From South to North in Chicago you can see Aspen Mays' work, at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Occupying the MCA’s UBS 12 x 12 gallery for the entire month of February is Aspen Mays’ exhibition “Every leaf on a tree.” An installation of two photographic series, Every leaf and Einstein Rainbow, Mays once again presents a concentrated investigation into a particular subject. Despite the apparent world of difference between a tree and a physicist, Mays shows us two bodies of knowledge and how that knowledge is gained, stored and organized.
Every leaf consists of a selection of over 900 photographs that document every leaf on a tree outside the artist’s studio. Mays transforms the gallery into a verdant space with a floor-to-ceiling installation of the images of leaves, organized into giant grids on the left and right walls. This transformation is especially poignant in the middle of a Chicago winter and its snow/sleet combination that I escaped from before entering the MCA. The weather aside, the images immediately evoked the various terms associated with botany: axial node, internode, petiole, etc. Mays does not photograph a single leaf in every image. Some images are of several leaves, a pair or of a singular leaf. This allows us to see bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole (to quote Lawrence Weiner). Mays’ process also mirrors science’s process of gathering and classifying information into different branches, or disciplines, that are likewise separate, yet related. Another similiarity is to Darwin’s concept and drawings of “the Tree of Life,” the common ancestor from which modern genera derive. Mays' interest in the organization and classification of knowledge is continued in Einstein Rainbow.
Aspen Mays, Einstein Rainbow 1, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Inspired by imagining a scientist that only read Einstein, Mays decided to order all the books possible that relate to the famous physicist via the Illinois Collegiate Inter-Library Loan Service. Mays then arranged the books she received, ultimately more than 2,100 over several months, according to the color spectrum in a custom-made arch that spans two ubiquitous office chairs. The results are shown in a grid on the back wall of the gallery. Biographies and thick physics tomes exist side-by-side, leveling their usual Library of Congress separations.
The arch itself is a fantastic device; it allowed the ancient Romans to accomplish construction never before possible. Along with aqueducts, the Romans used it construct sites of unbelievable barbarism like the Coliseum. Paired with Einstein the implication seems to be: How will his contribution to science affect our human future? Even within the legible book titles there are indicators both positive and negative. Hitler’s Gift is one such title, reminding us that Einstein left Nazi Germany for the United States in 1933, avoiding the Holocaust. Einstein’s work also provided the theoretical basis for the development of nuclear energy, which was weaponized in World War II but now presents a viable alternative to oil or coal energy.
Mays' project is so successful because through doing this she is able to glimpse and challenge the human spirit. She continues her investigation of science without ever lacking for Art. Perhaps Einstein said it best, though, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”