Thursday, October 14, 2021

Seeking Truth & Other Science-Inspired Installations at La Jolla Historical Society

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt. Photos by Maurice Hewitt.

Standing by their TRUTH: Artists Debby & Larry Kline at the focal point of their 16-foot-long installation Seeking Truth.

There’s an art exhibition now on view at La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) that will open your eyes to new ways of seeing and thinking about art, science, philanthropy, and life. 

Trifecta: Art, Science, Patron, curated by Chi Essary, features ten pieces by regional artists who were paired with scientists from the Salk Institute and asked to create artworks inspired by their meetings. Essary previously curated a memorable art-and-science exhibition at San Diego Art Institute in 2017 but this one recognizes an additional component: funding.

Wanting to give the LJHS show some appropriate historical context, she researched the history of Salk Institute and discovered that Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm, had initiated what was known as the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair Challenge to encourage local philanthropists to endow scientists’ chairs at Salk.

“If donors came up with two million dollars, he'd supply the additional million needed to endow each chair,” Essary explained. “Scientists spend an inordinate amount of time writing grants to fund their work, so when a chair is endowed, it basically means they can just do their cutting-edge science, which we can all benefit from. This visionary gift to society—which has endowed over 30 chairs— really touched me. So I reached out to the endowed chairs to see if they’d be interested in meeting with an artist and the rest is history.”  

Two of the Trifecta artists—who were part of the 2017 exhibition—are Debby and Larry Kline, whose immersive installation Seeking Truth is the star of the current show. It’s the first piece on your right as you enter, and the one that invites the most contemplation.  

The scientist they met with, Dr. Thomas Albright (Conrad T. Prebys Chair in Vision Research), is a neuroscientist who studies how we perceive—and misperceive—visual information. He has worked with the criminal justice system, pointing out why having eyewitnesses identify the perpetrator in a lineup is often fallible, and why seeing only two people at a time could yield more reliable results. He has also worked with schools, designing classrooms that are conducive to learning, and showing how even fixing a school’s architecture can make students do better. His 2016 TED talk Why eyewitnesses fail (you can watch it on youtube) ends with these words: “Seeing is believing, but neither seeing nor believing is equivalent to truth.” And the Klines used what they learned from him to create their own Truth

Though I immediately found their installation interesting, I couldn’t perceive their Truth. As I stood in the entry to the tunnel of tilted walls, half-hearing soft voices on both sides reciting poetry, and half-seeing what looked like a rectangle of shimmering stars against the rear wall, the artists asked me: What do you see?

They were surprised by my response, as was my husband, who had easily seen the Truth himself. Walking slowly to the tunnel’s end, I passed between a cacophony of voices and came face to face with a polished granite slab that no longer looked starry but held no sign of Truth. Then I stood under each of two domed speakers listening to the same voices I’d heard at first, now reciting something that sounded like Latin—a language I’d never learned. 

Encouraged by the Klines, I started over, went back to the entry and just stared at the slab for a few minutes until—at last!—I saw the word TRUTH emerging on its surface. Evidently, all I needed was a little time and distance to be able to see the truth. 

Afterwards, they gave me an explanation: They’d created a kind of forced perspective—those tilted walls—and added competing sounds from multiple directions that were meant to be confusing, even a little disturbing—a demonstration of how distractions affect perception. The TRUTH carved into the granite slab was stippled to look blurry: the word appeared gradually in 15-minute cycles, then water jets washed it away. Dim lighting made things even more confusing, and I couldn’t hear myself in the cacophony of voices, recorded at a 2017 tribute to the late poet David Antin, where all of us present read one of his poems in unison. The solo voices belonged to his widow, artist Eleanor Antin, and their close friend, poet Jerome Rothenberg, reading two of David’s poems…and some Latin gibberish. 

“It’s like the political scene these days,” Larry Kline said. “So many voices, you can’t really hear.” Added Debby: “We are the Truth and the Light!” Then turning to Larry, she said: “You wanna be Truth this week, or you wanna be the Light?” The Klines and their artworks are both serious and playful—a fortunate combination.

Suggestion to visitors: Try entering Seeking Truth alone, taking time to stop, look, and listen, maybe closing your eyes now and then, to see how that affects your perception. One way or another, persevere and you’ll find your own truth here. 

There are other attention-grabbing pieces in this exhibition; we’ve included a few photos below. But what’s on view really needs to be experienced. Trifecta, originally scheduled for 2020 but postponed when Covid took over, shows LJHS at the top of its form, and it’s great to be back in their gallery again. 

2020  by Marcos Raminez ERRE.  

(Clodagh O’Shea, Professor, Molecular & Cell Biology Laboratory, Wicklow Chair)

     This large-scale crossword was not ERRE’s original intention. But when pandemic lockdowns made his complex art-and-science project impossible, he decided to address some of the issues we all had to face in the title year instead. Covering aluminum panels with automotive paint and rust, he created “a series of definitions that fade and…certainties that collapse,” and a puzzle that has easier solutions than the problems we’re still facing. If you’re looking for answers, you’ll find them in the current issue of Timekeeper magazine, at the gallery’s front desk.

Interactome, by Christopher Puzio.

(Dr. Geoffrey Wahl, Professor, Gene Expression Laboratory, Daniel & Martina Lewis Chair)

      Yes, it is a real word, referring to physical interactions between molecules and/or indirect interactions among genes. And Puzio is an artist who has a background in metalwork and has long been interested in the interactions between art and science. This impressive stainless-steel piece is kinetic; if you’d like to interact with it, ask at the front desk.

Hand of the Milkmaid, by Siobhan Arnold.

(Susan Kaech, Professor and Director, NOMIS Center for Immunobiology & Microbial Pathogenesis, NOMIS Chair)

      Responding to Dr. Kaech’s studies in the role memory plays in developing our bodies’ protective responses to deadly pathogens, the artist became interested in the way lymphocytes gather together to create immune responses. She also explored the history of vaccination, and the story of the young cowpox-infected milkmaid who supposedly provided Edward Jenner with material for developing the first smallpox vaccine. Hand-spun fibers imitate the form of the lymphatic system, and there’s a woven “memory” inside each node.  

Fountainhead, by David Adey.

(Jan Karlseder, Professor, Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, Donald & Darlene Shiley Chair.)

     A contemporary view of the legendary Fountain of Youth: a neon waterfall pouring down from a garden-like mass that’s actually an assemblage of green plastic cleaning products, with neon-haloed lambs—remember Dolly, the cloned sheep? 

The Artist Lineup: (Come see them all!)  David Adey, Siobhan Arnold, Mely Barragan, Cesar&Lois Collective, De la Torre Brothers, Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Debby&Larry Kline, Wendy Maruyama, Xuchi Nayngayan Eggleton, Christopher Puzio

Trifecta: Art, Science, Patron
LaJolla Historical Society
Wisteria Cottage Gallery
780 Prospect Street, La Jolla
HOURS: Wed-Sunday, 12-4 p.m. through January 16. Free admission.
(858) 459-5335

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has written about arts and lifestyle for the La Jolla Light and other local media for over a dozen years. You can reach her at

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