William Lamson: Hydrologies . . . from page 1
It should come as no surprise that the involvements of water are manifold and complex, intersecting physics and physiology in ways both great and small. One of nature’s great laboratories for its exploration appears to be coming inevitably to an end a few miles from the gallery. Here one of perhaps 20 seas that together cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is about to disappear after millennia of gradual shrinkage. Like a handful of such bodies of water—the Dead Sea, which is also called the Salt Sea, and the Aral Sea come to mind—the Great Salt Lake demonstrates a key fact of hydrology: as seas evaporate, their salts remain behind, concentrate, and take on a new, sometimes metaphorical and sometimes actual life of their own. These phenomena are the subject of “Hydrologies Archaea,” the artwork Lamson made at UMOCA in collaboration with saltwater drawn from the Salt Lake. A production still shows a man wheeling a load of something white past something that looks like a loop of Spiral Jetty, another project drawn here by the presence in the lake’s water of microorganisms that turn red at precise saline concentrations. Part of “Hydrologies Archaea” involved transporting water from Rozel Point, site of Spiral Jetty, to the gallery, where Lamson used it to fill a variety of clear glass vessels. As the water evaporated, he observed various phenomenon, including one in which residual salt appears to be alive, climbing up and over the sides of the vessels, eventually spreading across the table on which the bowl, jar, vase, or whatever sits. Although Lamson maintains a rigorous scientific attitude in his descriptions—and indeed, the actual chemistry and physics of the phenomenon are worth understanding—witnesses would have to be willfully insensitive not to notice how the spreading crystals invoke a plant or animal population desperately searching for its disappearing source of water. When the evaporation process is complete, the various containers are transformed into beautiful, translucent white forms, like bones covered with dry light where once they knew liquid luminescence.
Near a table covered with such glassware and the salt crystal planes that spread from them, even spilling down the table’s sides, a rough trestle set on triangular legs holds photographs and research materials from this project and others conducted in Wendover, Long Island, and Chile. This last was the site of “Hydrologies Atacama,” in which Lamson explored the potential for reversing the process of dehydration and heading off the disaster that confronts those who depend on water. The Atacama Desert is said to be the driest place on Earth: a blasted plain on most of which nothing grows. Or, grows often: there is a difference between a place with no rainfall, a virtually unknown predicament, and one with periodic, sparse rainfall. And there exist living things all over the world—not just plants, but animals—that take advantage of periodic rain by lying dormant during dry spells, returning to active life after it finally does rain. The organisms responsible for the red tide that attracted Robert Smithson to Rozel Point can remain inactive, trapped in salt crystals, until revived by water, and so can tiny plants hardly bigger than the sand grains of the Atacama. Lamson was able to demonstrate their existence by irrigating a strip of the desert during a year when the occasional heavy rains that truly make the desert bloom didn’t appear. He also filmed the procedure whereby he watered the desert, and that film is the centerpiece of this exhibition.
In 1857, Jean-Francois Millet exhibited “The Gleaners,” a painting as controversial in its day as the adequate supply of clean water is today. In it, the figures of three women, stooped to gather harvest remnants left behind by commercial farmers as too petty to recover, proceed across and into the painted scene. William Lamson recalls this provocative procession in his filmed trek across the desert. Here a custom-built, wheeled vehicle rolls slowly across the field of view, followed by a team of men walking at a formal, funereal pace. They shoulder the burden of a hose carrying water from an unseen source, trudging behind the machine they supply as if roped together for common safety. In another installation, say one where the video was seen on a monitor, this image alone would make it almost overpowering. But as installed at UMOCA, something far more moving occurs: the viewer enters the projected scene in the form of a silhouette, like the shadow portraits of centuries before the coming of the camera. First, the witness becomes a shadow spread across the soil, or a dark figure standing among dried stalks as much as a decade dead. We are implicated: this is not just a distant landscape of no matter to us, but our world dying of thirst. And then, as the crew comes through, bearing their burden of water, viewers find themselves among them. The implication, subliminal but accessible to reflection, is that like any true work of art, this one includes us in its purview.
As a critic, I don’t hold that art should preach, or—unless words are its medium—try to convey verbal content, let alone a message. Unlike many misguided installations, William Lamson’s art doesn’t approach us that way; in fact, it doesn’t approach us at all. It stands apart, an open record of events and experiences, and draws us closer in order to explore it. How far a witness ventures into its defamiliarized spaces, with their crusty white surfaces, scant water, and images of vast, parched earth will depend on her curiosity, or his willingness to see beyond popularly approved vistas. Lamson’s visions have that most dire, most threatening quality: once seen, they cannot be unseen. Once taken in, they will not be forgotten. It is this visual power that makes them art, and makes Hydrologies one of the most convincing aesthetic experiences on tap in our place and time.
Exhibitions Review: Park City
Wrap It, Please
Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Kimball Art Center
The Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah is the recipient of a traveling exhibition composed of over 130 drawings, sculptures, collages, photographs and original artworks by the world famous husband and wife artistic team Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Initially organized by the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, from the private collection of Tom Golden, the compilation is regarded as ‘the largest U.S. collection of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s original’ works.
At the age of 79, Christo continues to work as one half of the legendary duo that began creating artworks in the late 1950’s. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 of complications from a brain aneurism, leaving her husband to continue their legacy through a variety of unfinished projects.
Known primarily for their colossal earthworks and public installations, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are regarded as much for their artworks as for the long, complicated process of making them. Despite projects that have taken decades to complete, the duo is responsible for a number of iconic works including “Running Fence” (1976), a 24.5 mile nylon fence spread across both public and private land in Sonoma County, California and “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995) which consisted of wrapping the German parliament building in polypropylene fabric between June 24th and July 7th of that year.
Unlike other famous earthworks in the Land Art canon, Christo and Jeanne-Claude create temporal pieces that often require years to plan and remain in place for only a short amount of time. As such, the preparatory sketches, notes, photographs, films and correspondences are the only evidence that remain as a testament to the unique process used to create these iconic artworks. Remarkably, it is through the sale of such items, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have traditionally paid for their immense projects.
The legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysels famously directed four films featuring the duo, Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974), Running Fence (1977) Umbrellas (1994) and The Gates (2007). These films capture the frustration and determination intrinsic to the massive undertaking of public art. Throughout their long career, the duo faced numerous legal, environmental and political battles that tested their determination to complete each of their projects. Maysles remarkably captures the process that accompanies the creation of these projects, inviting the viewer to consider the progression leading up to the final product as a conceptual artwork in itself.
As the most recent of these four iconic documentaries, The Gates (2007) documents what was lauded in the press as “New York City’s largest public art project.” The conception for the project began as early as 1979, and was finally erected on February 12, 2005. Like many of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works, the Gates was considered site-specific—situated in a location chosen for its significance. Placed in Manhattan’s iconic Central Park, the project consisted of 7, 503 orange-colored fabric gates littered throughout the park. To accompany the exhibition, Maysles’ documentary was screened at the Kimball Art Center on November 20, 2014.
Kimball’s exhibition devotes considerable attention to the presentation of documentary material—the extensive drawings, maps and correspondences that accompanied the duo’s many public projects. This assortment works as a companion to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most famous works, providing a skeletal structure for what the public was only able to witnesse in its final form. What makes this collection significant, however, is the inclusion of original artworks that are no doubt influenced, but are in fact wholly separate from the large-scale projects. The arduous development of public installations coincides with the carefully precise aesthetic of a series of hand colored lithographs and ‘wrapped’ sculptures. In a depiction of a Parisian newspaper wrapped in polyethylene and rope entitled, “The Paris Review Wrapped” (1985), Christo creates a mixed media lithograph with viable textures and an intriguing surface. Similarly, three sculptures placed in a horizontal row, dissect the gallery space and add variety to the works of the two-dimensional majority. One such sculpture is “Wrapped Flowers” (1993), a collection of artificial flowers wrapped in Christo’s signature polyethylene. The infatuation with this material is understandable in its reflective properties, allowing the viewer to detect, in a translucent manner, the ghostly forms that lurk beneath. Such original works shed light on the often forgotten, yet immensely rich, work from the Christo and Jeanne-Claude canon.