Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Ginny Ruffner: Reforestration of the Imagination

Ginny Ruffner tree stump
The moon walk wasn't my only recent museum experience driven by technology. My trip to DC included a visit with my friend Tina to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. On display was Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination, a glass art exhibit fueled by augmented reality (AR).  It was mind blowing.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are instructed to either download the Reforestation app on their phones or grab one of the museum's iPads. Okay, but now what?  All we could see was a room with five low "landmasses," each of which supported some glass stumps like the one in this picture. The center of the room featured a larger mass with a bronze and glass "tree" emerging from its center. I'm always impressed by glass art, but there didn't seem to be anything super special going on.

Ruffner tree stump seen through AR

Then it got crazy. When you pointed your electronic device at a stump, flowers suddenly bloomed before your eyes. Sometimes they continued to undulate once they had grown. What???!!!

I am not going to pretend to begin to understand how AR works. And, thankfully, it's not necessary to appreciate the art. To Ruffner, the how of the technology isn't what's important. It's the power the technology gives Ruffner's creations.

In Reforestation of the Imagination, Ruffner imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which colorless stumps are all that remains. It's a pretty bleak image. But nature is resilient. Species of previously unknown plants have begun to grow. They are exotic and exciting and full of the life lacking in the landscape. And with the help of AR, the viewer has the ability to watch these plants come into existence.

A Ginny Ruffner bloom
"Interactive technologies provide a means for the viewer to participate in the creation," Ruffner said in an interview with Nora Atkinson, a curator at the Renwick. "That empowerment is thrilling and a bit addictive."

I can attest to the addictive quality of this exhibit. I found myself somewhat maniacally moving among the landmasses, not taking time to really appreciate the beauty of what I was seeing. Thankfully, Tina's calming presence helped slow me down and take it in (and take these pictures -- it was way too hard to hold the iPad in one hand while angling my iPhone in the other to snap a shot).

If the gardeners among you are thinking these flowers don't look like anything you've seen before, you're right. They, too, are a product of Ruffner's imagination. The exhibit included a quite wonderful Field Guide to the NEW Wildflowers of the Mind that contained Ruffner's drawings of the flowers.

Digitalis artherium
Take, for instance, the Digitalis artherium, or Double art flower. Here's the Field Guide description:  

"Digitalis artherium is an extremely rare plant that produces a wide variety of brightly colored petal patterns. Formerly abundant in Manhattan, it now grows only under carefully controlled conditions. It has evolved an elaborate series of unusual flower petal patterns to attract human pollinators. It blooms once a month, for one evening. When carefully harvested, dried, powdered, and dissolved in expensive bottled water, its petals can be used as an hallucinogenic."

Ruffner's own story is as remarkable as the exhibit. In 1991, she was in a near-fatal car accident. The doctors told her family she had no brain activity and encouraged them to take her off the respirator. They resisted. After being in a coma for five weeks, Ruffner woke up.

Ruffner said her mind was "like a big empty house that you knew you used to live in." She had to relearn how to speak and to walk. And she once again learned how to create.

Serpens primula nubes
In her interview with Atkinson, Ruffner talked about the accident and her recovery. "That accident provided an undeniable opportunity to reassess everything, especially since I was unable to do anything at first," she said. "I forced myself to draw daily, even though I could barely hold a pencil. Those drawings were monumentally, poignantly awful. But creating something, anything, helped me remember who I was."

And who she was -- and is -- is an artist. Ruffner still has difficulty with her speech and her mobility. But her brain is just fine and as creative as ever. In 2014 Ruffner heard about augmented reality. She says she was "seduced by potential." She took a class on AR at a local art school and began to learn this new skill. Grant Kirkpatrick was a fellow student. That meeting led to their collaboration on what became Reforestation. 

I was so taken with the exhibit that I bought the book before I headed out of the Renwick. When I began a casual perusal, I discovered something quite wonderful. The book contains holograms that, with the aid of an app, allow me to revisit the mystery and glory of Ruffner's creations coming to life. I'm happy to do a show and tell if you're in the area.

For some fabulous photos of Ruffner's flowers in the exhibit (and the Michael Sherrill exhibit, also on at the Renwick), click here for a piece from Arts Summary. And click here to watch an excerpt from the movie about Ruffner entitled "Ginny Ruffner: A Not So Still Life" in which she talks about her recovery. She is truly inspirational and as resilient as the nature she depicts in her art.

Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination is on display at the Renwick Gallery through January 5.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this post! Thanks for including the link to the video about Ruffner's recovery. She is quite the inspiration!


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