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The scientist and Shangri-La

Durango artist’s exhibit explores quantum physics, utopia on Earth

Durango artist Chandler Wigton has long nurtured a healthy obsession of two seemingly incongruous pursuits: making art and exploring the world of quantum physics.

So, when he happened across the life of Richard Feynman, a brilliant physicist who both assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and harbored an avid interest in shamanistic-based societies, Wigton found a new muse.

He began researching Feynman’s career and biography and found himself engrossed by this man – who expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics and, late in his life, had a dream to visit the formerly independent country of Tannu Tuva and its capital city of Kyzyl.

Feynman believed the country, now part of Russia and located in Siberia along the northwestern border of Mongolia, was a Shangri-La untouched by modern society, where inhabitants lived traditional lives largely unaltered by technology.

Feynman embarked on a quest to visit the little-known, forgotten speck on the map, but he ultimately failed because of Cold War politics and passed away in 1988 without ever reaching Kyzyl. Though Feynman’s dream went unfulfilled, Wigton found himself fascinated by the story.

“It was the contradiction of this scientist who worked on the atomic bomb but, at the same time, wanted in his mind to go to this traditional society,” Wigton said. “I like the idea of juxtaposing the scientist and the shaman.”

Feynman’s quest for Tannu Tuva and his rich curiosity served as the jumping off point for Wigton’s new body of work, “The City of Kyzyl.”

The exhibit, which will feature 10 to 15 of about four dozen pieces Wigton created, will open with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Durango Arts Center Art Library.

“The City of Kyzyl” features painting, collages and mixed-media works that examine the intersection of science and shamanism through photos, words and blocks of colors. In the exhibit, Wigton delves into Feynman’s quest using star maps, the words of shamanistic songs in the Tuvan language and scientific images.

Wigton, who started the body of work in 2013, said the show reflects both his interest in science’s ability to shed light on the mysteries of the universe and his dread of technology’s destructive potential.

In Feynman’s quest, Wigton recognized the desire for things that are utterly unattainable. But it’s precisely these things that he is able to explore through art.

And just as Feynman never reached the Kyzyl that he idealized as utopia, Wigton largely avoided researching the place.

“My intent was to keep the real city of Kyzyl separate from the utopian version that had begun to develop in my thoughts,” Wigton said.

Instead of seeking out as much information as he could about Kyzyl, he focused his energy on Feynman’s autobiography, a documentary about the scientist’s life and a book of Tuvan shamanic songs.

The work, Wigton said, is a meditation on these ideas: “a fictionalization of a real place and a real person in order to juxtapose the scientist and the shaman, the scientific diagram and the mythological image.”


If you go

Chandler Wigton’s exhibit, “The City of Kyzyl,” will open with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Durango Arts Center Art Library, 802 East Second Ave. Visit www.durangoarts.org for more information.

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