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Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Lucy, Darwin and Michele" by Jane La Motte

"Lucy, Darwin and Me",
during the installation of the show, December 2009

(photo Janine Free)

Here's an essay written by my friend Jane la Motte in November 2009, after she came to my house and we talked about the show. I love Jane's writing. She already wrote two essays for my two past solo shows, so this one is like a story continuing...

Lucy, Darwin and Michele

There is a scene in the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the character known as Q, who can be alternately omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and annoying, has dragged the hero, Captain Jean Luc Picard, back to the primordial ooze of Picard’s home planet, Earth. Q explains that they have arrived just at the instant that a chemical reaction will take place that signifies the beginning of all life on Earth. Q pontificates for a few minutes on the unlikeliness of this seemingly insignificant event and how random is the process that will result in the chain of life. At last the moment has come, and Q and Picard look down into the brackish puddle at their feet. “Look…” Q says, “…oh, that’s a shame,” implying that somehow their presence has inflicted itself on the very phenomenon on which Picard’s own existence depends.

In her new installation at Art Produce Gallery, Lucy, Darwin and Me, Michele Guieu uses a quote from Thomas Henry Huxley that could be describing the scene beside that ancient pond:

“Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

In other words, we need to be as open to chance as the things we observe.

When Michele first began to think of how she would fill the spaces at Art Produce, communities were gearing up to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150 th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. “I took it as a sign!” Michele says. The anniversaries have rich connections for her. In the 1970’s, Michele moved from her native France with her geologist father and biologist mother to Senegal where she would live from the age of 11 to 15. They were living there when the ancient set of bones that would be named Lucy (for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) was discovered, the oldest known hominid skeleton at the time. For Michele’s family, the discovery was like welcoming a new but highly anticipated friend. “The memory of Lucy’s discovery,” Michele says, “for me is not scientific, it’s uplifting.”

Michele’s connections with the physical world are informed by the scientific knowledge of her parents, but that knowledge mingles freely with the warmth of loving memories of her family and of the peaceful time Michele and her sister spent with their mother and father during those years in Africa. “When we went hiking as a family, my dad was always looking up, explaining the mountains to us, why this stream was over there, and my mom was always looking down explaining the plants.” As much as anything, Michele remembers being surrounded by her mother’s biology books and getting lost in their illustrations. For Lucy, Darwin and Me, Michele has returned to those illustrations as her inspiration, and has chosen a technique that celebrates the randomness of life’s existence. Using sumi ink on paper, Michele allows the ink to set up for a time and then puts the image under running water. The result is gradations of black to gray. “You get what you get almost by chance,” Michele says, “depending on the paper, moisture in the air while it dries, and the timing of the washing.”

The resulting collection of images makes an impressive statement about biodiversity through the cataloging of shapes and textures found in nature. These images are brought together in the main room of Art Produce, along with small photos of the California desert as seen through Michele’s eye, within a large mural. This part of the installation is almost an open letter to Michele’s mother, who at 73, “still wakes up every morning in love with the natural beauty of the world around her.”

The second, smaller room is more intimate. Here is a museum case of artifacts: a rock hammer, a fossil, a sketchbook from her father’s field work—the trappings of a field geologist at work in the Sahara desert. There are loops of digital photography and videos to watch in pieces or in whole. To Michele, the small room works to explain the main body of the installation. One work in there is a video divided into minute-long segments explaining each object in the museum case.

About Darwin himself and his theories, Michele is not ambivalent. “In America,” she says, “we are not done with the discussion about evolution.” In France, where she grew up, society is done with that argument, evolution is accepted as a fact, and people move on. “I was born like that, believing evolution, and didn’t question it. In France, there is no polemic.”

In the video section of Lucy, Darwin and Me, Michele speaks for a moment about each of her father’s artifacts. “Simple, straightforward, not emotional,” she says. “It’s my way of labeling them.” ( And her mother is off-screen by the camera, in case you were wondering, cheering her on.)

--Jane La Motte, San Diego, November 2009

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