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New Exhibit at KU's Spencer Museum Focuses on Knowledge

Knowledge comes from a variety of places, including books. Visitors will find two tall stacks of books included in a new exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas campus. Commentator Rex Buchanan has more on the new exhibit called "knowledges."

Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.

Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Isabel Ashley, a junior studying mass media at Baker University.



There’s a new exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art focused mainly on knowledge, ways of knowing and thinking about the world. The exhibit explores those questions through color, light, even holograms.

But the part of the exhibit that got my attention was connected to geology. Andrew Yang, a Chicago-based artist-in-residence at the Spencer, piled up books to create models of two Kansas landmarks, Castle Rock and Cobra Rock, composed of 80-million year old chalk out in western Kansas.

You’ve undoubtedly seen photographs of Castle Rock, even if you haven’t been there. It is a pillar of chalk, standing by itself on the plains of eastern Gove County.

Immediately south of Castle Rock is a large chalk outcrop that once sheltered Cobra Rock, a lesser-known, slender chalk spire with a large “head.” Among geologists, the technical term for a spire like this is, and I’m not making this up, a hoodoo. You heard me right.  A hoodoo.

Both Cobra Rock and Castle Rock suffered from erosion over the years. Cobra Rock toppled over in 1998, and part of Castle Rock collapsed during a 2001 rainstorm.  

Yang recreates these monuments in the Spencer courtyard by piling up books, six or seven feet high. A slender stack, one book on top of another, represents Cobra Rock. A broader, more rounded pile of books represents Castle Rock. And he doesn’t limit himself to features visible on the surface. On one wall of the museum’s courtyard, Yang stacks books up horizontally. Layers of the subsurface are represented by layers of books, each page symbolizing the passage of geologic time.

In some ways, this representation makes perfect sense. Geologists often compare different layers of rock to pages in a book. And some shales around here are composed of layers so thin they peel apart like book pages. To create an outcrop out of books is, then, not so far-fetched.

This interplay between art and geology is hardly new. Before photography, geologists often sketched the rocks they were studying. And some striking geologic illustrations, like those that accompany Clarence Dutton’s geologic treatise on the Grand Canyon, are not just depictions of geology, but works of art themselves.

Even after photography became common, geologists still sometimes drew outcrops, partly to emphasize and define the different rock layers. And partly because, I think, one good way to know a feature is to draw it.  

Most of the books that Yang used in the exhibit came, he says, from KU recycling. His depiction of the subsurface included a copy of William Least Heat Moon’s book PrairyErth, which coincidentally contains a chapter on the geologic history of Chase County, Kansas. The fact that you can’t even give these books away says something else about books and their role in transmitting knowledge today.

Since seeing this exhibit, I look at piles of books at a bookstore or around the house differently, imagining their possibilities. And the next time I’m out west, I won’t look at Castle Rock quite the same way either. Sometimes art comes from unexpected places, even those that are millions and millions of years old.

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