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Exhibit links chemistry, art

'Molecules That Matter' examines 10 compounds through the lens of history.

January 25, 2008|Jessica M. Pasko | Associated Press

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Ray Giguere loves teaching people how to recognize the real physical and philosophical importance of the molecules in their lives.

That passion led to the development of "Molecules That Matter," a new exhibition at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery at Skidmore College.

Art and chemistry combine to tie science to history as the exhibition examines 10 different molecules: aspirin, buckminsterfullerene, DDT, DNA, isooctane, nylon, penicillin G, polyethylene, progestin and Prozac. Each is assigned to a different coordinating decade based on when it was invented or introduced to the public.

Large-scale models of each molecule are juxtaposed with magazine articles and works of art. Various ephemeras complete each section, including a collection of pro-birth-control buttons that accompanies the progestin section.

In one room, towers of orange and green medicine bottles rise like flames from the floor while others seem to drip down from the ceilings of the museum in Jean Shin's piece "Chemical Balance 2."

Giguere, a chemistry professor at the upstate college, and Tang director and arts professor John Weber are the co-curators of the show that evolved after a few years of discussion and research -- even a visit to a plastics factory.

"We're not trying to make a history of chemistry," said Weber. "But rather, we're looking at [the role of] chemistry in history."

The impetus of this exhibition is to learn and inspire curiosity, he added.

The exhibit pairs the serious with the kitschy, such as the display of various types of nylon stockings in the section examining the importance of nylon in our lives. Colorful hanging geodesic-dome dog toys complement the buckminsterfullerene display, which examines the carbon molecule often called "buckyballs" -- named after architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who employed geodesic domes in architecture.

The portion examining isooctane -- the compound of standard automobile gasoline -- features a video loop of famous movie car-chase scenes.

"People take for granted what science really is," said Giguere, who took the idea for the exhibition to the Philadelphia-based Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2004. A board of chemists from various sectors, along with the foundation, selected the molecules -- a range of pharmaceuticals, consumer-industrial and natural molecules.

Two chemistry Nobel laureates, including Dr. Roald Hoffman, conducted the final review.

Hoffman has long supported the integration of art and chemistry.

"The chemist chooses the molecule to be made and a distinct way to make it," he said, regarding the exhibition. "This is not so different from the artist who, albeit constrained by the physics of pigment and canvas, and shaped by his or her training, nevertheless creates what is new."

There are polemical books on Prozac and excerpts from Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring" -- a seminal work in environmentalism.

Artist Chrissy Conant also contributed a piece to the progestin section that examines the issue of fertility as a woman and as an artist. By harvesting her own eggs, Conant has been creating "Chrissy Caviar," which she packages to look like a commercial food product.

"Molecules That Matter" will be at Skidmore College through April 13. After that, it will head to the Chemical Heritage Foundation from Aug. 1 through Jan. 30, 2009. The exhibit will then go to the College of Wooster Art Museum in Ohio, Baylor University and Grinnell College in Iowa.

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