Travels in Tasmania — Part 2 of 3

John Glover (England b. 1767 – Australia d. 1849) Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point 1831–33, 1834, oil on canvas. Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 200. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

John Glover (England b. 1767 – Australia d. 1849) Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point 1831–33, 1834, oil on canvas. Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 200. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), established in 1843, lives in a handsome sandstone building just uphill from the Hobart harbor, which at the moment has in port one of the few research ships that sails regularly to the Antarctic. The large orange Aurora Australis is an icebreaker that many Australian artists have journeyed on to the southern polar regions.
The TMAG, much of which is closed for an extensive expansion funded, nonetheless has up a terrific survey of Tasmanian landscape work titled Regarding Landscape. It starts with an elevated view of The Derwent River and Hobart Town painted in 1831, proceeds through the major 20th-century artists, including Lloyd Rees, Edith Holmes, and Arthur Boyd and into contemporary images. The adjacent gallery holds works specifically about water in Tasmania, which is capped with videos made by David Stephenson and Martin Walch from their 2012 Derwent River project (see previous post).

It’s interesting to look first at the paintings, sit with the videos and then to go back to the paintings. The first run-through of the landscape oils, which start with mostly unpopulated scenery and then become much more strident and symbol-laden over time, is just that: a run-through. You spend the stereotypical 17 seconds in front of each painting and its label before moving on to the next. The videos, as I mentioned in the last post, recalibrate your rate of cognition into a much slower mode.

The second time you visit the paintings, therefore — with your mental pulse now kicked down a gear or two — the scenes appear to be sharper, the colors inhabiting a wider spectrum, the details more numerous. It’s not an effect I could have predicted, but it is exactly the effect that Stephenson and Walch are seeking to create with viewers: to slow them down beyond simply the experience of the moment. And this also makes it a fine time to walk across the street to the Carnegie Gallery upstairs at the Maritime Museum, where the always peripatetic Stephen Eastaugh has a retrospective of his Antarctic paintings titled An Awfully Beautiful Place.

Eastaugh has been to the Antarctic nine times and is one of the few artists to have spent the winter on the continent. He’s more than familiar with the innards of the Aurora Australis, and his work uses materials easily transported, such as small squares of burlap and skeins of yarn. The results can be profound, the knitting of yarn and the sewing of thread throughout his canvases small and large a reminder of the almost quirky presence of humans in the severe strangeness of the Antarctic landscape. Most artists concentrate on portraying the Antarctic as a “white continent” seen during the six-month day. Eastaugh has managed dark views of the Antarctic as a “Big Beautiful Dead Place” (the title of a large, profoundly disturbing panorama of rafting sea ice under a black sky shot through with dark blue yarn).
Art that you see in places such as Tasmania can often remind us that abstraction, high technology, and elaborate systems of symbols can be used by artists to create more than just objects of high value in an international art market; they can also be put into service as links to our place in the world by altering our senses. Speaking of which, Hobart is also home to the world-renowned Museum of New and Old Art, which is devoted to exploring the twin themes of sex and death, and which just opened up its newest exhibition, “Theatre of the World.” Definitely disturbing — see the next post.

Stephen Eastaugh, Big Beautiful Dead Place / Rafting Sea Ice, 2009, acrylic, cotton, wool, linen.  All rights reserved.

Stephen Eastaugh, Big Beautiful Dead Place / Rafting Sea Ice, 2009, acrylic, cotton, wool, linen. All rights reserved.

Travels in Tasmania — Part 1 of 3

David Stephenson, Lake King William a Derwent River hydro electric development, Tasmania, 1982, three gelatin-silver photographs. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

David Stephenson, Lake King William a Derwent River hydro electric development, Tasmania, 1982, three gelatin-silver photographs. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I’m in central Tasmania attending a conference about “Imaging Nature,” which is being held at an arts-and-craft resort high in the mountains. The Tarraleah Lodge and resort was originally the village for workers constructing one of the larger hydroelectric projects in the state, and my room faces out into a eucalyptus forest that is bordered by two enormous pipes dropping water down from the King William reservoir to a power plant at the bottom of the deep gorge on the other side of the building.
The first hydroelectric projects in the southern hemisphere were built in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia that holds the grandest mountain scenery and deepest lakes in the country. The central plateau of Tasmania was covered repeatedly by glaciers during the ice ages, tongues of ice that descended to carve out deep valleys now filled with water. In order to industrialize the state of Tasmania, the government undertook a massive expansion of the early hydroelectric scheme in the 1950s and 60s.

The result is a land of contradictions. Tasmania is known worldwide for heritage wilderness parks that are among the most remote and impenetrable on the planet, parks that about some of the most severely altered landscapes imaginable. It’s ground that’s been over-grazed, over-logged, and plumbed to channel every significant lake and river through tunnels and pipes. It’s also very beautiful in its own way — pastoral lands uninterrupted by the coal- and gas-fired powerplants that would otherwise be needed to provide power on the island.

This is terrain that photographers David Stephenson and Martin Walch have long been exploring in a series of poetic video meditations and still images about Tasmania’s most historically important river, the Derwent, a project that will culminate in an exhibition and book in 2015 or so. They volunteered to take me up the entire course of the Derwent, which flows from the deepest lake in the country to the state capital, the port of Hobart, while on our way to speak at the conference.

The waters of the Derwent are controlled by seven dams that impound water for the power plants. Enough hydroelectricity is generated during wet years that Tasmania sells power to the mainland via a cable that heads north under the Bass Strait. During droughts, Tasmania buys back power via the same cable, not a cheap proposition. David and Martin have started their project by repeatedly shooting from geo-tagged sites both along the shoreline of King William Lake, and out on its waters from a specially outfitted canoe.

The lake is often shrouded in fog in the early mornings, and their slow quiet drifts through the drowned forests of the reservoir are ethereal. Slow ripples spreading out from the canoe make you feel as if you are continually falling into the water, while the stark tree trunks rotate around each other in a seemingly impossible dance. It takes a minute or so before you can slow your mind to match the pace of the videos, but once you do, you are entranced.

The actual experience of being at the lake provokes a similar perceptual shift. The bulldozed and drowned shores are at first terminally ugly, but after an hour of walking exposed cobble and mud while the waters are low, and picking carefully through the constant lithic scatter that indicates many millennia of Aboriginal occupation — plus the odd rusted tractor parts, beer bottles tossed overboard by fishermen, and random plastic bits — you begin to appreciate the scene.

It’s winter solstice in Australia this June 20th, and there’s snow on the rocky peaks of the King William Range. Multiple streams meander into the reservoir, which at this time of year is slowly rising, and the shoreline is forested with gum trees marked with a dark plimsoll line from the high-water months. The capacity of the land to provide beauty even when so deeply modified is surprising–as is the ability of the human mind to construct such beauty around the edges of the ugly. Imaging nature is a collaborative effort between humans and their environments, a process impossible to ignore while standing on the dry bed of a reservoir.

Martin Walch and David Stephenson, Lake King William 25 November 2011. Images from panoramic video presented as four channel sketch. Shot at dawn on Lake King William using four 5Dm2s. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

Martin Walch and David Stephenson, Lake King William 25 November 2011. Images from panoramic video presented as four channel sketch. Shot at dawn on Lake King William using four 5Dm2s. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

Michael Heizer — Across Time and Space

Bill Fox standing with Steve Glotfelty at the foot of the Mopong Hills. Note the light horizontal lines on the hills below the outcroppings, which are ancient lakeshore strandlines. Humboldt Cave is located above the old beaches and out of sight.

Bill Fox standing with Steve Glotfelty at the foot of the Mopong Hills. Note the light horizontal lines on the hills below the outcroppings, which are ancient lakeshore strandlines. Humboldt Cave is located above the old beaches and out of sight.

In front of Reno’s downtown Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse — and only a block from the Nevada Museum of Art — is the steel version of Michael Heizer’s Perforated Object. Created in 1996, the 27-foot-long sculpture is 9 feet 9 inches tall and 3 feet 4 inches wide. Its Michael Heizer’s radically re-sized version of a Paleolithic artifact excavated by his father, the renowned anthropologist Dr. Robert Heizer, from a Nevada cave in 1936. Perforated Object is on my mind because this summer the artist is installing his newest work, Levitated Mass, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The sculpture consists of a 340-ton boulder transported from a quarry 60 miles away and then suspended over a 456-foot-long slot in the museum’s grounds.

Both works are formal sculptural explorations of size and scale in time and space, but they also pay homage to Robert Heizer, whose areas of expertise included both Native Americans of the Great Basin and the ancient art of moving megaliths. In order to think about such a complicated knot, I asked Steve Glotfelty, an expert on Nevada rock art, to take me out to Humboldt Cave where the original perforated object had been found. Accompanying us were two PhD candidates in archaeology, my son Mathew Fox and his partner Jennifer Kielhofer.

The drive northeast from Reno on Interstate 80 follows the Truckee River for a half hour, then heads up the west side of the Humboldt Sink towards the town of Lovelock. Just before reaching that town — where Robert Heizer graduated from high school — we turned off onto the dirt and drove across an alluvial fan to the base of the Mopong Hills. From there it was a steady trek uphill past the site of the old archeological camp and its generator site, two weathered wooden posts from the camp tent still standing watch over the flats below.

A few hundred feet of climbing leads to an almost rectangular opening in a gray outcrop. The cave entrance is perhaps six feet across and eight feet high, and a steep floor leads down and back about fifty feet. Daubs of peeling white paint mark the level of the original floor, and it’s clear that a significant amount of dirt was removed by the team of scientists who scrubbed the cave clean in 1936. It’s an unprepossessing site now inhabited by pack rats and birds, but a fine place in which to contemplate the connections between Robert and Michael Heizer.

Jennifer Kielhofer photographing our excursion to the far end of Humboldt Cave.

Jennifer Kielhofer photographing our excursion to the far end of Humboldt Cave.

Robert Heizer and his colleagues took back the artifacts from the cave to be catalogued at UC Berkeley, where they now reside in drawers, as much an archive of an archaeological dig as a record of the cave contents. Michael Heizer’s version of the hand-sized perforated object, a thin piece of horn drilled through by ninety holes to no known purpose, now stands as a reminder to the federal courthouse and passersby of the area’s much earlier inhabitants, and their Paiute descendants.

After visiting the cave we drove around to the eastern side of the hills to visit two micro-playas nestled just below the ridge crest. Both of them hold the remnants of inscrutable geoglyphs — rocks arranged on the ground in the shape of anthropomorphs; sadly, both sites have long been disturbed by relic seekers, as well as the military helicopters that use the tiny dry pond beds as landing sites during maneuvers. In 1969 Michael Heizer scattered dry pigment on the Coyote Dry Lake of California to make Primitive Dye Painting #1, his own enormous version of an anthropomorph drawn out on the desert floor.

That same year he created his first earthwork just south of Mopong Hills, Displaced/Replaced Mass, a large granite boulder transported from Spooner Summit above Lake Tahoe down to the desert near Silver Springs. Issues of size and scale, the transportation of huge rock monoliths, the deep continuity of forms in a vocabulary for sculpture in North America–all are abiding interests of the artist, all are related to the work done by his father, and all arise from the family’s experiences in the Nevada and California deserts.

The art critic Lucy Lippard — who is an advisor to the Center for Art + Environment — wrote an important book in 1983 titled Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. It’s a valuable catalog of how art of the two eras resonate with one another around the world and across time, exposing the constant human need to perform rituals connecting nature and culture. Re-scaling ourselves to the cosmos is a critical part of that endeavor, and Michael Heizer remains the high priest.

Micro-playa high in the Mopong Hills with the remnants of a geoglyph, and in the background the immense Carson Sink.

Micro-playa high in the Mopong Hills with the remnants of a geoglyph, and in the background the immense Carson Sink.

Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 4 of 4

Matt Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation gazes out across Owens Dry Lake from atop the gantry at Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Photo by Bill Fox, 2012.

Matt Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation gazes out across Owens Dry Lake from atop the gantry at Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Photo by Bill Fox, 2012.

In the afternoon following the conversation at De La Coer Ranch, Janet Driggs from Metabolic Studio takes Matt Coolidge and me to the old Pittsburgh Plate Glass works on the edge of Owens Lake. I’ve driven by the multiple silos and sheet metal factory buildings for years, and it’s a wish come true to clamber atop the catwalks on the eighty-foot-tall cylinders. Mat and I have unparalleled views of the lake and the dust abatement ponds channeling water across forty square miles of the lakebed. Matt had once considered the site for a Center for Land Use Interpretation residence facility before settling on Wendover, and he’s keen to see what Metabolic is doing here.

Which turns out to be, among other things, the transformation that Richard Nielsen and members of the Liminal Camera project of the studio have wrought on one of the silos: constructing an enormous camera obscura inside to photograph the lake. The aperture is almost three inches in diameter and throws a spherical image across a 46-foot circular floor and up the walls for almost 360 degrees of coverage (with an ƒ-stop of 196 for you traditional camera geeks). Lauren has previously hosted musical performances in this space, one of the most acoustically live environments any of us have ever experienced, and is now embarked with her team on the construction of yet another immense metaphor.

The water from the Owens Valley, as previously mentioned, was used by Hollywood to process the film coated with silver from the mine at Cerro Gordo across the lake. The Liminal Camera team is capturing silver and other minerals in the lakebed to produce film, coat it with emulsion, then develop and fix it on-site after exposures have been made in the silo. Their darkroom is a portable Vietnam War-era U.S. Army darkroom that sits just outside. The camera is thus making a picture of the constituent elements of the photograph as both image and object, as nifty a trope for both the process of photography and the link between LA and the Owens Valley as can be imagined. Oh, and then there’s Lauren Bon’s idea that this modest mining of the lakebed for film can actually be a sustainable local business. More social practice.

Sitting inside the silo and looking at the projected image of the lake is eerie, meditative, and hilarious all at the same time. The lens projects the image onto enormous sheets of paper being developed into black-and-white test prints just outside the hatchway. It’s a clumsy, delicate, unpredictable process that produces images of a landscape that is naturally harsh, yet ironically made almost alien by virtue of its aridity created by human intervention. Lauren Bon, Richard Nielsen, and all the members of the Metabolic Studio have transformed the silo, an industrial ruin that Robert Smithson would have loved, into a giant instrument of metaphor.

Matt Coolidge peers at the three-inch lens mounted into the side of the silo camera. The green box in the background is the portable U.S. Army darkroom. The washing trays are in the foreground. Photo by Bill Fox, 2012.

Matt Coolidge peers at the three-inch lens mounted into the side of the silo camera. The green box in the background is the portable U.S. Army darkroom. The washing trays are in the foreground. Photo by Bill Fox, 2012.

For more information on the Metabolic Studio and the silver-and-water project at Owens Lake, visit the following websites

:http://www.metabolicstudio.org/

http://agh2o.metabolicstudio.org/

Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 3 of 4

Talking about water and soils at the De La Cour Ranch. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Talking about water and soils at the De La Cour Ranch. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The nature of social practice was never more evident than this morning, sitting in the upper reaches of the De La Cour Ranch some 1500 feet above the Owens Dry Lake. Lauren Bon and her studio had gathered together some of the major local food producers, many of whom use soil produced at the ranch for their gardens down below. Through the conversation action items emerged, such as locate the databases containing information about soil composition throughout the valley, and where all the water flows.

The ranch, which runs along Carroll Creek, was an early pack station for rich people exploring the mountains, and one of the birthplaces of the Sierra Club. The stream not only makes possible the ranch’s lavender gardens as a source of income, but is also the only source for electricity here. Sitting under cottonwoods and looking down at the geometry of dust abatement ponds out on the dry lake is a reminder that the water flowing by us never makes it to the lakebed, but instead is diverted to Los Angeles.

The De La Cour Ranch with the Owens Lake and its dust mitigation ponds in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The De La Cour Ranch with the Owens Lake and its dust mitigation ponds in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The next town to the north from Lone Pine is Independence, the county seat, which has attained an unplanned zero population growth and teeters on the edge of unsustainable shrinkage. Lauren finds the name of the town a powerful metaphor for Independence becoming a site of transition away from dependance on LADWP–and that the accidental “ZPG” status is actually a positive and a possible role model for other communities.

We broke for another historically-derived lunch, this time of miso soup, dried nettle omelets, and glazed pork inspired by the Gardens of Defiance raised by the Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II. The camp was located midway between Lone Pine and Independence, and held more than 11,000 Japaense-Americans during the war. The gardens were symbols to the internees of spiritual and material independence from their guards, as well as being a source of healthier food than that provided by the military. The voicing of the metaphors generated by the juxtaposition of impounded water and imprisoned people, the gardens of Manzanar and the new community gardens in the local towns, are part of what makes this more than just a discussion about ecological restoration, but an art project.

Replica of an historic watch tower at the Manzanar National Historic Site, built in 2005. Photograph by Gann Matsuda, 2007.

Replica of an historic watch tower at the Manzanar National Historic Site, built in 2005. Photograph by Gann Matsuda, 2007.

Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 1 of 4

The grave marker of Walter Hopps in the Lone Pine Cemetery. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The grave marker of Walter Hopps in the Lone Pine Cemetery. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

May 2012

I’ve traveled down the Eastern Sierra from Reno to Lone Pine, a five-hour drive on what I’ve always considered to be the most beautiful road in this part of the country. Lone Pine is in the middle of the Owens Valley, and to the west Mt. Whitney rises 10,000 feet from the valley floor to the highest summit in the Lower 48. Lone Pine, besides being a jumping-off point for Sierra hikers and climbers, is also where Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon and her collaborative Metabolic Studio have their satellite headquarters.

I’m here to attend a Metabolic meeting with Lauren, Helen and Newton Harrison, Matt Coolidge from the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and others to consider how art, activism, and environmental sciences can intervene in what for a century has been one of the largest water grabs in the country. In 1913 William Mulholland, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) opened the tap on the aqueduct that drained the Owens Valley of its water in order to build, in part, the suburbs and towns of the Sen Fernando Valley 233 miles to the south. “There it is. Take it,” he proclaimed to the land developers of Los Angeles, the most famous words in the history of the city.

To begin the three-day meeting, two dozen of us gathered at the gravesite of legendary LA art curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who decided to be buried here because he “couldn’t think of a better place to spend eternity,” according to his widow. Two dancers slowly approached his marker at sunset, water and flowers in hand, as an offering to the grand old man who inspired so many of us early in our careers. I’d last seen him in 1979 or so at a meeting of art museum people in Santa Fe, and I’ve always considered him a classic curator — brilliant, socially eccentric but aesthetically principled, perpetually late.

We ended our reverie with appetizers made from local greens, rabbit, and freshwater mussels from the Owens “Dry” Lake (famously emptied by the aqueduct), the first meal in what will be a progression meant to evoke the evolution of the local foodshed. This was the Paiute-Shoshone phase, which was followed by a Basque Sheepherder stew for dinner over at the Metabolic Studio headquarters in a rented house a few blocks away. The house has been transformed into a proper planning studio with maps of the watershed and sounding lines of Owens Lake, and a long table around which we will play “Aqua-opoly,” a board game where units of water piped to LA is the currency.

Lauren hopes to frame up a hundred-year strategy for artists and activists to form a water community from Lone Pine to LA. She’s already started by creating a local cooperative garden to raise awareness of the issues, hence our locally-sourced meal plan for the meeting. “Learning from the ground up, “ Matt Coolidge quipped. For me this is yet another chance to witness the early stages of an Art + Environment project that is situated in that fluid and mostly undefined area of contemporary art labelled “social practice,” more about which in the next posts.

Matt Coolidge contemplates a bowl of freshwater mussels from the Owens Dry Lake. Chef Kevin West holds a bucket of locally gathered wild greens. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Matt Coolidge contemplates a bowl of freshwater mussels from the Owens Dry Lake. Chef Kevin West holds a bucket of locally gathered wild greens. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 2 of 4

The entrance to Emerald City, otherwise known as Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in downtown Lone Pine. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

The entrance to Emerald City, otherwise known as Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in downtown Lone Pine. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Monday evening, and the progressive meals by Kevin West and Tom Hudgens (graduates of the renowned Deep Springs College nearby) have moved through a miner’s lunch (based on home-canned food such as sauerkraut) and into a Mexican dinner. The inspiration for the latter was a description by local author Mary Austin from her essential book, Land of Little Rain, which described an early-20th century Mexican-American settlement at the lower end of the valley.

The morning was spent in a group meeting laying out the parameters of water sources and usage throughout the Owens Valley, which ranged from ranching, the local Paiute Reservation wells, and local food production to the attempt by the bottled water company Crystal Geyser to expand its operations. Water ownership is mostly very simple here: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns almost all of it. But the exceptions, like the Reservation and the family that owns the wells used by the bottled water company, are potential sources of transition for the towns here — to “get off the water grid,” as Lauren Bon puts it.

A complex part of the local puzzle is the court-ordered effort by LADWP to mitigate blowing dust caused by the anthropic drying out of Owens Lake. The consequent dust storms contain very unhealthy amounts of arsenic and the vastly more poisonous selenium, which cause problems for the towns downwind, such as Keeler.

Metabolic Studio’s effort is bimodal: it’s to change how the Owens Valley water is sourced, and also how LA uses water. Part of the briefing by Andy Lipkis, founder of the nonprofit Tree People, and artists Helen and Newton Harrison revolved around how to use wastewater in LA — ”mining the sewers” — in order to reduce the city’s water consumption, thus freeing up water to flow through the Owens Valley into the lake.

This evening’s meal is a potluck at Metabolic’s community garden in Lone Pine named Emerald City. It features dishes made from locally grown food, which is itself a trope for the rich web of public metaphors that Lauren Bon and her colleagues have deployed on behalf of social change here. The silver used in the early days of Hollywood was mined out of the mountains east of Owens Lake. “Emerald City” is both an allusion to the hidden powers controlling an urban myth in The Wizard of Oz, but also evokes the patchwork links of greenery that existed here when the river flowed. Metabolic Studio’s ongoing support of Master Gardener classes in the local foodshed are a patient social strategy where the art is deliberately kept almost invisible, but the potential for change is huge. Emerald City is also known as the IOU Garden; on one side stands an old red water truck used to bring rainwater collected at the Studio’s Los Angeles facility and brought to the Owens Valley, a symbolic repatriation of resources.

The artistic practice of Lauren Bon is to generate poetic and visual metaphors as inspiration for re-greening the valley and re-connecting Los Angelenos with the source of their water. The Studio then manifests those metaphors in actions, such as community gardens — hence “social practice” as an art form.

Potluck dinner at Emerald City, the IOU truck in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Potluck dinner at Emerald City, the IOU truck in the background. Photograph by Adam Levine, Courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, 2012.

Linda Fleming’s Drawing Retrospective in Fallon

Installation View Left to Right, Template, 2003; Stone Stairs, 2006; White Cave, 2006; Puddle, 2012 on floor
Installation View Left to Right, Template, 2003; Stone Stairs, 2006; White Cave, 2006; Puddle, 2012 on floor

The Oats Park School in Fallon, Nevada was designed in 1914, retired and eventually placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1990, and then in 1995 repurposed as the Churchill Arts Council’s multi-discipline cultural center. The adaptive reuse design includes three handsome gallery spaces that since 2003 have hosted a series of excellent exhibitions by regional artists. The latest, running through 9th, is a 45-year retrospective of drawings by Bay Area artist Linda Fleming. Known primarily as a creator of massive yet elegant metal sculptures, Fleming’s three-dimensional pieces actually arise from rigorous two-dimensional drawings.

Fleming trained early as an artist, but by the early 1970s was so technically proficient that she came to mistrust the discipline and spent most of the decade focusing on sculpture. As her exhibition demonstrates, when she returned to the flatland of drawing at the end of that decade, she hadn’t lost her touch, but instead had added an intellectual vocabulary capable of sustaining a robust body of work for the rest of her career, which continues to see her push our notion of how a drawing can perform.

Fleming’s art, no matter how many dimensions are involved, parses the universe according to a mathematical practice that is both rigorous and intuitive. The largest piece in the show, Template, could as well stand for the artist’s state of mind as well as the design for cut steel deployed in a sculpture. Its radial symmetry is worked out in a way that makes immediate and visceral sense to the viewer, even as you realize that its method is far from simple. A bit like the universe itself, in fact. White Cave from three years later features a biomorphic tracery with some structural kinship to Template, but it’s layered over an entirely realistic depiction of a rock formation housing a central void. The figure hovers in stillness before the cave even as it appears it is about to explode into motion.

The most recent work, Puddlei, which was cut out of thick felt earlier this year, is a lovely nod to the relationships between the two- and three-dimensional works. Its geometry is related to both of the previous drawings, yet like a thick drawing it has sculptural qualities signified by the rumpling of the material on the floor. As Fleming admits in her artist’s statement, materials can never fully express thought. While her work evokes universal rules underlying the cosmos, the use of a mundane fabric such as felt (even with the inescapable allusion to work by Robert Morris) anchors the idea in everyday life, a tension made manifest by the ambiguity of the felt’s dimensional presence.

Linda Fleming’s show, even though the works are for sale (a valid strategy for a community arts center), has the kind of curatorial integrity we expect of a retrospective. It’s a worthy journey just over an hour’s drive through the desert east of Reno to see exhibitions at the Oats Park School, and Fleming work is the most recent addition to a very long string of excellent events in both the visual and performing arts presented there.

Linda Fleming, "White Cave" 2006, graphite on rag paper, 57"h x 67"w. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Linda Fleming, “White Cave” 2006, graphite on rag paper, 57″h x 67″w. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Book Review — From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design

PederAnker_FromBauhaustoEcohouseCover

After Nazi pressures led to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, leading members reestablished their lives and work outside of Germany, first in London and ultimately in the United States. During this pivotal moment of displacement, Bauhaus thinking also made a turn toward ecological design. By incorporating biological thinking about form and connectedness into their design philosophies, theories, and practices, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer sought a unity between art and science that would place the biological needs and conditions of the human at the center of design’s purpose and effects. Peder Anker’s latest book immerses readers in the social history of the Bauhaus outside of Germany and thus green architecture’s war-time precursors and origins.

In the first half of the book, Anker encourages readers to reconsider how the humanist projects of this period—often criticized for placing human needs above environmental considerations—have done much to expand and develop the way we debate environmental issues. The book follows the Bauhaus to the United States as its leading members widely dispersed these ideas. They did this through institutions such as the Harvard School of Design, The Chicago Institute of Design, and the Aspen Institute; through images, such as Bayer’s war-time recycling posters and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment; and through the influential writing of Moholy-Nagy regarding “bio-technique,” an idea which intended to transform mass production by mimicking the forms and processes of nature.

The second half of the book tracks the Bauhaus visionaries’ design legacy through the cold war, analyzing what Anker calls the “second generation of Bauhaus thinking” as it now responded to ecological crisis. In these later chapters, Anker examines the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the history of planned ecological space colonization, and finally its earthly trial runs in enclosed “space cabins,” most notably Biosphere 2, completed in Arizona in 1991. Anker’s argument in this section is more critical as he suggests that the biocentric concerns of such designs came at the cost of a humanist tradition: “Human social, political, moral, and historical space,” writes Anker, “was invaded by ecological science aimed at reordering ill-treated human environments according to the managerial ideals of the astronaut’s life in the space colony” (6). Essentially, from minding the laws of ecology to envisioning humans living like astronauts, the ideal unification of art and science that environmental designers strove for radically changed in this cold war period to embrace technological idealism at the loss of historical, cultural, and perhaps ethical functions of design.

From Bauhaus to Ecohouse’s intended audience is historians of design, architecture, science, and environmentalism, but Anker’s narrative approach provides a highly readable text that will likely appeal to a much wider audience, including anyone in the field of green building. From my point of view as a student of environmental art and literature, I found the most provocative ideas in Anker’s attention to human-made closed ecosystems, their imperialist connections, and their influence on today’s environmental architecture. Imbedded in this history is a perceived rift, it would seem, between working with ecology and engineering ecosystems. Negotiating this debate no doubt will continue to affect how we decide to dwell in the future. And Anker’s history keenly reminds us: we are more human than we’d like to admit; we are more biologically animal than we’d like to admit—and our new designs will need to attend to this conundrum.

Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden

The entrance of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon above the university campus.

The entrance of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon above the university campus.

The University of California Berkeley’s Botanical Garden was founded in 1890 and has a mission statement not unlike that of our own CA+E: “To develop and maintain a diverse living collection of plants to support teaching and worldwide research in plant biology, further the conservation of plant diversity, and promote public understanding and appreciation of plants and the natural environment.” The garden is a living archive and library that holds more than 13,000 specimen s from around the world, uniquely situated by region within 34 acres.

As part of its ever-increasing outreach efforts, the garden has initiated an art program curated by artists Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts, which kicked off earlier this month with a symposium, “Natural Discourse: Culture and Ecology.” As Chris Carmichael, the Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture, put it: “Gardens are a confluence of people, plants, and site.” Add the term art and you have the idea for the new program. In addition to Friel and Watts, the participating artists are Todd Gilens, Nadia Hironaka, Andrew Kudless, Denise Newman, Deborah O’Grady, Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Matt Suib, Hazel White, Gail Wight and Nami Yamamoto.

Nami Yamamoto in her Philadelphia studio lacing a fog catcher. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Nami Yamamoto in her Philadelphia studio lacing a fog catcher. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Among the projects that caught my attention were the fog catchers being laced by Philadelphia-based artist Name Yamamoto. Created out of waxed red string, the artist laces images onto grids that are then stretched out in the redwood grove of the garden. She explained the current image to me as being based on a legend told her as a child about the wizard Sennin, who lives forever and is sustained only by the fog that penetrates the mountains where he resides each evening. The story res onated with Yamimoto, who saw the California Redwoods as likewise being immortals deriving water from the Pacific fogs rolling over Berkeley.

Like the architectural structures of the Fog Garden designed by Rodrigo Perez de Arcy of Santiage that we exhibited this last fall in the Museum, Yamimoto’s work is both an artwork and a functional fog catcher. While they are a visual device to bring new visitors to the garden, as well as slow down your attention in the grove, the lace of string helps water the trees, thus lowering their irrigation needs from the garden’s limited supplies.

Stretching the fog catcher in the redwood grove at the UC Botanical Garden. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.

Stretching the fog catcher in the redwood grove at the UC Botanical Garden. Image courtesy of Nami Yamamoto.