A Roundhead Moonshot and Discourse on a Voyage Thither

UB artists contemplate a lunar voyage powered by harnessed geese and gunpowder

Release Date: January 3, 2008

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Two UB professors are among the artists who have put together "Vegetable Rites -- Birds in the Moon" on exhibit through Jan. 27 in Montreal.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Most of us have never heard of him, but Jacobean scientist and theologian John Wilkins had grand plans for a lunar landing that have been hauled out of 17th-century England and planted firmly in a Montreal art gallery.

They are the focus of an art exhibition, "Vegetable Rites -- Birds in the Moon," a work by conceptual artist Gary Nickard and sculptor Reinhard Reitzenstein, both assistant professors in the Department of Visual Studies in the Universitiy at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, and media artist Patty Wallace of Williamsville.

The show will run through Jan. 27 in the Stewart Hall Gallery, Stewart Hall Art Gallery, Pointe-Claire, Quebec, a neighborhood of Montreal.

Peculiar, beautiful and visually mysterious, the installation offers an intellectual meditation upon both the cosmic and the everyday scale of the world we live in.

It is an attempt, the artists say, "through the dark art of Necromancy," to bring the Jacobean space program back to life -- to pick up where both Wilkins and his brother-in-law Oliver Cromwell left off. Necromancy, a form of divination that seeks to summon "operative spirits," was one of Wilkins' pre-occupations.

The exhibition features a variety of alchemica, historical and sculptural representations and installations, among them, a literal representation of the "celestial chariot" powered by harnessed geese and gunpowder that the artists say would have had to defy the gravity and the vacuum of space in order to send Wilkins hurtling toward the moon, where geese were, in his day, commonly believed to shelter in the winter.

Art critic Karen Elliott writes, "As you enter the gallery, the space is dominated by the 'Celestial Chariot' and by the conceit, supported by sculptural constructions, that you are on the moon in the 1600s and Dr. Wilkins has just walked off scene.

"On this imagined moon, vegetation is firmly clamped in forceps, as if to form a collection of samples; enigmatic antique electrical devices are clipped to an enormous bronze pinecone within a hut constructed out of dried leaves, and iridescent flightless 'moon birds' congregate as if trying to decide how to react to the intruder.

"Wallace's meticulously realist oil paintings of lunar craters and birds nests are interspersed throughout the installation, providing contextual ground for the artists' sculptural constructions," Elliott says.

These constructions include Reitzenstein's signature sculpted trees, wall hangings of Latin necromancy incantations, the portrait of a dour Roundhead and a facsimile of the 1653 treatise by Calvinist Bishop Godwin written during Wilkins' lifetime titled, "The Man in the Moone; Or, a Discourse on a Voyage thither," illustrated by a flying vehicle carried by geese.

The exhibit also features a 1647 drawing of "the modern moon," a poem titled "A Roundhead Moonshot," and further articulations of the alchemical theme in the form of glass "alembics" and a "flower cannon" (a stainless steel rack of hand blown glass vials) all filled with pungently aromatic flower and tree oils. Combined with Wallace's naturalistic paintings of craters and bird nests, the installation facilitates meditation upon belief and world view.

Taken as a whole, says Nickard, "our assertion is that art is not a flamboyant game of competing styles or a vehicle for egocentric displays of "virtuosity." It is rather, an opportunity to contemplate an intellectual adventure, no less fascinating for being impossible to complete.

"From our perspective Wilkins's effort may seem ludicrous," Nickard says, "but he was the principal founder of England's Royal Society and lived in a period marked by the astronomical revelations of Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler; the discovery of new continents, and the great sea voyages of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh."

Wilkins and his brother-in-law Cromwell were quite serious about science and about this venture.

Wilkins was prominent in his day, the only Englishman ever to head a college at both the University of Cambridge and Oxford University. He was the first in Europe to propose the adoption of a metric system, as well as a universal language, served as Bishop of Chester and was the author of several influential books, among them "The Discovery of a World in the Moone."

Nickard and Reitzenstein, both Canadian nationals, are widely exhibited and well-published artists who previously have collaborated on installations that explored the interstices between visual art, culture, literature, nature, science -- specifically physics -- and technology.

Wallace, whose principal mediums are painting and video, is the former photographer for the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Brooklyn Museum. Her work has been exhibited in the U.S., Canada and Germany.

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