Artist displays her scientific method

By WilliamPrentiss

Counting a tree’s leaves, photographing each one and posting all 900 photos in a gallery is a labor-intensive effort. As is ordering every book about Albert Einstein one can find through the Illinois Collegiate Inter-Library Loan service and dividing them into 21 separate arcs according to the color spectrum. For Aspen Mays, it’s just another six months of making art.

Both photo installations are part of the exhibit featuring Mays work in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s UBS 12 x 12 space. Two of the three walls in the exhibit area are covered with the photos of leaves she documented. The photos she took of Einstein’s books hang on the back wall. The exhibit opened on Feb. 5 and runs

until Feb. 28.

Mays spoke to a full room of people gathered in the 12 x 12 exhibit space on Feb. 9 about her new photo installations. Mays told the curious audience the 2,100 books she checked out over a six-month period started with one about Einstein’s brain.

“After [Einstein] died, the person who did the autopsy actually kept his brain,” Mays said. “He didn’t tell anybody and he took it out of his body … I became really obsessed with the perverse wonderfulness of doing that. Thinking that that’s where it is … we can actually point to it in a jar. We know all the answers and have all the secrets. I was thinking, ‘Where does the knowledge actually live?’”

From there, she explored that question by gathering and cataloging the collective literature written about the late scientist. To illustrate Einstein’s theory of light and gravity, she divided the books she received into 21 separate groups and arranged them into the color spectrum. The result: a telling picture of the late genius.

One photo has the book “Hitler’s Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime” stacked on top of “The Jewish 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Jews of All Time.” Both are brown and very near the middle of the spectrum in that photo. Books in the collection focus on his theories, such as “Was Einstein Right?: Putting Relativity to the Test,” and his personal life, like “Einstein in Love.”

Mays said she catalogued the books as they came in, which created a variety of spectrums in the photos. Some of the arcs feature brighter colors while others have a much narrower, darker range.

The passage, “What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,” in the Walt Whitman poem “Song of Myself,” inspired the every leaf collection of photos. She decided to use a tree outside of her studio to provide further insight into the question that started with Einstein’s brain.

She went down each branch one at a time, taking a photo of each individual leaf and marking the branch with tape when she was done with it. Finally the photos she took were arranged on the exhibit’s walls 15 photos to a row and 30 photos to a column. The result filled two of the three walls in the UBS 12 x 12 space, the tree those leaves came from would not.

“It was really small,” Mays said. “I didn’t want to torture myself. I thought this would take an hour or two and there would be maybe 200 leaves on the tree—nothing big. It started out and it ended up taking up the entire day to count every individual leaf on the tree … It was interesting to lavish that much attention on something I would have overlooked.”

Alex Chitty attended Mays’s talk and said the stories she told made a big difference in how she saw the photos. Chitty studied rare plants at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York, and said she enjoyed how Mays explored the relationship between art and science.

“Even the specimens you collect and the way you present them is very much due to the person who picks it up out of the ground or lays it on the paper—how much of ourselves interprets a collection,” Chitty said. “Even in the science world that happens and personal choices are made when it has to do with facts.”