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Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki

August 27, 2005 – November 6, 2005


Starry Transit, an exhibition organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) in partnership with the UW-Madison Department of Astronomy, will feature an installation of new, site-specific sculptural works by Wisconsin artist Martha Glowacki. The installation, which is being created specifically for the 1,200-square-foot dome of the University of Wisconsin’s historic Washburn Observatory, explores the ability of night-flying birds to navigate by the stars.

About Martha Glowacki

Starry Transit is a new work by Martha Glowacki, whose original vision and meticulous craftsmanship distinguish her oeuvre. Glowacki’s UW-Madison training as a metalsmith can be discerned in her finely rendered sculptures, which are characterized by careful composition and intricate detail.

Glowacki addresses themes that bridge the worlds of art and science, examining essential questions of human existence such as the mysteries of life and death, the consequences of human attempts to manipulate nature, and the desire to understand the forces of the universe. Glowacki is particularly interested in natural science and the history of science, and frequently combines found and constructed objects with natural specimens as primary elements in her work. This is particularly evident in her recent sculptures, which can best be described as contemporary versions of 19th century “cabinets of curiosities.” In these sophisticated and elaborate pieces, the artist creates and assembles a wide range of objects, artifacts, and imagery that contribute to an ongoing investigation of the relationship between humanity and nature. Starry Transit continues Glowacki’s dialogue on the relationship between man and the natural world as it explores our understanding of nighttime bird migration guided by the stars.

About the Artwork

Drawing heavily on historical scientific objects and manuscripts, the Starry Transit installation will use sculptural elements, texts, and recorded sound to explore the mysteries of night bird migration and the human relationship with the stars. One of the sculptural elements in the exhibition, a contemporary cabinet of curiosity, joins a restored display case from the early years of the twentieth century to a cabinet base designed by Glowacki. The antique case displays preserved birds and constructed models of constellations, and visitors to the exhibition will be invited to open cabinet drawers to view etched images of 1870s celestial atlas maps and bird migration maps of the Mississippi Flyway.

Interactive in nature, the exhibition will include two other sculptural elements that can be manipulated by visitors. The artist’s interpretation of a phenakistiscope, a nineteenth-century optical toy, will allow viewers to simulate the flight of a bird on a starry night. Visitors may also operate Glowacki’s version of a planisphere, an astronomical instrument used for centuries to determine the location of stars in the night sky at different latitudes. In her version of this astronomical tool, Glowacki places northern and southern celestial hemisphere maps side by side in an elaborate gearing mechanism. Viewers can turn the hemisphere discs, showing which stars are visible in the night sky at different times of the year.

The installation will also include a series of two-dimensional elements; an original poem on the topic of night bird migration by Wisconsin poet Mary Mercier; and recordings of birds taking flight and communicating at night as they migrate.

Washburn Observatory

Starry Transit has been expressly designed for installation in the Washburn Observatory on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The observatory was built in 1878 and was a premiere site for the study of astronomy well into the 20th century. The building remains a popular destination, with a working telescope for public stargazing. The exhibition will be presented in 1,200 square feet in the Observatory’s dome.

It is important to note that the narrow doorways and steep and winding stairs of the Washburn Observatory render it inaccessible to some individuals. For those unable to attend the show or gain access because of architectural constraints, an extensive website will provide virtual access to the exhibit. Additionally, many instructional programs involving the exhibit—including the celebration of its opening—will be held in accessible facilities.

Exhibition Support

Starry Transit has been made possible by the generous support of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, with additional funds from the Endres Manufacturing Company Foundation and the Overture Foundation; The Evjue Foundation Inc., the charitable arm of The Capital Times; Jan Marshall Fox and Don Bednarek; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.