The Curious Vault Collaborations 001: Coral

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For centuries the disciplines of science and art have occasionally intersected in the larger search for a life of meaning and the meaning of life. The team here at the Miami Science Museum has decided to gracefully continue that discussion and we are excited and proud to announce the first ever Curious Vault Collaborations.

The project, inspired by the collection of the Miami Science Museum, puts a local artist and scientist together with the intention of creating a tabletop display from their teamwork using at least one item from the Museum’s permanent collection. These main elements, a table, a collection object, an artist, and a scientist, are the framework. They are a unifying set of rules that hope to guide the endeavor for future projects.

brain coral

Giant brain coral from the Miami Science Museum’s collection

The inaugural Curious Vault Collaborations exhibit is currently up on view in the museum and focuses on coral, since Dr. Andrew Baker, Associate Professor of Marine Biology & Fisheries at the University of Miami is one half of the first endeavor. His career has a special focus on corals and after combing through the many specimens in the Curious Vault he chose a massive brain coral for the artwork.

Andrew Baker Lab

Dr. Andrew Baker

Sinisa standing

Sinisa Kukec

His counterpart is Miami based contemporary artist Sinisa Kukec, who has crafted a stunning infinity box to house the coral. Inside the box the brain coral is raised up, framed and highlighted with custom made neon tubing. When the onlooker soaks in the piece they are treated to a near never-ending view of neon and brain coral, an effect hoping to simulate an actual coral reef under the waves.

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Dr. Baker, discussing corals

sinisa kukec

Sinisa Kukec, sketching initial concepts

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Meeting in Sinisa’s studio

Sinisa James Shop

Production in Miami Science Museum shop

The piece itself is entitled “Do brain corals dream of algal symbionts?” with the materials used being brain coral, neon, acrylic two-way mirror, red oak, soundtrack and electronics. It is now on exhibit to visitors to the Miami Science Museum and it is spectacular to behold.

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“Do brain corals dream of algal symbionts?”, 2013
Brain coral from the Miami Science Museum collection, neon, acrylic two way mirror, red oak, soundtrack and electronics
33 x 34 x 34 inches
Courtesy of the scientist, the artist and Spinello Projects

While Kukec’s deft hand was responsible for physically putting the piece together and the final visual presentation that viewers will experience, it’s worth noting one of the main obstacles the team had when initially encountering the collection. The massive piece of brain coral chosen by the artist and scientist was filthy. The coral was covered in a film of hunter green paint. Though the Curious Vault team wasn’t really sure why, it seemed that perhaps an earlier exhibition team at the Miami Science Museum had used it in a display and hoped to give off the appearance of being underwater. Dr. Baker, being a coral expert, knew exactly how to restore the piece to its pristine pearl white glory, making it visually much more stunning for the artistic purposes at hand.

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Dr. Baker has also, quite charmingly, used his children as well as himself for the audio portion of the display in hopes of engaging all walks and ages of life. Translation in Spanish was provided by the Science Museum’s own Fernando Bretos. Together they all read a history of man’s relationship with corals as well as basic factoids that visitors may find interesting, which will play alongside the display. For instance, did you know that in the Middle Ages, people believed that anything touched by coral could not harm them? So not only is the object visual, but it is also aurally stimulating.

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As Sean Duran, Vice President of Exhibitions and Design at the Miami Science Museum explains, “Classic to the way an artist thinks is to question how an object is contextualized. In this place, what message is that object sending? So, under different circumstances the artist can place the object where it tells a new story.” He goes on to clarify that, “a scientist sees a much more consistent message behind that object. We think that interconnected riffing between the artist and scientist creates new messages and new pathways for museum visitors to think about the object’s meaning.”

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But with each display, there is an individual and overarching goal, reflective of the scientist’s professional background and the artist’s visual interests.  As Dr. Baker explains, “the aim is that people come away with the impression that corals are beautiful, valuable in ways they may not have thought about before.” He further details that corals are, “Fascinating, fragile, romantic, and disappearing fast,” which both Baker and Kukec hope people will see and feel when looking at their collaborative work.

The Curious Vault Collaborations is a periodic exhibition and online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, which are integrated into a project by a Local Artist and Scientist presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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