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Birds have long been a subject in the visual arts, from goldfinches representing the passion of Christ to depictions of the Hindu God Garuda as a majestic bird. Many cultures portray birds as winged souls providing a fleeting connection to the celestial world.

After learning that night-migratory birds often navigate according to the stars, Wisconsin artist Martha Glowacki was inspired to create an installation about this phenomenon at the Washburn Observatory. Uniquely sited within the observatory dome, Starry Transit investigates attempts to observe and comprehend the natural world. One of the first buildings designated specifically for the sciences by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Washburn has been a hallmark of the University's campus since officially opening in 1881. Located next to a bird-shaped effigy mound, it has enabled students and casual observers to view the galaxy aided by a refractory telescope. Joining the study of natural life with a renowned site of learning, Glowacki's installation raises poignant questions about the nature of science, art, life, and human understanding.

The installation, blending scientific instruments and images together with bird specimens, contains several components: a cabinet of curiosities, a planisphere, a phenakistoscope, framed images, original poetry, historic and scientific texts, and a sound recording. As a whole, the pieces are a mini-museum through which one can learn about historical ideas of the natural world and recent scientific discoveries. On another level, this group of works, carefully fashioned by the artist in her studio, delves deeply into the cycles of life, death, and survival that link animals of all kinds on the most primal of levels.

Cabinet, by Martha Glowacki
Martha Glowacki, Starry Transit, 2004, wood, glass, brass, copper, bird carcasses, paper, pigments.
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The centerpiece of this installation is called Starry Transit. Four preserved birds are arranged in an antique display cabinet placed atop a table with three drawers. Arranged on models of constellations, the birds seem at once poised for flight and perched for observation. The restored metal-and-glass case in which they sit is a pristine and fragile reminder of the history of material culture; its label still reads "Dan Barclay Maker/ 14 State St Chicago." Inside the central drawer, the viewer can study historic maps of the Western Hemisphere with the north-south flyway clearly marked by pins and string. The side drawers hold celestial maps and historic renderings of constellations. The arrangement of the preserved birds coupled with the etched maps and the constellation models gives these imaginary migratory journeys a mythic aura. Together, the components of the installation suggest the metaphorical importance—on a human level—of such an odyssey, embodying growth, survival, and the power of rites of passage.

The premise of this installation—the observation that night-migrating birds find their way during their seasonal journeys by following the patterns of the stars—was a relatively recent discovery by the naturalist Stephen T. Emlen1. In the mid-1970s, with the help of his father, Emlen discovered that diminutive indigo buntings complete this challenging and exhausting journey following the light and configuration of the stars.2 Although several factors—from weather to magnetic fields to natural barriers—also influence the odyssey, the birds undertake this dangerous flight on an exacting and automatic schedule.

Our desire to theorize about natural phenomena indicates an impetus for a categorized and organized picture of the world. From the Medieval period to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and, even now, in the Modern Age, the push to outline a holistic picture of the world has created a need for levels of proof and authenticity.3 These vagaries or strata of knowledge and expertise drive Glowacki, who is fascinated by historic conceptions of the world and our contemporary relationship to them. The gap, for example, between the natural world and our malleable but humble understanding of it, is source material for the artist and her multi-layered installations.

Planisphere, by Martha Glowacki
Martha Glowacki, Planisphere for Washburn Observatory, 2005, cast iron, cast bronze, brass, wood, paper, 49-1/2 inches high x 40 inches long x 15 inches deep.
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Glowacki's installation, as a whole, depicts real science, real discoveries, conjecture, and also examples of mechanical prototypes. Working in collaboration with astronomer James Lattis, Glowacki was able to make a working planisphere for the installation. Used to determine when and where certain constellations will appear in the sky, planispheres have been utilized by scientists commonly since the eighteenth century.4 Glowacki's mechanism contains two discrete discs showing maps of the Northern and the Southern Celestial Hemispheres with marked sections on the periphery representing the days and months of the year. Brass rings, attached to each other, plot the hours of the day and delineate the star patterns visible at a designated site and time. Moreover, the design of the sculpture incorporating an antique sewing table exemplifies Glowacki's ability to make the functional artful.

Phenakistoscope, by Martha Glowacki
Martha Glowacki, Phenakistoscope, 2005, cast iron, brass, wood, paper, 57-1/2 inches high x 19 inches long x 16 inches deep.
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Continuing with this theme of the scientific and the mechanical, Glowacki also designed and built a phenakistoscope, a popular parlor toy in the nineteenth century recognized as the hand-powered precursor to the modern film projector. After studying photographic images taken by Etienne Jules Marey5 and Eadweard Muybridge, the artist realized that these early photographer/scientists were as curious about bird flight as she was. Glowacki appropriated images of a vulture flying from Muybridge's book Animals in Motion for use in the spinning phenakistoscope disc.6 Watching the bird embedded in Glowacki's instrument, a fictional character in a larger drama about the nature of life, the viewer is transported back through time and versed in some of the ways physiology determines movement. By turning the gear shaft and noticing the detailing of the light illuminating the sculpture, one is given the sensation that might have been felt by World's Fair visitors in the early twentieth century. As Glowacki nods to past discoveries with this work, she obscures the line between scientist and amateur observer.

Natural Philosophies, Martha Glowacki
Martha Glowacki, Natural Philosophies, 2005, five panels, each 39 inches high x 23-1/2 inches long x 3-1/4 inches deep, wood, paper, copper, brass, pigments, bird bones.
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In addition to the planisphere and the phenakistoscope, Glowacki has washed the circular space of the observatory with communicating calls of migratory birds recorded by John Feith. Listening to the high and low pitches of these warblers and other birds, the viewer is also given the opportunity to examine a group of star maps from the Academische Sternkarten, a seminal text in western cartography from 1859. Stretching across the five panels that comprise Natural Philosophies is a curvilinear listing of the ascension and the declination of the principle fixed stars. The tables delineating the rising and descending stars are known to be a tool with which astronomers determine location in the celestial skies. Here, the tables serve as reminders of the images humans have imagined in the constellations, from Orion's belt to the horn of Aries. A chart of the rotation of the moons of Venus mingles with an image of the skeleton of a starling in flight. These serious and carefully detailed images are joined together with a poem by Mary Mercier and excerpts from the journal of an astronomer observing birds flying through the night skies. "At night/they read the stars like tea leaves, finding their way across the velvet fields. Some nights/they draw their Vs across the moon," Mercier writes about migrating snow geese and their complexly woven social web.

Song of the Stars, by Martha Glowacki
Martha Glowacki, Song of the Stars, 2005, wild goose skeleton, wood, iron, graphite, copper, pigments, silk, 19 inches high x 33 inches long x 2 inches deep.
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Finally, the installation includes a single oval piece, called Song of The Stars, conceived and constructed by the artist in her studio in the final months of fabrication and assembly for the exhibition. This wall-piece frames the text of a Passamaquoddy poem and the skeletal remains of a Canadian goose covered in graphite. As these works link western culture, as expressed by the European maps from the nineteenth century, with Native American culture, they function, at the same time, as a harbinger of things to come to all of us. Death is only part of this—it also includes increasing awareness of the world around and beyond us.

For many years, Martha Glowacki has explored our understanding of the natural world through the history of science and scientific illustration. For this installation, Glowacki has combined her exploration of avian behavior, cartography, astronomy, physics, poetry, and art to create a meditation on some of the most basic foundations of life. Evoking knowledge, flight, change, communication, spirituality, experimentation, and persistence, Glowacki connects us to the natural world in ways that science only imagines.

Jane Simon
Curator of Exhibitions
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

  1. Stephen T. Emlen. "The Stellar-Orientation System of a Migratory Bird." Scientific American, V233, 1975, pp. 102-111.
  2. Emlen's research experiments concerned only indigo buntings, but it is clear from his writing that this theory could be applied to other night-flying migratory birds, such as warblers and thrushes.
  3. For a more detailed and rigorous explanation of this idea, see Barbara Maria Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1994.
  4. The mathematical theories behind the planisphere were known during the ancient Greek civilization, but no known instruments from that time survive. During the Middle Ages, scientists used astrolabes, instruments based on similar mathematical theories.
  5. See Marta Braun's recent publication about the French Scientist, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne Jules Marey (1830-1904), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  6. See Eadweard Muybridge, Animals In Motion, London: Chapman & Hall, 1925.