At first glance, Oak Park artist Sallie Wolf’s Moon Project, currently on exhibit at the Adler Planetarium, doesn’t look much like art. It looks like a series of very dry, dull scientific charts. The surprise in our computer-driven age is that they were done by hand.
Wolf has been observing the moon since Nov. 30, 1994, when she was walking with a friend in the morning and noticed the moon rising low in the east. She didn’t know what it was doing there, since it seemed to be the wrong time and in the wrong place. It made her realize how little she actually knew about the moon.
With a degree in anthropology (before she attended art school), Wolf got to thinking just how much people in the past would have known about the night sky, when they were hooked into nature because their lives depended on it. Her curiosity whetted, she found herself going again the next day and the day after, looking for the moon, without realizing that she’d embarked on a lifelong project.
She doesn’t use a telescope, only her own eyes. She does allow herself a watch and compass, out of a sense that members of indigenous societies would have had an excellent sense of time and direction. However, she doesn’t read books or scientific treatises about the moon, because she doesn’t want to give herself any advantages over what they would have had. Her upraised arm gives her an estimate of the height at which the moon rises each night.
The charts that line the walls at the Adler exhibit are of her own devising. “My watchful eye,” as she calls it, shows the height of the moon each day on an east-to-west axis and the time at which the sighting was made. A tic-tac-toe symbol captures the north-south shift pattern of the moon.
The project has expanded over the years. A scrapbook of moon “sightings” in popular culture, which she refers to as an “anthropology of the moon,” is exhibited in a glass case. It includes ads, comics, business cards, catalogues and newspaper articles, as well as derivative references to, for example, “lunar,” “lunacy,” and Reverend Moon.
The project also includes a journal, where she records her growing understanding of the moon’s movements, as well as any other thoughts and dreams she may have regarding the moon. There’s also a musical CD. The music, based on the north-south shift pattern of the moon and written with the help of a composer, was recorded as a Gregorian chant, with the aid of music teacher and professional musician Andrew Mayo and poet Walter Mayo.
A question raised by the exhibit is whether it truly is art. Wolf believes it is; it’s a visual record of an inner experience, time made manifest. Certainly for us moderns, attending the exhibit may allow us to sense a different sort of relationship with time, measured not by clocks or calendars but by the cyclical patterns of nature.
The exhibit is available for viewing at Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, through the end of November. Museum hours are daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In addition, Wolf will be giving two tours of the exhibit on Sunday, Nov. 6 as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. For tickets call (312) 494-9509 or go online at www.chfestival.org.