Communicating science through art: Introducing the work of Miami artist, Xavier Cortada


It wasn’t too long ago I wrote that the age of the artist-scientist is over, but after meeting Miami artist Xavier Cortada, I’m not so sure.

Cortada is a faculty member in Florida International University’s Art & Science program, where students and faculty explore the connections between Art and Science in novel ways. Cortada’s work is an excellent example of how this is done.

I was introduced to Mr. Cortada’s work at Conversations in Art + Innovation, a monthly series hosted by local arts organization, Creative Pinellas.

Cortada began the discussion with a description of his Antarctica project, an attempt to artfully raise awareness of climate change. Back in 2007, Cortada travelled to Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artist & Writer’s Program. While there, he spoke with scientists about melting glaciers, and initiated a public art project to visibly demonstrate the magnitude of the problem.

Polar ice is melting at such a rate that the stake marking the geographical location of the South Pole, where all longitude lines converge, has to be relocated annually. That’s because the South Pole is basically a sheet of ice, and as that ice melts, the marker’s location shifts with it. Cortada emptied his pockets onto a nearby table to illustrate the concept. In this scenario, the table is a sheet of ice, and the contents of his pocket are markers. He places a set of keys on the table, then moves the table a foot closer to him — the keys move with it. Then he places a remote on the table where the keys used to be and moves the table again. He repeats this with an eyeglass case. Now the contents of his pocket are all lined up in a row. In real life, Cortada used flags. He planted 50 flags into the polar ice sheet, with each flag representing the location of the marker in years’ before. They formed a row, half a kilometer long, with each flag about 10 meters away from the next.

Back home in Florida, Cortada uses art to aid in reforestation. When the state turned 500 years old in 2013, Cortada celebrated by initiating a campaign to have 500 new Florida wildflower gardens planted across the state. The project’s name: FLOR500. Cortada spoke with botanists to determine which native Florida wildflowers to re-introduce in the area. Based on these conversations, Cortada drew up a list of 500 native Florida wildflowers and invited artists to depict these flowers. Then he invited the community to participate by planting these flowers in their own gardens.

Genetic Sequence. Charcoal on (400 sections of) paper, dimensions variable, 2010.
Installation at Frost Art Museum’s Sequentia exhibit. Courtesy of Xavier Cortada.

These projects are just the tip of the iceberg that is Cortada’s career. He’s also created an artificial mangrove forest in downtown Miami, worked with physicists at CERN to commemorate the discovery of Higgs Boson, and painted the human genome. He’s even been published in Science.

“Science helps me understand life and where I fit into it,” says Cortada, “Art helps me communicate this.”

Creative Pinellas hosts Conversations in Art + Innovation on the third Thursday of each month. You can view upcoming dates and topics at creativepinellas.org/conversations-in-art/

Categories: Arts & CultureTags: , ,

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