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A Tactile Show at 1708 Gallery Investigates Outer Space

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Art usually doesn't come with warning signs. However, Sarah Nance's show "Telluric," featuring works from 2017, has one that reads: "Warning: Strong Magnet in Use."

Nance explains that the magnet, covered by micrometeorites and anthropogenic iron spherules — waste products created by, for example, flicking a lighter — requires a sign for safety reasons. The neodymium magnet can interfere with pacemakers.

That a possibility of electromagnetic interference seems appropriate for the exhibition, "An Inventory of Moons" at 1708 Gallery. Nance's practice combines science, art, exogeology, physics and environmentalism to critically examine people's interaction with a place.

Take "To Reinforce a Glacier," two hand-beaded nets, one made with white and the other with black beads. At 1708, they lie on the floor with a string that connects them like an umbilical cord to the wall. While they are three-dimensional forms, Nance draws attention to the void created between the two. Yet the black net began as a site-responsive work — made in Vatnajökull, Iceland — draped over an iceberg to show the futility of harnessing a melting glacier. While the nets allude to industry, they also reference the latticework structure of the universe and the relationship between space, time and gravity.

But for someone who holds degrees in fine arts and teaches fiber and material practices at Concordia University in Montreal, science-based processes are secondary. "I'm not a scientist," she says, laughing. "I do a lot of computer research. I read a lot of peer-reviewed articles, which take me a long time to read. I have some science background in that I've always loved it and have taken multiple classes in it."

She starts out a conversation from a scientific place, she explains, but also thinks about art and literature as well.

"I usually say that I feel happy that I'm not a scientist because that gives me freedom to interpret the data in the way that I need to, or be able to manipulate it and not have to be beholden to how true everything is," she adds.

For example, her "2q17" blurs the lines between the humanities and the sciences. An archival print of two moons on a black ground, it is influenced by the dystopian novel "1q84" (2009-2010) by Haruki Murakami. In the book, the protagonist realizes she is in a dystopian parallel of 1984 only because of the two moons in the sky.

In addition to Nance's work, there is a collaborative project with Burke Jam: "Sonification 15 — Sea of Showers." For the score, Jam assigned tones to raw data collected from moon quakes from 1973. He then used the tones to compose what Nance describes as "a sonic imprint." For the visitor, the sounds are low ambient tones transmitted over four service transducers, which allow sound to travel through the wall.

Nance and Jam's work, which investigates outer space, seems especially relevant given the hype surrounding the solar eclipse this summer as crowds flocked to areas of totality and stores struggled to keep solar-eclipse glasses stocked. Audiences are interested in the cosmos, especially things that happen rarely. But why? Are they something greater than the differences between people in this current polarized environment that divides rather than unites?

If so, then "An Inventory of Moons" might be a political act, as the artists have translated real data about faraway places such as the moon, into barely discernible sounds, sparkly beaded nets, or images of fictional skies. The approach is understated, but there is tactility to the work that makes each object alluring and an openness that allows for multiple interpretations.

If scientific data informs Nance's practice, then science fiction encourages visitors to reimagine new narratives together. S

"Sarah Nance: An Inventory of Moons" is at 1708 Gallery through Dec. 2. For information, visit 1708gallery.org.

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