Geology meets art in the Oakland Museum

The Oakland Museum of California has opened an exhibit called “UNEARTHED: Found + Made,” and this is the first thing you see when you go there. It is a suiseki stone, collected by the late Felix Rivera in the California desert and prepared and mounted by him according to artistic principles codified centuries ago in Japan. When you visit the show, slow way down at the entrance and drink in its form, colors and presence. The exhibit features about twenty more of these rugged individuals, all exquisitely lit. [The show ran from December 2015 to April 2016.]

I took this photo months earlier under fluorescent lights in a back room at the museum. More about that later.

That’s the “found” part. The “made” part is a set of works by Jedediah Caesar, which complement the suiseki in an off-kilter way. He picks up things off the ground, too, mostly things that are not rocks. He may mix them into a vat of liquid plastic, let it set, and then saw the resulting block into slices, like building stones. Those are on the walls. This larger piece is on the floor.


If I have this right, Caesar mixed turmeric into the plastic, which caused a vigorous reaction much like volcanic gases might produce in magma. In any case, his works have a certain geological cast and are a feast for the eyes.

I took that shot with my phone at the opening reception, where I was an invited guest. The museum staff had sought my help as they were preparing the exhibit. You know how for every piece of art, they say what it’s made of? “Albumen print.” “Stainless steel.” “Oil on canvas.” They wanted me to help them do that with the suiseki — you know, like “pegmatite on wood stand.”

Now suiseki collectors don’t know this stuff. Mostly they ignore geology, as they should. To talk about a suiseki’s rock type is to miss the point of the art. And the whole point of geology is to observe rocks, not appreciate them. But I made my best effort to “identify” the stones, relishing the absurdity as I did so. And if you disagree with the names I chose, I’m sure you’re as correct as I was.

I wrote a more elaborate piece about the exhibit and that experience for KQED Science a few weeks after this post.

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