This series was completed in 2008, six years after its accidental inception. The title is shared with the 1989 publication by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould described the matrix of life forms found in the fossil record of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, a variety that he believed has never been surpassed in the history of our planet. Evolutionary biology has rich parallels to the creative process and the development of craft. This series of 52 wall pieces is about the simple, cumulative changes that generate form, from generation to generation. There being no wolves, competition for mates, or climate change to force natural selection in the studio, that determinate has been the artist's eye; what we used to call sensibility.
Before there was life, there was the planet without it. On that point creationists and scientists agree. The question of how the first string of DNA was formed to push the replication of cells is yet to be answered. How do you get from the relative simplicity of rocks and fire to the immeasurable complexity of a single cell - and then to complex life beyond? Readings of Gould, Dawkins, Darwin, Margulis, and E.O. Wilson, among others, formed a rough gestalt from wich to proceed in 2002.
There is no attempt whatsoever to duplicate, render, or represent organisms. Just the opposite in fact. An interesting question was raised early on: By letting simple materials follow their own obvious means of organization what exactly would evolve? Would it be simple containers or accumulations? Or would the inherent possibilites lead to a degree of complexity that hints at that found in life itself?
The pieces are named in alphabetical order, with both genders respresented by each letter. 26x2=52. It is a simple way to catalog them so that their lineage will always be apparent. 52 is arbitrary, as is any slice of evolution, there being no known starting point and no foreseeable end.
A traveling exhibition of Wonderful Life was organized by the Turchin Center for Visual Arts in North Carolina in 2009.
It's A Wonderful Life By John Perreault
What on earth is this? That was the first thing that came to mind when I visited Steven Siegel's studio last spring in Red Hook, New York.
The work - new to me -- was not what I had expected, having selected the artist a while back as the Rosen Award recipient of the Twelfth Rosen Outdoor Sculpture Competition and Exhibition (1998-1999) at Appalachian State University. That award was for his spectacular/anti-spectacular, site-specific work called Squeeze 2, composed of layers of old newspapers stacked within a grove of trees and topped by turf.
And now the work he showed me, pursuant to his forthcoming exhibition at Appalachian State, consisted of wallpieces, composed of string, cord, yarn, wire wrapped round unknown armatures and compounded, here and there, with computer parts and in one case an infestation of pristine bottle corks.
Unlike the nearly monochromatic, mountainous newspaper accumulations, the 52 sculptures in his series called "Wonderful Life" exploit garish, contrasting, almost pop colors, within indoor scale-parameters. They are, however, not necessarily joyous; instead, I would say, they are both exuberant and menacing.
Although thrown off balance for a moment, I liked them a lot. And when Siegel told me what had inspired this complicated series and I did some research, I liked them even more. His "Wonderful Life" series is inspired by Stephen Jay Gould's book of the same name. 1
The Evolution of an Artist
Time passes and artists change. But how was I going to explain to others (and to myself) what was apparently a very big change indeed. But the deeper I went the clearer it all became. Siegel should not be a totally unknown entity. He has a page-long list of exhibition credits, and his work has been written about sympathetically in such vehicles as Sculpture Magazine (in a cover-article by the very serious Patricia Phillips). 2
There indeed have been other Siegel sculptures that did not use newspapers. Images began to stick in my mind. Some Cans (2002) used aluminum cans, rubber hose and poultry netting; E-virus (2006) bailed-up floppy disks and compact disks; Did God Make A Worm? (2005) was an indoor piece that employed aluminum body parts from an Audi factory. The latter is particularly important in understanding "Wonderful Life." It was constructed and displayed indoors and used pre-consumer waste.
Because of the student work-crew participation required and the photogenic nature of Siegel's various outdoor newspaper accumulations, it might too easily be assumed that he is the Newspaper Guy, the Outdoor Guy (in what is now a long tradition of site-specific art), or the Ecology Artist. These kinds of simple-minded classifications, it turns out, do not do justice to the complexity, difficulty, and originality of his art. Rather than merely being of service to the sustainability mandate (which cannot be denied in terms of the pre- or post-consumer materials used), he offers up a critical problematic.
If your inspiration is the way sedimentation builds up strata over time (as in Siegel's newspaper pieces) or the recent revolution in theories of evolution, as in "Wonderful Life," how does one escape the accusation of illustration? Illustration in art is forbidden, particularly in modernism. To start with, one could say, well, who cares? Let us just call Siegel a post-modernist. In post-modernism, illustration can be appropriated along with everything else. The sculptures, however, do not depict the Burgess Shale fauna per se..
But here, before I go on, I need to offer the gist of Gould's book and some of my own interpretations.
Rocky Mountain High
Gould's evolution re-do is based on H. B. Whittington's 1971 re-investigation of fossils from the Burgess Shale discovered high in the Canadian Rockies. We must now correct the 1909 interpretation that jammed the multifarious creatures -- captured in the 550 million-year-old Cambrian sediment --- into a standard evolutionary tree. It now appears the shale contains at least 15 previously unidentified phyla in addition to the four phyla that survived. Phylum, in case you have forgotten, denotes an even larger category than species. We, like fish and other vertebrates, are in the Cordata phylum. Worms and insects each have their own phylum and so forth.
The Burgess Shale creature were given evocative names, such as Opaginia, Emeraldella, Wixwaxia, Nectocaris, Odotogriphus, Burgessia, Canadaspis, and the ever-popular Hallucigenia. The Marrella with its double pairs of spines; the five-eyed Opahinia, complete with nozzle; the spine-walking, sponge-eating Aysheaia; and the Sarotrocercus that apparently swam on its back were all part of the Cambrian soup, but left no descendants.
"Because of the disparity of the Burgess Shale and later decimation we must invert the conventional cone of increasing diversity, " concludes Gould. "Instead of a narrow beginning and a constantly expanding upward range, multicellular life reaches its maximal scope at the start, while later decimation leaves only a few surviving designs." 3
Gould proposes a diagram for evolution that is far different from the textbook tree. Instead of a tree, we are to imagine a bush or (my image) a candelabra with unequal stems, some longer than others. Many species were cut-off by known or unknown forces, dead-ended by catastrophe, sometimes simultaneously. Gould also wants us to invert the oak tree or convert it into a Christmas tree. Evolution will never look the same.
Other deposits similar to the Burgess Shale have been discovered since, implying that what is now referred to as the Cambrian Explosion was global, pre-dinosaur and even pre-horseshoe crab. Why was there such diversity? Multifarious life forms may have come into existence to fill a nourishing vacuum, where competition was negligible and then were later cut off by changed circumstances, not yet identified.
But the evolution re-do is not yet fully accepted. The continued resistance to a new diagram for evolution - even on the part of one of Wittingham's research assistants/collaborators -- is further proof of my sarcastic remark, in regard to art, that diagrams are destiny. An understanding of contemporary art, for instance, is hampered by the use of the evolutionary ladder inherited from biology. A braid is more serviceable and probably much more accurate since it allows us to picture exits, re-entrances and cross-influences among many different styles through time, without imposing a convenient end point, implying that one particular style is historically determined and the inevitable result of progress in art.
There is always a danger of applying science to art - or the reverse, as proved by the aestheticised "evolution" espoused by Ernst Haeckle (1934-1919) in the nineteenth century.4. His marvelous drawings of his beloved, one-celled, seabed radiolaria are more stylized than would now be approved, but, worse, his Euro-centric view of the descent of man bordered on racism. Science itself is not removed from cultural contexts.
Nevertheless, I am afraid that an irrational allegiance to the evolutionary cone of increasing diversity in biology certainly has to do with the human vice of mistaking diagrams for universal truths, maps for territories, templates for temples. After my visit, Siegel sent me a note stating that he hoped that I left with something to think about.
I think so. Siegel's new series references the astounding diversity of forms of the Cambrian Explosion, but we cannot seal ourselves off from the decimation that followed.
In the Guise of Nature's Methodology
Vis a vis, the illustration taboo, Siegel is not illustrating geological sedimentation or the Cambrian Explosion, he is appropriating principles of operation. John Cage, the great American composer and thinker, recommended that artists of all kinds not imitate nature's results, but nature's methodology. Preconception equals banality. Hence, Cage's well-known -- and to some infuriating -- use of chance to generate his musical compositions.
This is, I feel, what Siegel is doing and is what unites what might otherwise seem to be a caesura in his body of work. He is utilizing nature's methodology. However, he has not fastened upon the aleatory but upon the incremental.
The accumulations, whether outdoors or indoors, echo minimalism's simple geometric forms, but with materials, site-specificity, and an ephemerality that would put them more firmly in the post-minimalist category. The wallpieces do not recall such academically avant-garde residue. Placing the academic and the avant-garde in such proximity forces a redefinition of both, but that is not necessary to my larger argument here nor to Siegel's work. There are more important things to discuss.
What is pertinent is Earth Art pioneer Robert Smithson's fascination with entropy and his use of vast geological time as a touchstone for his Spiral Jetty and the indoor pieces he called Non-Sites. As far as I know, no one has accused Smithson of illustration. There is a difference between inspiration and illustration, between allusion and illusion.
Even though they are visually very different, what unites Siegel's outsized accumulations with his series called "Wonderful Life" is the use of increments that end up creating a larger whole. Deposits of sediment yield strata; deposits of newspapers create equally interesting layers. Tiny changes and sports in life-forms yielded an unprecedented and unequalled variety of fauna during the Cambrian period, 550 million years ago. Small changes within the strictures of Siegel's wallpiece format have yielded a wild variety of novel sculptural forms.
Of course, once you let the Burgess Shale demon out of the bottle --- and this is what Siegel has done by naming his series after Gould's bestseller --- a subject greater than ecology must be addressed. Cubism, some think, tried to deal with relativity. And many artists now, including Siegel, have been addressing ecology. Siegel, however, has tapped what may be the most important art subject of the future, the redesign of evolution or as Gould's sub-title would have it, "The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History." I'd also say that he, like Smithson, is addressing time. What could be more abstract than that?
1. Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), Wonderful Life. W.W. Norton & Co., 1989. 2. Patricia C. Phillips, "Wandering Through Time, The Sculpture of Steven Siegel." Sculpture, Oct. 2003. 3. Gould, page 233. 4. Once the leading Continental interpreter of Darwin, Haeckel (1934-1919) - who coined "ontogeny equals phylogeny" and the term ecology -- is now nearly forgotten, save for his radiolaria drawings. David Lebrun's "documentary" film, Proteus, A Nineteenth Century Vision (2004), offers a celebratory but uncritical introduction, positioning Haeckel as a spiritual visionary rather than the questionable scientist derided by Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977).
A Biologist's Perspective Gary Walker - Biologist, Appalachian State University
At the beginning of every semester when I'm teaching my freshman majors' biology course I tell students that if they walk away from the course with nothing else I would like them to have a different perspective of the world around them when we are finished. I'd like them to notice and appreciate the details and the diversity of the natural world represented by over three billion years of evolution that most folks overlook. Steven Siegel's exhibit, Wonderful Life does a great job of rendering the detail and diversity that we see in the natural world around us in his sculptures. Most biologists' interest in the profession begins with an observation of something in nature that they've never seen before or that caught their eye at a level of detail that had gone previously unnoticed. There is a wonderful euphoria within catching that first glance of something out of the ordinary and coming to understand and enjoy what it is and how it fits into the scheme of things.
An appreciation of the aesthetics of the earth's biota is what got most of us in biology going in this profession. What really impresses me as a scientist about an exhibit such as this, is the artist's ability to create something denovo. The old adage that 'art imitates life' relates to landscapes as well as to an artist's renderings of living organisms. It has its place in classical art. Perhaps more common in today's world is the Oscar Wilde aphorism 'Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.' What's unusual about the art of Steven Siegel is that he was inspired by such creatures as those found in the Burgess Shale but has created detailed representatives of his own conceptualizations in very much the same way that evolutionary processes lead to the origins of previously unknown forms of life. Seeing something such as his creations in Wonderful Life is a stimulation very much like that experienced at first glance of something new to us in the world. Thus the exhibit is aptly named. It is wonderment at the detail and diversity of life.
Steven's progression of what appear to be simple forms evolving into more and more sophisticated and elaborate forms belies the detail in those appearing most primitive. Looking more closely one observes the myriad threads, wires and other devices incorporated into his work. It's much like a botanist dissecting a flower. Onlookers are often taken aback as a botanist grasps a beautiful flower from a plant and methodically picks off the petals, slices open the ovary, and counts the stamens and styles. By noticing and understanding the minute details of the flower we can fully appreciate its form, function and place in the hierarchy of life. These sculptures are much the same. Viewed from a distance you appreciate the smooth lines of their forms and morphologies but upon closer examination you can lose yourself in the intricately woven details of their structures. Many of them remind me of the experience of finding some organism in a tangle of seaweed on a beach following a storm. At first you can't even tell what kingdom they belong to (plant, animal, or protistan). This is a real annoyance to most biologists. Then you pull away the debris, turn the thing over and over in your hands, and maybe pry away some parts to get a better understanding of what it is. It is this wonderment, this deciphering of the puzzle of life that is one of the sheer joys of being an observer of the natural world.
Stephen J. Gould's book, Wonderful Life, recounts some of that wonderment of the untangling of the puzzle represented by the diverse fauna of the Burgess Shale. Most of the bizarre organisms found in the fossil beds near Banff Canada, never made it much further into evolutionary time, but their names, such as Hallucigenia and Anomalocaris, recount some of the amazement and wonder associated with their discovery. What a treat it must have been for Charles D. Walcott, who first discovered the Burgess Shale over 100 years ago, to have pried apart the slabs of shale and seen for the first time these creations. Arranging these creatures into an evolutionary hierarchy was and still is a tremendous puzzle that still engages biologists and palentologists a hundred years after their discovery.
The patrons observing Steven's creations in this exhibit should feel that same euphoria of discovery with their first glance of something new, and then be drawn into the detail of their intricate structures. It's only human nature to then try to group them into some sort of hierarchal arrangement, to put names on them. (In science we call this taxonomy.) By arranging things by similarities of form we can order them in our minds. By giving them names, first and last, genus and species, we have a power over them, an ability to communicate ideas about them. "So you think Wynona is the ancestral form from which Karen was derived?" is something of how the conversations about this exhibit may go among some of the geekier scientists who are viewing it.
Finally, speaking as a scientist who is writing an essay for this exhibit, and who was inspired in part by the writings of Stephen J. Gould, let me quote from a book of his appropriate to this topic, "Crossing Over, Where Art and Science Meet." In the forward Dr. Gould writes:
Small minds have usually viewed Science and Art as adversarial-at least from Goethe's complaints about narrow-minded naturalists who would not take his anatomical and geological works seriously because he maintained a day job as a poet, to C.P. Snow's identification and lament about two noncommunicating cultures in the most widely discussed example of our generation. But the unifying modes and themes of human creativity surely transcend the admitted differences of subject matter in these two realms of greatest interest and occasional (even frequent) triumph of both heart and mind. We see nothing anomalous, or even the slightest bit strange, about this double integration of science with art, and text with image.
So I say to scientist and art aficionados alike, let yourself get lost in this exhibit. Let your mind wander and wonder at the discovery of new forms previously unseen. Scrutinize the details of their fabrication. Arrange them into your own evolutionary hierarchies. Find an enjoyable appreciation of Wonderful Life.