Three’s the charm this week as a third socially committed art exhibition joins two already in progress, one at UMOCA and another at Phillips. As it happens, Crisis is also the third part of Between Life and Land, a year-long survey of environmentally concerned art at the Kimball Art Center in Park City. The remarkable thing about all three is that, with more than fifty artists and arts partnerships involved, there is no fatiguing redundancy in their specific concerns. Each offers a fresh take on current concerns, even if the closest they come to a light-hearted moment is a 75-year old story about parachuting beavers into remote waters.
Throughout contemporary art, two contrasting impulses come largely to the fore. On the one hand is the urge to acknowledge a dilemma — a difficult, even lose-lose choice — facing artists and the public. The other is to encourage an audience to take action. In the best art, the two are inseparably intertwined. In Beth Krensky’s “Keys to Open the Beginning Before the End,” the artist presents a venerable display case full of skeleton keys she’s crafted from found castoffs. Anyone who has closely followed the social discourse on environmental threats must have come to realize that large parts of the affected population — which, after all, is everyone — have settled into a posture of waiting for a miracle, a deux-ex-machina, or a heroic leader to deliver us all from approaching doom. Krensky’s keys may well proffer a means of unlocking such a passage into a livable future. She has adroitly given each universal key two qualities: one is the aura of some unknown power to do what no one seems to know how to do. The other is a suggestion of improbability: of folly even. By placing them out of reach in a closed box, she makes it clear that, as Kafka famously said, “Oh, there is hope, an infinite amount of hope, just not for us.” Then again, since the keys are largely made of formerly living materials — branches, seed pods, corals, a feather — she might be suggesting that delivery lies in a return to our shared biological nature and a community, indeed an alliance, with those creatures whose suffering has enabled us to see the threat clearly and in time.
Identity, which was the focus of Part II, can refer to uniquely distinguishing characteristics of an individual: indeed, it’s often assumed that is what is intended when the word is used. But more often its actual intention is effectively the opposite. “Identity” then tags or links to the groups one “identifies with.” Familial, social, political, gender, and ethnic associations are included in this set. In Part III, “Huehuetlatolli: Words of the Elders,” presented in bold type that directly confronts the viewer, may express DesertArtLAB’s frustration, surely felt by many facing the inexplicable inactivity, often in fact obdurate denial, shown even by the most adversely affected. “ACT! TAKE CARE OF THE THINGS OF THE EARTH. DO SOMETHING,” it begins. If anything, it denies the traditional indirection and open-mindedness of art in favor of a direct statement, expressed in the linguistic style of the Aztec oral tradition, giving it a theatrical power even as it identifies with another culture’s own, more convincing identity.
Given the appalling way so much anger that should be directed at the causes of global warming is visited instead on those trying to combat it, I take comfort in the emergence of certain focal points shared among activists and concerned alike. Bodies of water and trees appear frequently as visual markers of progress and loss. In their videos suggesting topics for reflection, Meditation Ocean Constellation makes the oceans accessible to contemplation the way lakes have already served, and continue to do in Lily Brooks ongoing study of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, an Army Corps of Engineers flood control project on the Mississippi River near New Orleans. It’s been more than a century since Mark Twain expressed doubts about the often-repeated claims that the Mississippi, so important to him throughout his life and work, could ever be made to meekly serve human interests. An unbiased look today will show the river, if anything, has grown more dominant as successive control measures have proven ineffective.
Meanwhile, fully a quarter of the works here make strong use of trees. Wendy Wischer’s “Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy” comments in multiple layers on the wasteful and one-sided exploitation of trees. By constructing petroleum-based models of the parts of them that cannot easily be made into lumber, which were tossed aside before a combination of factors forced a change of approach, she calls attention to the exhaustion of stocks from overuse, economic pressures, and industrial development that led to the replacement of real lumber with inferior composites. John Grade’s “Emeritus” presents an elegy for an “absent tree” that consists of meticulously molded and assembled replacements for the parts of the tree that are replaced annually, like needles and cones. These are then installed in the forest, in a place where in the past a true giant would have stood, but which is now an unnatural and deceptive event: a tree farm in the guise of a forest. The completed version then appears as a translucent ghost of the life forms that, like the sandstone canyons and pinnacles of the Southwest, so impressed the explorers who first beheld them less than two centuries ago.
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have essentially brought Andy Goldsworthy’s determination to use only natural art materials into their work in various urban environments, where they have grown lawns on the sides of buildings and found ways of growing photographic imagery in grass. In “Beuys’ Acorns,” they hark back to the transformative German artist’s determination to use trees as memorial “social sculptures,” but also invoke the American myth of Johnny Appleseed, one of several national heroes around the world whose legendary tree planting efforts served to encourage belief in individual action. Of course personal efforts, while commendable, need be backed up by community involvement, which Ackroyd and Harvey pursue in projects like “Into Blue,” which raises questions about who makes decisions such as those represented in Utah by massive, recreational landscape projects.
When Tiana Birrell presented her inquiry into vast commercial deceit, “The Cloud Cycle,” in the AIR Gallery at UMOCA in 2021, it filled the entire room. She’s since distilled its exposure of undemocratic resource allocation — specifically the use of enormous quantities of electricity and water in maintaining the enormous computer installations that make possible the Cloud — to a single, wall-sized poster capable of being displayed almost anywhere. This important outreach fits compactly on a scale that includes Postcommodity’s “Going to Water,” which in its current version requires three video projectors, matching screens, and ideally a theatrical space. Anyone who has seen the movie “Chinatown,” should remember the secret conspiracy its detective uncovers, to kidnap the water of Central California’s Owens Valley, a resource of the Paiute tribes since time immemorial, and later a boon to agriculture, to supply some of the needs of the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. In a collection of time-lapse videos, “Going to Water” collapses and displays the impact on the Valley of having lost this resource. It might well be that the Kimball should install a second entrance, one leading directly into this space, for those who would still deny that the climate is changing in ways that threaten life itself. Maybe after seeing these images and reading about the toxic dust released by the lake’s demise, with accurately implied parallels to what is happening to Great Salt Lake, they would be ready for the thoughtful and eloquent works in the rooms next door.
Between Life and Land: Crisis, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through Oct. 29
All images courtesy the author