Interview with Artist Gail Wight

by Vivian Xiao

Gail Wight is an American artist whose work combines art with biology, neurology and technology. Her work explores the impact of life sciences on the human being. She is a professor in Art Practice and has been teaching art at Stanford since 2003. She works primarily in experimental media, photography, video, and printmaking.

How do we decide what’s an illness and what’s not an illness? And how has the treatment for different illnesses changed over time?
 

Q: How did you first become interested in being an artist and find your way into biology, neurology and technology?

There are a number of artists in my family, so I’ve always been interested in art. I went to the Massachusetts College of Art for my undergraduate studies. At the time I had some medical issues, and I started thinking about contemporary medicine. How do we decide what’s an illness and what’s not an illness? And how has the treatment for different illnesses changed over time? I was asking myself those sorts of questions and at the same time, I was learning how to make art: how to weld, make film, those kinds of things. My professors said to me, well if you’re interested in these topics about the history of medicine and you’re interested in making art, why not just put them together? It had never occurred to me. So I started making art back in the 80’s about medicine and science, and then I had my first show.

That first show was about the brain. I’d taken the illustrations from a neuroanatomy textbook and played with them, tweaked them, and then painted them on black velvet. It was a painful exploration for me, because I was thinking about family illnesses and how to have a meaningful response to those complex issues. But that also meant that humor was critical. I was playing around with black velvet because I was trying to bring this incredible information to life… to make it vibrant and to make it wiggle like those cheesy Elvis paintings on black velvet.

I stuck with making work about medicine for a long time because it was my road into science, and it was the thing that I was most interested in. For instance, I made a piece about an uncle of mine who underwent a lobotomy in his 20’s. I knew him well when I was growing up, but I didn’t realize that he’d been given a lobotomy until I was much older. The piece I made is a classic butterfly collection, but each butterfly is pinned down with one hundred pins and in its own separate box. So there are 24 butterflies and 2400 pins in this piece. The idea came to me while reading a textbook written by the person who promoted lobotomy in the US, Walter Freeman. It’s a book called Psychosurgery, and in the frontispiece of the book there’s a picture of butterflies flying out of a skull. The image is derived from a French expression, J'ai des papillons noirs tous les jours, which means “I have black butterflies everyday”. It’s a French term for having depression. In the frontispiece, the butterflies are being set free, ostensibly by lobotomy. My butterfly collection uses this French phrase as its title, but suggests that the butterflies are not so free after all.

I really loved reading about the history of science, medicine, and psychology. Looking at medicine and its history opened up a kind of Pandora’s box for how scientific research happens, and how aspects of that research are defined by our relationship to other species on the planet. How do we perceive of life in general? Not just our own lives, but how do we perceive of life around us? That’s brought me to where I am now. I’m thinking about the evolution of these living creatures that I’ve never even heard of. I’m just amazed by the disjunction between the course of our everyday lives and all of the living things around us.

 Gail's art studio at Wadsworth Hall, Stanford.

Gail's art studio at Wadsworth Hall, Stanford.

 
I’m just amazed by the disjunction between the course of our everyday lives and all the living things around us.
 
 Gail's most recent work on copepods.

Gail's most recent work on copepods.

Q: Can you talk more about your recent work?

This past year I’ve decided that I really want to focus on one area of my physical environment. My work generally has to do with the history of biology. I realized that if I just focus on one little section of the California coastline, I can dig in and work my way through all of these topics that I’m interested in just by getting to know this one place well.

I went to this beach that I’ve always rejected in my neighborhood. It’s a really stinky beach, because it’s covered in seaweed. I thought, I have to embrace this and not think of this seaweed as detritus and get to know what it’s all about. And it turns out it is a very unusual beach because about 40 different types of seaweed wash up, whereas most other beaches in the area have three or four types. Eventually, that seaweed became this most recent work.

Before I started making this work, I was reading a wonderful book from the Museum of Natural History in New York. It was a history of oceanographic expeditions, and in that book I read about copepods, little crustaceans that live in every body of water of the planet. At the time, I was photographing along the coast and picking up seaweed, and it just kind of struck me—I thought, I have to make copepods out of seaweed. This book, Opulent Oceans, also made that point that many women were involved in those expeditions. They didn’t go on the expeditions themselves, but they sorted through the material when it came back home. They did a lot of seaweed pressing, so it all just kind of came together for me.

These prints are imaginary copepods, made out of seaweed collected on that local stinky beach. When the seaweed was fresh, I cut it into shapes and played with it. And then I floated it in a dish of water and pulled watercolor paper up from underneath. Then it was pressed and dried, and finally I scanned the individual images and printed them on watercolor paper.

Q: How long have you been teaching art, and how has it influenced your work?

I’ve been teaching students since 1994. It’s fantastic, being in a classroom with students who are so vibrant and thinking about all kinds of things; they bring all sorts of subjects to the floor that might not have been on my radar. To be a responsible teacher means that I’m thinking about the art world and paying attention to it all the time. I’m trying new methods, exploring new tools, and all of those things come together and really make me stay at the cutting edge.

Here at Stanford, people are involved with technology all over the map,  in such different ways. It’s very exciting to work with students who, in general, know much more than me about technology. At the same time,  they’re thinking these technologies in a very specific way. I enjoy breaking down their assumptions about how we should use technology. For instance, I mentioned that these copepod prints were made with a scanner. The idea that you would make art using a scanner isn’t something that most people assume. And yet in the art world it’s fairly common to pick up a scanner and think of it as a tool for making art. So getting students to think about the rich potential in the everyday tools around us is really inspiring.

Q: How do you view art’s role in society and where it will go in the future?

The art world has changed radically in the last twenty years. There’s a whole field of art called social practice; I’m glad that the art world has expanded in that direction. But I still think there is place for an image on a wall that leads one to contemplate. I feel that there is a very essential function for image-making that has been part of our history for over twenty thousand years, and it’s not going to go away. The internet is largely visual; it didn’t really take off until it become a visual medium. When it was text based it was a very small community. As we are a visual species, I think that creating images still has a place in the world. I’m always sparked when I see a visual creation out of someone else’s imagination that makes me see the world differently. It suddenly makes me rethink what I know and assume about life.