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CNN: fossils as art?(long)
Exhibit of Fossils Strains the Definition of Art
Science News 12-JAN-99
By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
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Visitors shuffling through Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural
History may find themselves scratching their heads when they reach the
so-called hall of mammals. Missing are the sabertooth cat, giant sloth,
dire wolf, and many other long-time residents of this room.
Instead, viewers encounter a series of 6-foot-tall stony slabs, mounted
vertically like paintings and illuminated from above by spotlights. Each
of the intricately patterned panels carries a fanciful title but little
else in the way of explanation--a style more in keeping with an art
gallery than a scientific exhibit.
One piece bears the name "Shrimp Burrow Jungle" and looks like a Jackson
Pollock drip painting stripped of its colors. Another jagged slab,
called "Nature as Fingerpainter," is covered with curvy wrinkles that
bring to mind thumbprints or the fleshy folds of an infant's skin.
These giant blocks are part of the exhibit "Fossil Art," which has been
touring North American natural history museums for the past year.
Created by German paleontologist Adolf Seilacher, the show explores how
the blossoming of animal life transformed the landscape of the ocean
bottom. At the same time, Seilacher's displays delve into the murky
chasm separating art from science, forcing viewers to consider how the
two endeavors overlap. In the process, it raises the thorny question,
Can fossils be considered a form of art?
"The whole exhibit tries to bridge the cultural divide between arts and
sciences because this is an ingrained division that is not necessary and
natural," says Seilacher, a professor at both Yale University and
Tubingen University in Germany.
Despite the name of the show, the panels at the Peabody are not actual
fossils. Rather, they are epoxy replicas of stone surfaces that
Seilacher and his Tubingen crew visited in Australia, Canada, France,
Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Libya, Namibia, Pakistan, Scotland, Spain,
and the United States.
Seilacher embarked on his artistic quest in 1992, after winning the
prestigious Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
for his contributions to paleontology. To make a dramatic statement that
could compete with the dinosaurs in most museums, Seilacher came up with
the plan to display large sections of bedding planes--sheets of former
seafloor sediments sculpted many millennia ago by water and animals.
Because the team could not remove the giant blocks of rock, museum
preparator Hans Luginsland used latex and silicone to make high-quality
casts of them. After the casts dried, the team rolled them up like
carpets. Back in Germany, the molds were used to recreate the original
The bedding planes reveal a different facet of paleontology than most
museum fossil displays do. Typical exhibits--dinosaur skulls, mammoth
tusks, trilobites--present the anatomy of extinct creatures. Most of the
surfaces in "Fossil Art" preserve the impressions made by bygone beings
instead of presenting the animals themselves.
"With just two or three exceptions ... all of Seilacher's examples
represent the activities and behaviors of organisms--burrows, traces,
tracks, and trails--rather than their overt anatomies. Thus, we learn
that organic effort can be as beautiful as organic form," says Harvard
paleontologist Stephen J. Gould in a foreword to the exhibit catalogue.
He calls Seilacher "the acknowledged master" in the field of deciphering
such traces, a discipline called ichnology.
"Fossil Art" starts off with examples of nature's trickery, with
fossil-like patterns that formed long before animals ever started
sculpting the seafloor. Reaching back over a billion years ago, the
exhibit's first pieces display rippled shapes carved not by organisms
but by ocean currents waves, and the slow compaction of seafloor
sediments. Fooled by such intricate forms, paleontologists have
sometimes categorized them as fossils and given them Latin names.
Seilacher has debunked several such pseudofossils, but he now sits on
the opposite side of the debate regarding one specimen. Last year, he
and his colleagues reported finding worm burrows in a
1.1-billion-year-old rock from India (SN: 11/1/97, p. 287), the actual
specimen of which is on display in the exhibit. These marks would push
back the record of animal life by a half-billion years, but some other
paleontologists think that Seilacher has himself been fooled in this
instance (SN: 10/17/98, p. 255).
>From the Indian specimen, the exhibit moves to its main feature--the
pivotal period when life grew more complex and began covering the
seafloor with biological graffiti. This evolutionary revolution spanned
the end of the Precambrian era and beginning of the Cambrian period,
from some 600 million to 520 million years ago.
Before this time, Earth's oceans had teemed with bacteria and other
microbes that first appeared at least 3.5 billion years ago. These
minute forms had the run of the planet until the late Precambrian, when
a smorgasbord of enigmatic beings appeared, some the size of dinner
tables. Called the Ediacaran biota, these hard-to-categorize organisms
apparently led a peaceful lifestyle, passively soaking up energy from
the sun and from chemicals in the ocean. Mobile animals also lived at
this time, but they dwelled in the shadow of the more massive and
abundant Ediacarans (SN: 11/22/97, p. 326).
At the start of the Cambrian, life took a turn toward the swift and
savage. Driven by an escalating arms race between predators and prey,
species started acquiring elaborate shells and hard skeletons. Other
creatures, escaping from the fury, began mining food from beneath the
seafloor. They churned up the sedimentary layers and opened up entirely
new habitats. In a shrug of geologic time, most of the modern animal
phyla appeared and began leaving elaborate trails in the sea bottom.
Seilacher describes all this in detail in the catalogue to the exhibit,
but he has intentionally left such information off the fossil displays.
He forces people to confront them first as pure designs, as pieces of
The success of that gambit depends, not surprisingly, on the eye of the
beholder. Sally Hill, an exhibit designer at the Eli Whitney Museum in
Hamden, Conn., says that the fossil replicas fit her own personal
definition of art. "The object is art because you enjoy looking at it as
art, in my mind," she says. "To me, the scale of them and the texture of
them makes you want to touch them, to feel them, to eat them. They're
As yet, however, Seilacher has not managed to interest an art museum or
gallery in taking the "Fossil Art" show, which will travel next to the
Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax.
Some within the art community have trouble with Seilacher's attempts to
characterize the fossils as art. "That I find just naivete. That I can't
accept," says Richard S. Field of the Yale University Art Gallery, who
spoke at a panel discussion on the exhibit last month. "You can't take a
cast of a fossil bed and say that it's art. It has nothing to do with
human intention.... You can't credit the mollusk and the trilobite with
having intention," he says.
Photographer Richard Benson, dean of Yale University's School of Art,
took a different view during the discussion. "As a practicing artist,
I'm interested in art that human beings make, and human beings making
the thing is part of the defining aspect of art," says Benson. "You
could make the case that [Seilacher] is the artist," he says, because
the scientist fashioned the casts.
Seilacher balks at that role, though. "I have no interest in being
called an artist or to be an artist." To him, nature has played the role
of the artist by producing something captivating that can move people
and invite meditation.
Through the power of this experience, Seilacher hopes to dispel the
popularly held conception that science and emotion are antithetical.
"The sense of visual fascination is at the base of many scientific
discoveries and descriptions. We should not shy away and say that
science is something else, that science is not appealing to the emotion.
I think emotion is a large part of it. But of course, the emotion has to
be controlled by reasoning and arguments and so on."
Field agrees with Seilacher that science and art have far more in common
than many people realize. "Dolf wants to bring the two cultures
together, and this is a great exhibition for showing that art and
science are not that far apart," he says. "One could argue that the
arts are a form of inquiry just as the sciences are. In fact, there
isn't such a great difference."
Article Dated 11-JAN-99 COPYRIGHT 1998 Science Service Inc.