A tisket, a tasket, an information graphic
Basket weaving produces playful representations of environmental data
BROCKTON — There aren’t many installations that would fit as perfectly at the Museum of Science as they would at the Fuller Craft Museum. Nathalie Miebach’s “Changing Waters’’ is one. It’s a breathtaking evocation of layers upon layers of environmental data from the Gulf of Maine, our own stretch of the Atlantic Ocean reaching from Cape Cod up to Nova Scotia. It’s at the Fuller, not the Museum of Science, because Miebach charts her data on a three-dimensional graph she creates, at least in part, through basket weaving.
“Changing Waters’’ is the most engrossing, playful, and ambitious information graphic I have ever seen. Miebach has been showing her data-filled, colorful, pinwheeling basket sculptures for some time — one is on view elsewhere in the museum, as part of “The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft,’’ up through Feb. 6. “Changing Waters’’ outstrips anything she’s done before, and not only in terms of scale.
The installation consists of four columnar sculptures hanging from the ceiling and tethered to the floor, and a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf of Maine, which fills an entire gallery wall. The sculptures are typical Miebach works, bright and bristling with knobs and rods and flags, each denoting some scrap of information. With the wall piece, the artist takes a new, ambitious tack, one that cross-pollinates maps, sculpture, and landscape. She also employs an impressive array of techniques beyond basket weaving, including origami and painting.
There’s a legend so viewers can see what Miebach is charting. Fish are woven paper mats: blue for hake, brown for cod, blue and brown for haddock. Red balls mark air temperature. Storms are bull’s-eye formations. Origami whales denote whale migration. And more.
Miebach gathered her data from buoys and on-shore weather stations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System. The density of information makes it as much a material as Miebach’s reeds, ropes, dowels, and paper. There’s a cumulative effect, a point at which all the bits and bobs coalesce into an organic whole, a portrait of the Gulf of Maine.
For those of us unskilled in homing in on the minutiae of meteorological data, that effect is dazzling. At first, I found myself running back and forth from the legend to Miebach’s seascape. It explained that the undulating orange basket with a dragon’s face is the Gulf Stream, on a collision course with an equally fierce blue dragon, the Labrador Current. Coils of rope, which I at first took to be islands, are undersea banks, such as Georges Bank. Red woven cones projecting off the wall mark weather stations, each with rods rotating around its tip, which is capped with a little green ball.
In the end, though, I lost track of the data and simply took in the sweeping landscape, tightly composed and as packed with visual bonbons as it is with symbols for wave heights and water temperature. Then again, it looks like a giant toy, a child’s kingdom built from doodads, gewgaws, and fandangles.
In her suspended sculptures, Miebach examines particular aspects of and stories from the Gulf of Maine; if the wall piece is a map, then these are insets. For instance, one charts the nor’easter that sank the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, which Sebastian Junger wrote about in “The Perfect Storm.’’ It stands about 7 or 8 feet tall. Orange and turquoise spirals around the center column form a timeline for the week in October 1991 when the storm hit.
Little disks are weather markers, moving from sunny to cloudy to stormy. White balls on blue rods denote wave height. Other baubles describe temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. For poetic effect, Miebach has woven several paper boats that tilt precariously around the sculpture, as if being thrown about by giant waves. Her legend tells us they’re from an 1862 list of ships sailing Georges Bank. They have names such as Dreadnaught and May Queen.
I suppose that last touch might not wash with the Museum of Science. While Miebach is trained as an artist, with an MFA and an art education masters from the Massachusetts College of Art (when that was still the institution’s full name), her work is a manifestation of a search for patterns in the data she collects. She has the eye and the skill to make those patterns captivatingly visible. “Changing Waters’’ will command the attention of both weather geeks and aesthetes. If you happen to be both, so much the better.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org