Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Trent Harris retrospective at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
Not many filmmakers receive solo exhibitions in art museums. Trent Harris, however, is unlike most filmmakers. The Utah native is best known outside of his home state, where he maintains a cult following around the globe. As opposed to more traditional filmmakers, his work is highly experimental, allowing for elaboration in a variety of artistic mediums. Echo Cave, Harris’ solo show at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), stems from a desire to interact with his works outside the standard film festival format—uncovering film’s role in engendering multiple creative expressions and perspectives.
As the creator of over 100 films, Trent Harris has a legion of loyal fans keenly aware of his contribution to avant-garde cinema. UMOCA views Harris as a legitimate, albeit marginalized, voice in the local art scene. Aaron Moulton, UMOCA’s former Senior Curator, developed an interest in Harris quickly after arriving in the state, “I became friends with Trent upon moving to Utah. I collaborated with [him] when we had the artist Constant Dullaart organize a performance night. From then on it was a natural dialogue.”
UMOCA’s first Utah Biennial (2013) continued this collaboration and made a concerted effort to introduce Harris’s work to Utah audiences. The Biennial took its title from Harris’s book Mondo Utah and constituted, according to Moulton, of “a structural appropriation of Trent's book and a way to think about regionalism and the folkloric in an exhibition form.” After the biennial, an ensuing exhibition devoted to Harris’s work seemed fitting, as Moulton states, “The biennial became about setting a stage and stoking a context for digging deeper into a practice like Trent's.”
Echo Cave delivers on its premise. It is a fitting portrait and a genuine attempt to bolster Harris’s reputation in his home state. Not only has Harris’s work long been misunderstood in Utah, but as Moulton puts it, “it's important for cultural institutions to remind us who we are and to sensitively unearth the parts of us that we've forgotten. Sometimes it's about varying degrees of visual literacy and whether it's something or someone's time to be understood.”
Echo Cave makes spirited selections from Harris’s long and diverse career, bringing to our attention the many recycled characters, motifs and symbols that accumulate in his body of work.
Harris’s biography is inherently woven into his work. An entire wall of the exhibition is dedicated to mapping Harris’s development as a filmmaker-starting at age 11, when he snapped a photograph at his sister’s wedding. The photograph, a seemingly candid shot of individuals standing beneath a roof with a large sculpture of an octopus set atop, sets the stage for Harris’s longstanding curiosity for the odd and uncanny. The octopus image is paired with other photographs taken throughout Harris’s career. Text and arrows are added to create a visual navigation from image to image. Arrows are in fact a common symbol throughout the exhibition, used to both guide and distract the viewer from points of significance. Although symbols such as arrows appear didactic, they in fact reject such easy associations.
After the infamous octopus photograph, Harris began working for local station KUTV, where he was responsible for producing a series of investigative segments cumulatively titled “Atomic Television.” Bordering on kitsch, these segments are often laced with comical undertones. Adjacent to the wall of photographs, the exhibition recreates a 1970’s style living room, complete with vintage furniture, a bookshelf, wall decoration and a television playing selections from “Atomic Television.”
Connected to the photographic wall and faux-living area is the exhibition’s primary spectacle—a room containing evidence of a lively film career. Visitors entering this space are greeted by a large screen displaying excerpts from various documentaries which Harris narrates in a discombobulated and personal manner. The sights and sounds emanating from this enormous screen are impossible to ignore—as if Harris is personally accompanying viewers throughout the exhibition. Surrounding the screen are various artifacts from Harris’s career, including enlarged film stills, posters, props and a large photographic work entitled, “My Brain.” In this photographic collage, we see repeated images that appear elsewhere in the exhibition, mixed with portraits of individuals from around the world. Intermixed throughout the collage are arrows, yet again included to ambiguously alter or guide our vision.
Whereas the first room of the exhibition highlights Harris’s work, the second room is decidedly autobiographical. The room is littered with screens displaying scenes from his most recent film Luna Mesa (2011) and digitized excerpts from his journal.
These video instillations illuminate the dark room with bright colors and abstract shapes. Screens enlarge selected pages from the journal, that is also presented in physical form in a display box. Harris toys with our traditional notion of an artistic journal as informative and didactic. Instead, the journal—in its various forms—is a work of art itself, rather than a prerequisite to a completed project.
The exhibition seems to play upon Harris’s interest in documentation. That is to say, his preoccupation with cataloging certain autobiographical episodes as works of art themselves.
Consistent with this interesting propensity for channeling creativity through the banal, the exterior wall of the exhibition (lining UMOCA’s hallway), contains a work entitled, “Bruce and Me.” This work details the correspondence between Trent Harris and fellow artist Bruce Connor. Harris includes letters and a written statement combined with Pop collages of wild and incoherent images that are overtly comical but also endearing.
Like Harris’s work as a whole, the correspondence relishes in the absurd—using repetition as a vehicle for lunacy.
The exhibition culminates in the new media gallery, where Harris’s Echo Cave title comes full circle. The gallery’s dark enclosed space mimics a real cave, a space where viewers are visually assaulted by multiple clips from Harris’s film career on one giant screen. To Harris, this selection is a natural conclusion, a finale for those patient enough to sit in the room long enough. Perhaps then, the echo cave, with its silent and contemplative aura, is the best possible venue for taking in the enormity of Harris’s strange artistic vision.
Nancy Holt (1938 - 2014)
On February 8th, 2014 the American artist Nancy Holt passed away in New York City at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Born in New Jersey in 1938, she lived a life firmly committed to her art, giving us new ways of perceiving space, time, and light.
We in Utah claim her as our own through her monumental (in many ways) work Sun Tunnels (1973-1976), yet her work was international at an early stage of her career. She and her husband, Robert Smithson (1938-1973) traveled to many international sites during their ten-plus years together. Recently, Holt’s work has been acclaimed as her early photographs related to situation and to light have been exhibited both in the U.S. and abroad. In the summer of 2012, Holt installed what would be the final work in her Locator series, in Avignon, France. In London, Ben Tufnell curated Nancy Holt: Photoworks at Haunch of Venison in 2012, displaying for the first time Holt’s early photographs. In 2013, Holt took part in the group exhibition Light Show (Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre)
Her solo traveling exhibition, Nancy Holt: Sightlines commenced in 2010 at Columbia University, then was shown in Germany and several United States venues before its final destination in 2012 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Expertly curated by the art historian Alena J. Williams, the exhibition included Holt’s work up to and including Sun Tunnels; the book of the same name includes a broader span of Holt’s long chronology of photographs, installations, and site-specific works. Upon seeing her show at UMFA, Holt exclaimed it was the best installation she had seen of her work.
My first contact with Nancy was in 1995 through the research I was conducting on Robert Smithson and the Spiral Jetty (1970). Through her professional guidance, my emphasis was to situate the Spiral Jetty as a work of art in and of Utah through regional considerations, which was (to me, at least) a new way of considering this work. She steered me to interview Bob Phillips, the construction foreman on the job to create the Spiral Jetty. Also, to Robert “Bob” Bliss, who was the dean of the school of architecture at the University of Utah and the one responsible for having Bob Smithson speak at the University of Utah in 1972.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this act of creating connections to others within her sphere would be an act she would repeat for the next eighteen years. Nancy loved to find commonalities and similarities in people, and make sure they met to cross-pollinate in their creative work. Although my master’s thesis was green at the time (Nancy would remind me of that in her blunt, New Jersey way), it made connections between each man named Bob, between the earthwork and Utah, and between Nancy and me.
Nancy will be remembered historically as a pioneer of the Land arts movement and for her substantive contribution to the visual arts, but there were other areas within which she gave of herself. She was a practicing Buddhist and taught Vipassana Meditation in New Mexico for a number of years and embraced her role in teaching meditation. Her cat, Karuna, takes her name from compassion, which Nancy practiced regularly. She loved living in New Mexico and cared about the social inequities found in her adopted state.
Last October, Nancy was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center. Many were able to be with her to cheer this great achievement in her career. A few days later, she gave a lecture at Princeton University in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition New Jersey as Non-Site. Her lecture focused on both her work and her husband’s work – the first time Nancy talked about Smithson’s work: his childhood, the pivotal role place played in his work, from New Jersey to many other places they would explore together.
Upon returning home from that momentous trip, Nancy was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia; shocking news to all. Yet she continued to live her life, choosing to relocate from New Mexico to New York City to receive a trial run of chemotherapy. From November to January, Nancy finished work on the film The Making of Amarillo Ramp (2013), which is currently on exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, and assisted in many facets of the exhibition Robert Smithson’s New Jersey, which opened on February 22nd at the Montclair Museum.
Nancy often said it took a while for her work to make it out into the world, which at first seemed paradoxical. Her work is about the world, how could it take time to resonate there? Given time, this made sense – her work style was meticulous, her processes overlapping given the various medium with which she engaged. Sun Tunnels was created over a three-year span; an article, then a film followed. An even broader span of time – forty years to be exact – passed before the film The Making of Amarillo Ramp was completed, giving us historical information on the completion of Smithson’s final earthwork. The circular nature of work past and present was embedded in The Making of Amarillo Ramp, its significance yet to truly be appreciated.
Nancy’s legacy as an artist, teacher, mentor, and friend will continue, rippling across time and space. The connections she created assure us her legacy will continue for generations; public memorials are being planned to honor the many areas of her life that were shown to so many. She connected us through visionary art to light and to the land; she connected the land and the sky, offering a new way of perceiving the world. The life she passes on to us will continue through her boundless, unstoppable energy.