sculptures. Each one is a sort of woven basket, oddly shaped and adorned with beads and loops of wire in various bright colors. The small plaque beneath each creation lists the artist’s media as “Wood, reed and data.”
Data? How does one make a sculpture out of data?
On March 10 in the Mead Art Museum, Artist-in-Residence Nathalie Miebach spoke about her latest project, in which she used information about the weather to create sculptures and music.
Miebach’s interest in using science to produce art began eight years ago, when she took classes in the astronomy department at Harvard. Three years ago, she shifted her focus exclusively to weather. “I was on Cape Cod for about two years, and every day I would go to the same beach and record weather,” she said. She used simple devices to gather objective data, but she also kept a daily weather journal, recording her own impressions of the conditions around her. “Weather is not just an amalgam of systems that you can record with your instruments,” she explained to us in the audience. “If you go to an environment and you rely entirely on your instruments for weather data, you will never understand weather, because weather really is an interaction with an environment.”
Then she went to Boston to observe weather in an urban environment—a more complicated endeavor, because buildings and pollution and human population patterns all affect natural weather processes and vice versa. “You can read one [measurement] going down one block, but then you’ll read a totally different thing going down the other block,” she said. “This fragmented way of hearing weather reminded me of, for example, the way instruments are part of a symphony.”
Never having studied music before, Miebach composed a rather unusual score (one page of which she had copied for each audience member to look at). The basis of the music was her regular readings of temperature, humidity and barometric pressure, which she plotted in particular colors as notes on a musical staff. “Whatever the average [reading] was, was that middle line in the staff, and I went from there.” Other symbols stood in for cloud cover at any given time, and wind directions became blue lines crisscrossing the page. Miebach also translated her paper scores into the three woven sculptures now on display. The sculptures can actually be read and played on an instrument.
Miebach worked with various musicians and finally partnered with pianist Elaine Rombola. To Meibach’s delight, “Elaine saw things in the score I didn’t see,” being able to look “through the eyes of a piano.” Rombola transferred the colorful score into more traditional musical notation and made decisions about, for example, where to vary the tempo—but she stayed faithful to the weather readings and the numerical relationships between temperature, pressure and humidity. The music turns out to somehow sound like how the weather feels.
Inside the Mead, the artist and the musician presented t two pieces. Journey into a New Night is based on the weather, and the emotionally and temporally “re-shuffled” way that Miebach perceived it, during the week that her father-in-law died. Of External Weather, Internal Storm, Miebach explained, “In early November, there was a storm that was very, very violent in the sky, but you couldn’t hear it. … There was a very slow build-up, over several days, until it finally burst one night. And this coincided with a visit that I had of my parents, and this visit kind of brought up a lot of internal storms.”
Rombola played each piece on a piano. Sometimes the music was loud, low and rumbling—it sounded, to me, like a thunderstorm brewing. At other times, Rombola switched to high, gentle, slow notes, landing like soft raindrops. Occasionally, she reached inside the piano and strummed the strings in a particular direction, which, she explained in the concluding question-and-answer period, represented the direction of the wind.
At one point in the Q&A, an audience member remarked, “I thought what was especially interesting today is, as we’re listening and looking at your pieces, being surrounded by so much weather on the walls.” He was right: the gallery walls were covered with different painted landscapes showing snow, clouds, sunshine and storms at sea. Artists have always attempted to capture the human experience of our world’s weather. But never, perhaps, in quite the way that Miebach and Rombola have.
This exhibition by Artist-in-Residence Nathalie Miebach is on display in the Eli Marsh Gallery of Fayerweather Hall until April 17, 2009.
Photo by Geoffrey Giller '10