Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Entropic Memory in the West Desert: Will Lamson’s Mineralogy at CLUI

In Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers, a man, a clock repairman by profession, lies on his bed, dying. As his body fails him, he begins to hallucinate, picturing his carefully built world—the plaster on the wall, the paint in the rooms, the basement foundation he poured—crashing down. He sees it all dissolve before him:

 The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes of forgotten board games and puzzles and broken toys and bags of family pictures—all of it came crashing down into the cellar, he unable to even raise a hand to protect his face.

The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue…The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.

 The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him lie the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap.[1]

As a reader, you become a voyeur to the dissolve.

Also bearing witness to the steady promise of entropy, of collapse, of the inevitability of moth and rust, is Brooklyn-based artist William Lamson’s multi-year, site-specific installation Mineralogy. Located in Wendover, Utah, inside a partially collapsed former World War II armament building, Minerology is a viewing space that looks upon a one-room cabin, set in a vitrine. The room is small, nearly the size, as Lamson says, “of Thoreau’s cabin.”

But unlike Thoreau’s, this space only feigns reclusion and isolation. It is, after all, on display. Like exhibits from a natural history museum, the self-contained room is filled with things that, in this setting, have turned into artifacts—a coat hanging on a hook, a fish jawbone, an old watercolor, books about Plato, books about the future, and a small bed, a broken wicker chair.

On Saturday, Oct.7, the space officially opened, and Lamson allowed people to go in the exhibit. One at a time, viewers could look closely at the salt-covered objects. Like the feeling of entering a crypt, a reverence pervaded the space. But opening didn’t disrupt viewing. The person moving about the space was simultaneously on view.  Appearing stuck in time, encapsulated, like the room itself, the viewer became an object on display, consumed by our gaze. Art historian Svetlana Alpers called it the “museum effect,” that when things are encased, they become objects of curiosity. But rather than being protected and pristine in their encasement, the room was covered in salt crystals which drip down the wall, overtaking the glass, forming icicle stalactites that weep.

The room, says Lamson, is “undergoing a long-term geologic irrigation.” The effect is caused by water from the nearby Intrepid Potash, which fills vessels placed throughout the room. But rather than creating a damp feeling—a watery feeling—the irrigated water, with its high salinity, quickly evaporates, encrusting everything with its briny snow-white mineral deposit.

“Embedded within a ruin that is itself undergoing the entropic effects of time, Mineralogy suggests an uncanny vision of an uncertain future,” writes Lamson about the project. “If architecture can be considered the entity that separates us from nature, then the objective of Mineralogy is to reverse this paradigm, bringing a quiet geologic process inside of a building and allowing it to collide with the interior space indefinitely.”

For Lamson, Minerology suggests “an uncanny vision of an uncertain future.” Pointing to Freud, whose definition of uncanny describes a psychological experience of “something as strangely familiar…where an everyday object or act is experienced as unsettling, alienating,”[2] the work not only evokes a familiar place, but a place made strange. Books whose titles evoke the future seem to cast an eerie, salt-encrusted look upon our own, predicting ruin.

The boundaries of interior and exterior, of natural and manmade, break down in the armament building housing the exhibition. It is itself a relic, a ruin, where full trees grow out of the building’s foundation, and the roof hangs on only in fragments. Piles of debris cover the floor, camouflaging the near pristine viewing space, which was created over a period of two weeks by Lamson, with the help of Utah artist Levi Jackson. Scholar Hikmet Sidney Loe remarked, “that the building and installation are in a constant state of flux is an elegant reminder of our own state of being.”

The location of the work is, in part, a result of a residency with The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) based in Wendover. Like many CLUI projects, the artwork is found, in part, by exploring the land, by discovery. It may feel like an abject and discarded landscape compared to Walden Pond, but it is landscape—manmade, desert, or otherwise—nonetheless. And as a site, it also offers a rare opportunity to realize a project with an extended, and indefinite, run—a space where time can function as a medium in the work, where a geological process can happen indefinitely, unfold over years, not beholden to a curatorial schedule.

Much of the work is about memory — shoes, or glasses of water, signifying what once was, acting like ghosts, haunting the space with their silence. Lamson says the objects were gathered from his father’s basement. He found there numerous books gathered from the Cold War period—evoking ideas and concerns that are no longer accessible to his father, who, now in his 90s, is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Salt both preserves and corrodes, but here, it overtakes, feels predatory. There is no human disruption to the mineral growth. Perhaps all of life, in some form, is about loss, about losing. Memory is what is both preserved and completely covered in the salt; the objects are enclosed in a sealed environment, but not frozen in amber.

Minerology’s uses of geological processes as an active participant in the creation of a work is similar to Lamson’s trademark approach to artmaking in works like All that’s Solid Melts to Air (2016), Between Now and Forever (2013), A Line Describing the Sun (2010), Action for the Delaware (2011): nature creates materiality and in that creation, makes meaning. But here, that process feels more personal—less about land and markmaking, and more about loss, and its inevitability. In a dilapidated military building in Utah’s west desert, Lamson has created a ghostly interment for entropic memory.

Visit the installation: See http://www.williamlamson.com/Mineralogy_Access.pdf for the most accurate instructions. This project was made possible by the support of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, The Wendover Airport, and Intrepid Potash, with special thanks to Matt Coolidge.

[1] P. Harding, Tinkers (2009), 3-7.

[2] D. Bates, Photography and Surrealism (2004), 39-40.

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