On October 23rd, 2017 we learned about

How rocks collected for their aesthetic value contributed to the collapse of a Chinese Empire

My third grader returned from a Girl Scout camping trip this weekend with stories, craft projects, and of course, a new rock. This particular rock was broken into a few pieces that interlocked together, making it a “puzzle” rock, which was interesting, but still a five-pound hunk of geology she doesn’t really have space for in her room. I asked if she had any idea what kind of rock it was, guessing it was some kind of sandstone maybe? The only classification that mattered to my daughter was that it was an interesting rock. It was pretty. It was a rock that caught her eye. My inner nerd sighed, but the art student in me is fine with this. Aesthetics can be important. They can move us to action or to calm serenity. In some cases, things do get out of hand though, like that time when rock collecting helped bring down a 12th-century emperor in China.

From contemplation to craze

Like my third grader’s current rock collection, this story started much more innocently. In 826 AD, Bai Juyi, a regional administrator and poet, was captivated by a pair of heavily weathered rocks near a lake. They were gnarled and craggy, standing upright in the ground, clearly displaying ages of rough treatment by the elements. Bai Juyi took them home, but more importantly wrote a poem about them, transforming them from a personal aesthetic experience into a anchors for a national movement. Other scholars were drawn to his observations about how the rocks marked the power of nature, contrasted the transience of human lives, and inspired quiet, Taoist contemplation.

Naturally, all these ideas about enjoying the stoic beauty of well-worn stones inspired a bit of a fad. Bai Juyi noted the growing fascination, and compared his lithomania to an addiction, suggesting that his compatriots limit their daily rock meditations to a few hours a day. People codified the virtues of rocks, noting their shou, zhou, lou, and tou— their upright stature, furrowed textures, carved channels and deep perforations that allowed air and light to pass through them. Rocks were featured in paintings, often dwarfing any human subjects that happened to be included. So-called “spirit stones” became a fixture of well-educated households, and the civil servants and artists of the time made a point to appreciate carefully selected rocks in terms we usually associate with paintings or poetry. Some stones could fit on a table, but more ambitious collectors stared acquiring pieces of twisted limestone large enough to tower over visitors.

This is where things get complicated. I can insist that my daughter only collect rocks she’s willing to carry on her own, but when an Emperor is the one doing the collecting, it’s hard for anyone to say no. In the 12th century, the Emperor Huizong was a noted artist quite obsessed with building up his rock garden. Details seem to vary depending on the source, with some accounts mentioning bridges being dismantled to allow a large stone to be transported down a river, for instance, but everyone agrees that the Huizong’s collection stressed the Northern Song Empire’s resources. When invaders came calling in 1125 AD, the empire had sunk so many resources into Huizong’s aesthetic interests that it couldn’t properly defend its borders. Sadly, the carefully tended garden did not survive either, sadly undermining the persistence symbolized by the rocks’ themselves.

International interpretation

Thankfully, not all rock collections have spiraled out of control like this. When Chinese lithomania arrived in 15th-century Japan, it was transformed. Rather than celebrating rough, tortured shapes, Japan was enamored with smoother rocks with more gentle silhouettes. These stones were still collected, but were displayed in sand, water or gravel to imitate the look of a miniature mountain. Eventually, Zen Buddhist monks started raking the gravel around stones to reflect the movement of wind and water, but they avoided the frantic collecting that brought down the Northern Song Empire.

As long as aesthetics drive my daughter’s interest in rocks, this second model seems like an easier path to follow. I just worry about the day she requests a large amount of gravel to cover her floor.

Source: The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition, Open Culture

On October 18th, 2017 we learned about

STEM students can, and probably should, do a bit of dancing

When my wife was a graduate student, she helped run a dance troupe, took ballet classes, and performed and help produce a campus-wide dance show. The program ran over an hour, featuring everything from hula to ballroom, lyrical to… something approximating hip-hop. These performers probably weren’t going to give up their day jobs, but they all looked pretty amazing considering their day jobs had them working in some of the world’s most prestigious research labs across a huge range of fields. Nobody questioned the value of dance in these scientists’ lives, and the school community was very supportive of the show each year. A more formalized study from North Carolina State University has come to similar, if more specific conclusions. Even top-notch biochemists benefit from time on the dance floor.

Finding balance with ballet or ballroom

The study was framed against the multitude of calls for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. As technology continues to shape our economies and capabilities, STEM proponents feel that students need to be more thoroughly prepared to have an active role in those fields, or else risk falling behind. However, focus shouldn’t mean ignoring other activities, and it seems that students from all disciplines, including STEM, can improve their lives by participating in creative arts like a dance troupe or class.

The pattern that emerged through surveys and interviews was that dance was both complementary and supplementary to academic work. Rehearsing a specific dance for a class or possible performance requires, and reinforces, self-discipline that is crucial for any form of research. Students reported dance helped them work with larger groups, and it was easier to incorporate multiple viewpoints into their thinking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that dance can be fun, allowing for personal expression and a sense of community, all without the need for a keg of beer. Researchers hope to follow up with a more quantifiable study, looking at how participating in dance affects work performance and personal health.

Mental challenges of choreographed movement

Beyond proving the value of dance in STEM-oriented environments, many previous studies have looked at how dance can benefit individual brains. The rhythmic movement has been found to trigger reward centers, which are further boosted by the accompanying music during a performance. Coordinated efforts in choreographed and spontaneous dance have been found to increase activity in the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all in order to handle planning, control and movement of the body. Some of this is likely true for other physical activities as well, but in a 2003 study, only dance classes were found to help lower participants’ risk of developing dementia. This is thought to be tied to some of the social aspects of dance that isn’t replicated in a game of golf, for instance.

Where does all this lead us? To Dance Your PhD, of course.

Source: How Dance Can Help Students in STEM Disciplines by Fay Cobb Payton and Matt Shipman, NC State News

On September 28th, 2017 we learned about

Test authenticating paintings’ particular yellow pigment turns up with problems of its own

By the time you graduate from that first batch of eight crayons, you start to learn that just how much variability there is between one hue and it’s closest cousins. Despite similar naming conventions, you wouldn’t arbitrarily substitute Strawberry for Raspberry Red. These differences can even persist in what is supposedly the same color, depending on its formulation. A pigment known as Indian yellow is so particular it’s origins have become the stuff of slightly unbelievable legend. More importantly, the pigment has also become the center of controversy in identifying the dates and possible authenticity of many famous paintings from the early 1900s.

One of the best places to see Indian yellow is in the sunsets painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The impressive but not overly-saturated yellow of the late afternoon sun in Caernarvon Castle, for instance, is an example of a pigment that originally became popular with European painters back in the 14th century. Supposedly, it was produced only in Bihar province in India, where cows were fed only mango leaves. The cows’ urine was then collected and dried so that the remaining concentrate could be mixed with oil, creating the subtle hue that many artists desired. This method of production then continued until the early 1900s when it was halted out of concern for the cows, although that also happens to be around the same time when synthetic dyes and pigments were becoming more widely available.

Testing paint with the wrong test

Whether or not it was ever in a cow’s bladder, true Indian yellow is a magnesium salt of euxanthic acid. Its synthetic competitors were generally azo-based dyes, including tartrazine, a compound found in food coloring today. The synthetic, “fake” Indian yellow may have looked the part to most observers, but it was quite different on a molecular scale. This has proved useful to historians and curators, as the type of yellow could be used to prove when a particular painting was created (or at least altered or repaired.) By comparing the chemical signature of a euxanthic acid against an unknown painting, a researcher could tell if it was painted before or after the early 1900s. Theoretically.

This system was recently discovered to have a major flaw. People’s understanding of the two different paints was correct, but the “real” Indian yellow that they were often comparing new samples against was discovered to respond to measurements just like “fake” tartrazine pigments did. Essentially, people were checking for forged or altered paintings by comparing them to another “fake.” While figuring out how this mix-up occurred in the first place will take some time, curators are now looking to double check the paintings already in their collections. Fortunately, only Indian yellow made with euxanthic acid will fluoresce under ultraviolet blacklights. This low-cost test promises a quick alternative method of authentication, at least until a new spectral analysis standard can be established.

Source: The hunt for Indian yellow by Raychelle Burks, Chemistry World

On July 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Protecting artwork for posterity when it’s made from materials prone to dilapidation and putrefaction

In the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of going to an art museum with eight- and four-year-olds, once at the four-year-old’s request. They especially enjoyed the modern and contemporary pieces that felt more open-ended in how they could be interpreted (protip: kids like Nick Cave.) The biggest concern for our visits was reminding everyone that these objects, even the stuffed animals sewn into a suit composed largely of fishing bobs, weren’t there for us to touch. In order for people two thousand years in the future to be able to see these new pieces the way we were able to see an Egyptian sarcophagus, we all needed to do our part to keep things as pristine as possible. This challenge extends beyond kids’ fingers though, as non-traditional materials used in contemporary art are posing huge challenges for art curators.

Replace and repair

Synthetic items like fishing bobs and stuffed animals seem like the should be easy to preserve. Plastics famously take ages to break down, but manufactured goods don’t always hold up the way you expect. A plastic bob might get cracked during transport, or lost as some of the knitted yarn that holds it breaks down. The question then becomes how to repair the piece— if the original item can no longer be purchased, do you find a substitute? How much change can a piece of art accommodate before it’s no longer the same creation? This has been an issue in some art purposely built from manufactured goods, like florescent tube lights in installations by Dan Flavin. In that case, Flavin knew the lights couldn’t be replaced forever, forcing the piece to change over time.

Responding to rot

Some materials turn sculptures or paintings into what amount to performances. Food has been incorporated into art for thousands of years, but when that food isn’t just presented as an image, things can get messy. Dieter Roth embraced this in his biodegradable art, covering photos in cheese to see how they’d change over time. Jim Victor and Marie Pelton sculpt butter in refrigerated cases, knowing that each piece has a short lifespan from the start. When the eventual decomposition isn’t intentional though, art conservationists have a bigger problem. Janine Antoni has made a few copies of a piece called Lick and Lather, each consisting of self-portrait busts made of chocolate and soap. Over time, chocolate pushes some fatty lipids to the surface, adding white, chalky texture to the otherwise brown surface. The soap versions actually prove to be more difficult to preserve, and curators have worked with Antoni reformulate the exact soap formula so that future replacements can hopefully survive the test of time a bit longer.

Recuse from the light

Of course, even traditional materials need special care to hold up over time. While the effects of heat and humidity might be more obvious, even light can damage an oil painting. Ultraviolet light can damage pigments in paint, breaking up specific molecules that end up changing the painting’s colors. Museums therefore do their best to avoid bright light on paintings, but even darkness can cause changes. Linseed oils used to make the oil paint more malleable tend to darken and yellow in darkness, although that particular change is eventually self-correcting after a painting is exposed to light again.

All these changes mean that a lot of planning, thought and even physics and chemistry are needed to keep art objects in good shape over long periods of time. Collectors are now having art appraised not just for their vision and value, but also for how durable the piece may be. In some cases, the solution is to plan ahead and build replacement parts with an original piece, but other times the answer seem to be accepting that change is inevitable. Even if something doesn’t end up looking like the artist originally intended, there’s still a good chance it will be valued and appreciated for generations to come— just ask those Greek sculptors who might barely recognize their own work now that the paint and arms have fallen off.

Source: How Do You Conserve Art Made of Bologna, or Bubble Gum, or Soap? by Jacoba Urist, The Atlantic

On March 16th, 2017 we learned about

Among manipulated mouths, study participants see happiness in the Mona Lisa’s smile

It’s fairly safe to say that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. The image of a woman sitting in front of a distant landscape isn’t conceptually unique, but the details of its execution have made the the subject of great, enduring fascination with artists, historians and even engineers since it was painted. Mysteries abound, with one of the weirder questions apparently focused on one of the central points of the painting— the woman’s smile. Interpretations of the smile cover a wide range of emotions, but a new study involving digital manipulation and detailed response tracking seems to have found new consensus about what is being portrayed. She’s smiling because she’s happy.

Seeing emotion on a spectrum

It’s easy to scoff at such a finding, but there’s more to it than simply pointing to a smile and declaring “happiness.” Closer examination shows a number oddities in the subject’s face, from a lack of eyebrows to an ambiguous tension in the cheeks that make identifying a “true smile” difficult. This has prompted speculation about the the portrait possibly portraying a smirk, hidden sadness, or even… disdain? It’s a lot to unpack, but this latest study tried to tease out what people saw in the Mona Lisa’s face by changing it.

Participants were shown a black and white reproduction of the original painting, as well as eight variations that had subtle changes to the mouth. Some variations were more upturned, and rated as ‘happier,’ while others were more downturned and thus, ‘sadder.’ When compared to this wider range of expressions, the original was still identified as happy 97% of the time. To see how much context may change things, participants were also asked to interpret eight variations that were nearly all on the “sad” side of the emotional spectrum, with the original painting being the most positive option. Again, the original was rated as happy, and in the process a clue was revealed that may help explain people’s reactions.

Slower to see sorrow

When rating the emotional content of each face, people routinely responded faster to happier expressions. While the overall context did seem to shape people’s opinions, possibly shifting the center of what it meant to appear happy, this timing may indicate that there is a neurological bias that anchors us around happy faces. Whether or not this settles anything for the art community isn’t clear, but researchers want to continue the experiments with people with autism and other psychological disorders to see if there’s any difference in how the faces are interpreted. The suspicion is that psychological disorders may involve a gap between sensory input and the ability to properly contextualize that information. Or maybe everyone is just distracted by the lack of eyebrows.

Source: 'Mona Lisa' Is Smiling, Really by Laura Geggel, Live Science

On February 28th, 2017 we learned about

Significant sophistication seen in carved and painted Stone Age slabs

A European painter has been turning heads recently thanks to their innovative use of materials, and how those materials influence the overall composition of their imagery. Animals are rendered not in fine lines, but in bold spots, carved out of stone slabs. The shape of the stone ‘canvases’ play a role too, with natural edges being incorporated as part of the subjects’ silhouettes. There’s enough to these depictions of natural landscapes to arouse our curiosity, but sadly, we’ll never be able to fully know the motivations of the artist, or artists, because they’ve been dead for 38,000 years.

Life drawing in limestone

We do know that whatever drove the creation of these images, their creator worked hard to make them. Making these images probably required first rubbing down the surface of the ‘canvas’ rock to flatten and smooth it out. Then a second tool was used to scrape out each individual cupule, or divot-like mark that made up the various animals depicted. This was as many as 60 individual cupules in a single animal, and more likely took hours to complete. That might not sound like the biggest commitment, but considering this task was being accomplished in a time of hunting and gathering, it shows a decent commitment to a project that didn’t directly increase your lifespan.

Aside from the technical demands of carving in stone, there is a degree of sophistication worth noting in these depictions. As described above, an image of a mammoth is carved in profile, with the top edge of the stone slab being used as the animal’s silhouette, complete with shoulder hump and convex neck curve. The cupules don’t seem to be used as random ornament, but are instead used on animals’ bodies, possibly to suggest the texture of their fur. These techniques were also found at multiple archaeological sites from around the same time period, suggesting that they were not flukes, but part of the local cultural repertoire. Basically, art was enough a part of these people’s lives that they spent time and energy to develop it.

Space for art in the stone age

In a world saturated with images and iconography, that might not seem that unusual. However, the Aurignacian people who created these images hadn’t really been out of Africa for terribly long by the time these caves paintings were created. Their world was one of rocky shelters among snow, ice and glaciers, and so there were probably many aspects of basic survival to be concerned about. Nonetheless, involved cave paintings, carvings, bead and clay figurines point to an early need or desire to create and record the world as the Aurignacian’s saw it, which in an era of selfies and customization, is actually pretty relatable after all.

Source: Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots by Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian

On July 24th, 2016 we learned about

Toilet Culture Park teaches the importance of our most paramount plumbing

As a nerdy parent, I’m often pretty excited about taking my kids to a new museum. Places with big dinosaur skeletons, or colorful aquariums are understandably easier for them to engage with than collections of 19th Century American landscapes, but a museum in South Korea may turn out to have the most relatable collection of artifacts in the world. The city of Suwon is home to the Toilet Culture Park, which, comedic value aside, is intended to attract attention to the important role modern toilets play in human health around the world.

Lifelong love of lavatories

The park is thanks to the hygiene interests of a one Sim Jae-duck, who was once mayor of Suwon, as well as the owner of a successful manufacturing business. Sim’s concern with toilets supposedly started at birth, as he was said to have been born in his impoverished grandmother’s outhouse. In his lifetime, Sim saw the rise of modern toilets and the health benefits that accompany them, which motivated his interest in promoting the importance of modern commodes in Korea and elsewhere. In 2002, Sim took on the unglamorous, but important, job of providing bathrooms for World Cup fans flocking to the games in South Korea.

The current park features a cross-section of toilets from around the world, and goes into the history of these crucial devices. There’s also a fair amount of more sculptural pieces, ranging from Rodin’s “The Thinker” seated on stone toilet to bronze statues depicting people in the middle of using a squat toilet.

International interest

The Toilet Culture Park is not alone in its mission of toilet-awareness, as Japan is also home to a toilet museum. In that case, there’s a bit more self-promotion, as TOTO, a toilet manufacturer, has created a collection that includes some toilet history, but with a focus on the plumbing innovations that this “Apple of toilet tech” has developed in its nearly 100-year-old history, starting with “sanitary ceramics.”

Source: World's first toilet theme park opens in South Korea, The Telegraph

On April 3rd, 2016 we learned about

Francesca Caccini’s life as a sixteenth century (female) composer

“What about your girls?” asks Elizabeth, the young pianist in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, “Didn’t you write any music for them?”

The spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has been happily sharing his life story, has to sheepishly explain to his young audience, “Well, Elizabeth, you see in those days, girls were different…” Of course, it would have been much more accurate to say that the way society treated girls was different, especially, in Bach’s case, since his life was actually strikingly similar to one of the Baroque period’s premiere female composers, Francesca Caccini. While Caccini’s music hasn’t been preserved and celebrated as much as Bach’s, she had a long and at times monumental career in her own right.

Born into music

Caccini’s early years aren’t well documented, most likely because most women’s lives weren’t expected to be of historical significance, as the aforementioned spirit of Bach eluded to. Like Bach, Caccini had a musical family, her father being a composer and her mother being a singer. Born in 1587, she appears to have been well educated, and was trained as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and harpist. Her first performances as a singer were with her younger sister and her stepmother Margherita, who was also a singer.

A composer’s career path in the early 17th century generally revolved around finding a patron to fund ongoing composing, singing and teaching. Caccini started working as part of her father’s ensemble with the Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, but was eventually recruited to work for the de’ Medici family. That patronage bestowed a salary and, in a deviation from the experiences of her male counterparts, a dowry, allowing her to marry the singer Giovanni Signorini.

A most inspiring opera

Unfortunately, only one major opera by Caccini has survived the last 500 years, but it was an important piece. La Liberazione di Ruggiero was the first published opera written by a woman, and it was thoroughly appreciated in its own time. The comic opera involving magic and dragons was performed for the visiting Prince Władysław of Poland, who reportedly loved it enough to build a new opera house back home, inviting Caccini to write new music for its opening performances.

Arts to aristocracy

Unlike Bach, Caccini’s relationship with music waned slightly over time. Her daughter with her first husband became a singer, but her mother didn’t want her appearing on stage. After her husband died, she remarried, but to an aristocrat rather than another musician. The family relocated to Lucca, where Caccini had a son. She continued to compose music even after her husband died left her with a comfortable inheritance. However, requests for her daughter to perform on stage were repeatedly denied, as Caccini did not want to risk the family’s reputation with such appearances.

In the end, Caccini slipped out of any remaining limelight. While her life was clearly dominated by writing and teaching music, unlike Bach her death wasn’t directly recorded, much less publicly mourned. We are left to fill in the gaps, with her death likely being correlated to her son becoming the ward of her brother-in-law in 1645, four years after retiring from the de Medici court.

Source: Francesca Caccini, Music Academy Online

On March 20th, 2016 we learned about

Casting doubt on kids’ role as cave painting collaborators

While many ancient cave paintings depict strikingly recognizable humans and animals, some still trip us up. Perhaps revealing a bit of cognitive bias, an 8,000 year old cave painting in the Saharan desert included what was assumed to be human hands, both young and old. It was only upon further analysis that the tiny “baby” hands, tenderly located within the palm area of some adult hands, aren’t from babies at all, or at least, not human babies. Instead, it’s likely that these adults were paired with desert monitor lizards (Varanus griseus), shaking up how to interpret the overall composition.

Dubious digits

Anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré actually noticed the non-baby hands upon her first visit to the cave. They seemed too small, with strangely long fingers. What’s more, while some images on the cave wall were rendered by the artist’s imagination, the hands were the result of stenciling, where somebody’s hand was held up on the wall while darker pigments were applied. The long fingers didn’t come from stylization, they came from some very specific anatomy. However, since stenciling with animals wasn’t known in this part of the world (compared to practices in Australia or South America,) Honoré had to prove that these weren’t babies as others had assumed.

She started with measurements of her nieces, and then moved to a French hospital to ask parents for measurements of their children’s hands. Many parents were happy to pitch in, and the accumulated data showed that human infants have very different proportions than those depicted on the wall. Instead of long fingers, baby fingers are usually around the same length as their palms. With this established, the search for a better-matching hand model commenced.

Reasons for the reptiles

At this point, the best bet is the monitor lizards, although a second phase of comparisons is under way to check on young crocodile feet. Aside from being consistent shape, monitor lizards have symbolic value as protectors by modern nomadic tribes. It doesn’t explain the image entirely, but it does seem like a thread to start explaining the stencils. It also begs the question of if the lizard hands, where were also used in a pattern alongside human hands in a sort of frieze, were live contributors, or simply body parts used as painting tools. If it was the latter, it seems that the ancient artists agreed with W.C. Fields about avoiding working with children or animals.

Source: 'Baby Hands' in Cave Paintings May Actually Belong to Lizards by Kristin Romey, National Geographic

On January 3rd, 2016 we learned about

MoonArk aims to put a microcosm of culture on the Moon

Much of what we’ve left in space has been done out of practicality. Used pieces of spacecraft, lost satellites, and even dune buggies and garbage don’t get returned to Earth because it would be too difficult or energetically costly do bring it home. Not everything we’ve relocated to the cosmos was a leftover though, as many people would like to make a more proactive statement about our species than just being messy. A project in development now seeks to put a bit more of human culture on the Moon beyond our equipment and sun-bleached flags.

Menagerie of mini-monuments

The MoonArk is slated to travel to the Moon on a future mission funded by the Google Lunar XPrize. Rather than carry the usual array of drills, sensors and broadcasting equipment that usually get carted out of our atmosphere, this small capsule will carry more culturally significant items, intended as examples of our humanity for possible extra terrestrial visitors, as well as conceptual art for those of us remaining on Earth. The contents of the small capsule would likely be slightly confusing removed from their original context, but will hopefully add up to a picture what the human race is capable of in 2016.

The contents of the MoonArk are now being finalized, all meeting the requirement that they’re tiny to fit within their allotted six ounces. Projects include drops of blood from genetically modified goats to blood from 33 different artists mixed together. There are tiny murals made of photos from text messages, as well as delicate, platinum-engraved disks with illustrations of flora and fauna found on Earth.

Sharing through satellites

The MoonArk isn’t the first time humanity has tried to explain itself to possible alien observers. In 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10 and 11 to explore a path past Jupiter and towards the star Aldebaran, 68 light years away. They’re both fitted with small, gold plaques describing homo sapiens, and where to find Earth. In 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, and are currently leaving our solar system. Each satellite carries a golden record, engraved with images, maps, explanations and even musical selections, the selection of which was overseen by Dr. Carl Sagan. Since they’re based on analog LP technology, instructions and a stylus for playing the record are helpfully included.

Source: An Artistic Time Capsule Prepares To Hitch A Ride To The Moon by Irina Zhorov, NPR