Visual Arts

Will Wilson’s Projects Highlight the Indigenous “Canaries in the Coal Mines”

Will Wilson, “Mexican Hat Disposal Cell, Triptych, Mexican Hat, Utah,” 2019, archival pigment print 24 x 36 in. (courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts)

In her opening remarks on Friday, October 7, 2022, UMFA executive director Gretchen Dietrich stated that Air (on display until Dec. 11) is an intentionally diverse exhibit. Former UMFA curator Whitney Tassie’s artist selections range from local artists like Virginia Cathrall highlighting the air quality issues experienced here in the Wasatch Range, to international artists like Julianknxx using air to explore themes of police brutality, to the evening’s guest of honor, Will Wilson.

A Diné artist who grew up on the Navajo Nation, Wilson has contributed two works to the Air exhibition: a vibrant polyptych photo arrangement of aerial shots of abandoned uranium mines and a large architectural work that dominates much of the front gallery. Wilson says many of his works tend to bleed into one another. And while they are visually very different, conceptually we can see the relationship between these two projects, especially after Wilson graciously walks an auditorium of eager Utahns through his processes. 

To understand the work presented in Air, Wilson backs us up to 2004, when he started his Auto Immune Response Project. In this project Wilson creates a counter narrative to the photographers who have perpetuated one-dimensional tropes like the “noble savage.” For more than a century, photographers like Edward Curtis and Ray Manley have presented an image of Indigenous peoples untouched by the modern word. This idyllic view was not only a lie, but it presented the Native world through the lens of the white eye in order to erase years of wrongdoing. 

In a manner of counterbalance, the Auto Immune Response (AIR) project imagines a post-apocalyptic world. The photo series follows the travails of a Diné protagonist as he roams the land, trying to figure out why the world has become toxic to him, and how to survive it. Wilson refers to Indigenous populations as the “canaries in the coal mines” when it comes to many autoimmune diseases, as many come as a result of sudden changes in climate, environment and economy, and native communities are easily susceptible to these changes due to their living situations. 

Installation view of Will Wilson’s AIR Lab (Auto Immune Response Laboratory), 2005–ongoing, steel, wood, plants, lights, books, and various media (photo by Heather Hopkins)

In this series, the protagonist designs his post-apocalyptic home based off a hogan, the traditional Diné dwelling, supplemented with survival accoutrements. This is the basis of the architectural structure we see in the UMFA. With each new rendition of the project, Wilson collaborates with experts in the area to specify the hogan to its newest model. In the case of Utah, Wilson worked with the Red Butte Botanical Garden to fill the hogan with plants that act as phytoremediators, or natural hazardous waste removers. Wilson’s AIR Lab hogan concentrates specifically on uranium phytoremediators. 

Uranium is the connection between the AIR Lab structure and Wilson’s photo polyptych work. The arial shots capture abandoned uranium mines in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. The mines are contaminating the land Wilson himself grew up on as a small child, and where much of his family still resides. In his talk, Wilson highlighted the devastation governmental negligence has had on Diné people, especially in relationship with uranium. He spoke of the Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill of 1979, which is, to date, the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history. This uranium mill dam breech was at the border of Navajo Nation land in New Mexico. Residents of the Nation were not warned of the breech for several days after the fact and were denied their request for the area to be declared a federal disaster area. Forty-plus years later Wilson says that nearly all Diné people have some familial connection to this disaster. 

In the Q&A portion after his talk someone asked Wilson essentially where we go from here, and if this phytoremediation had been used on a large scale. Wilson noted examples such as sunflowers being used as natural healers after the Chernobyl disaster and said “as an artist I get to dream up some of these solutions, learn about them, and promote them.” Perhaps that wasn’t the answer the audience member wanted, but as far as making a difference in the world, I’d wager Wilson is pulling his weight. 

Installation view of Will Wilson’s AIR Lab (Auto Immune Response Laboratory), 2005–ongoing, steel, wood, plants, lights, books, and various media (photo by Heather Hopkins)

Will Wilson spoke on his work at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts Auditorium on Friday, October 7. Air continues at the UMFA (Salt Lake City) through Dec. 11.

Categories: Visual Arts

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