I have to admit it: I had no idea landscape arches vibrate and thus create sound (albeit through frequencies inaudible to the human ear). Learning this fact alone makes attending Displacing Vibrations, on view at Nox Contemporary through April 5, worthwhile. Ambitious in its scope and message, the exhibition is a collaboration between artist Wendy Wischer and University of Utah geophysicist Jeffrey Moore, who strive to bring light to contemporary issues of specific Utah land rights through a multimedia installation that is as auditory as it is visual.
Wischer is nationally known for her exquisitely beautiful and expertly executed art; she effortlessly blends sculpture, installation, two-dimensional representation, sound, and film in her works, allowing for viewer engagement on a deeper level than if just one medium were present. She exhibits indoors as well as in large-scale outdoor installations: since moving to Utah from Florida in 2012 to teach in the University of Utah’s Art/Art History Department, she has worked both as a solo artist and occasionally in collaboration with scientists. Moore, who has a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of California, Berkeley, studies rock-slope hazards and the impacts of large landslides. He knew about Wischer’s focus on environmental issues and interest in how the impact of climate change is negotiated across personal, societal, and/or political landscapes when he reached out to her in early 2018. His science team had compiled extensive research on the ambient vibrations emitted by natural arches; the group’s recordings aimed to evaluate, through studying these vibrations, the structural integrity of rock arches. His hope was to share this research with an artist who could translate its significance to a broader audience.
They visited arches in a former area of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument together so they could then work within their respective areas of expertise: Moore focusing on modulating the speed of his team’s seismic recordings to render the arches’ vibrations audible so that Wischer could then review his data and translate it into an art installation.
As the exhibition flyer tells us, “. . . each [landscape arch] vibrate[s] with a unique set of tones set by [its] geometry and material properties.” These sounds are presented in the gallery through a 45-minute track, emanating through a room filled with sculpted, redrock renditions of southern Utah. Upon entering the space, the sound one hears becomes an enveloping experience; the hum of nature.
Learning of this vibratory capacity shifted my perception from appreciation of an arch’s visual formation to awe for the expanded qualities these landforms imbue. If arches have the capacity to make sound, they can speak to us, and if that’s the case, what do they have to share? As Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko tells us in her book Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, “A rock has being or spirit, although we may not understand it.” This deeper shift in thinking — from contemplating the science of landscape’s inaudible auditory capacity to considering land as spirit — was an unexpected yet welcome aspect of viewing Displacing Vibrations.
What is being displaced? The exhibition’s didactic materials offer some information, as we read that, “. . . in December 2017, the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument were reduced by 85%. In the same stroke, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was decreased by 47%. With the reductions, 115 natural rock arches were stripped of federal protection.” The goal of the exhibition is explicit: by drawing attention to these federal reductions, Wischer and Moore hope to draw attention to landscapes’ fragility and need for protection.
Two aspects of the installation address this: In one piece, a chalk drawing of a landscape is accompanied by two erasers — during the exhibition’s opening, gallery-goers had already caught on to the notion they could obliterate the artist’s markings; more permanent are four mirrored acrylic works on the opposite wall where the shapes correspond to the aforementioned national monuments both before, then after, their sizes were reduced — our faces are mirrored to us as we contemplate our place in these landscapes.
Transferring sounds from the natural world into constructed spaces is not a new phenomenon. What is new in Displacing Vibrations is the complexity of Wischer’s transformation of the sounds Moore and his team captured to present contemporary land considerations in Utah. We imbue landscapes with our values and needs: it is sustenance, it is the platform from which life evolves, it is often considered sacred. Conversely, it can be considered a resource to be exploited with disregard to its capacity for renewal. Through time, the uses and values held by the various cultural groups who pass through and inhabit a specific landscape will change. These changes are evident no more so than today as we witness unprecedented issues related to land rights and questions of sovereignty, governance, protection, and preservation in the American West. Many of us are displaced from these landscapes, having access to them only through various forms of media, or in this case, through artistic interpretation. The success of this installation in its many, expert parts is realized through individual acknowledgement and appreciation of others’ truths, and the value we each place on these landscapes.
Displacing Vibrations, an installation by Wendy Wischer, Nox Contemporary, Salt Lake City, through April 5, by appointment, https://www.facebook.com/Nox-Contemporary-140917519287825/
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.