Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 2 to 6

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

One of the objectives of the Paruku Project is to energize the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan, the newest and perhaps most modest art center of the approximately 44 such organizations in central Australia. Aboriginal communities have few opportunities to generate income, and art centers have become a primary venue for doing so. The predominant painting style in the region consists of acrylic dots thickly applied to build up iconic pictures of “country” (a term meaning both terrain and territory) and “bush tucker,” or sources of food found in the wild. While the project generated several beautiful examples of such paintings, such as the one above by Daisy Kangah, project artists Mandy Martin and Kim Mahood also worked with the local artists to develop a style somewhat unique to Mulan, one based on more personal stories and community events.
Australia is the flattest continent (as well as being the lowest, driest, and hottest). Runoff from rain in the interior doesn’t really run downhill in rivers, as we experience in North America, but rather flows across the desert in enormous and slow puddles. Lake Gregory is actually one of those moving puddles that was blocked by a buildup of sand dunes during an ice age within the last 200,000 years. As a result, it is a shallow body of water that fills during wet years and evaporates, sometimes entirely, during dry ones. It’s therefore a very delicate ecosystem easily affected by global warming, and the spangled perch that live in the lake have recently experienced the worst known infestation in the world of a parasitic red worm.

Shirley Yoomarie painted her story of community members working with scientists to net fish for sampling, a painting that is at once a picture of country, a document relevant to climate change, a communal narrative, and a personal story. It’s also evidence of aesthetic evolution in the community–the dots are still there at the top and bottom of the painting, but they frame a flat representational scene.

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 1 of 6

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

In August I flew from Reno to Los Angeles to make a 14-hour flight to Brisbane, Australia, caught a connecting flight for another three-and-a-half hours to Alice Springs in the center of the country, then hopped into a four-wheel-drive truck with artist Mandy Martin and drove another day-and-a-half to Lake Gregory–Australia’s equivalent to the Great Salt Lake. Mandy, along with Center for Art + Environment Research Fellow John Carty and prominent Australian biologist Steve Morton, has been working since April on the “Paruku Project,” a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural look at how “global drivers are modifying Indigenous Traditional Owners connection to Country in the Tanami Desert.” I was along in two roles: as a writer for the project and as the curator of the project archive we’re collecting for the CA+E.

Our camp spot was in a stand of small white-bark gum trees surrounded by spinifex, the ubiquitous grass of the arid interior. People in Aboriginal communities burn the spinifiex on a regular basis at this time of year in order to forestall catastrophic brush fires caused by lightning, and the entire time we were there the horizon was a thick gray band that made for vivid sunsets and moon risings.

Men and women from Mulan, the town in the center of Paruku, the regional Indigenous Protected Area, took us down to Lake Gregory, walked us out into the water, and covered our arms and legs in mud, introducing us to the great serpent that lives in the lake and asking him not to harm us. And thus began two weeks of work rich with art, ancient stories, and archeology along the shores of a lake that was once ten times larger than it is now, and that is still the most important inland wetland of the continent.

I’ll be writing about those three aspects of the project in several subsequent blogs, but if you’re interested in more information, including the science and conservation aspects of it, you might check out the project’s own blog site:

http://parukuproject.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/paruku-sediments-blog-1/

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

For those of you attending the second Art + Environment Conference at the end of this month, Mandy Martin and John Carty will be presenting as part of a panel titled “Navigating the Waters of Art and Science in Australia.” Guy Fitzhardinge, a cattle rancher and conservationist who was working with the Paruku Rangers as part of the project will also be in attendance.

Travels in Chile — Part 4 of 4

A residence at The Open City. Photo by Elias Redstone

A residence at The Open City. Photo by Elias Redstone

In 1970 several faculty members from the Catholic University of Valparaiso established an architectural laboratory just north on the coast near the town of Ritoque. It was to be an open-ended inquiry in design based not upon the commonly accepted vocabulary of formal geometry, but upon poetic invention. David Walker, Josefina Guilisasti, Cecilia Puga and I were guided around a small portion of the site by the sculptor José Balcells. There is no master plan, no model-making, just growth premised on absolute consensus of the residents. The results are far from utopian, yet aspirational, not at all pragmatic, yet practical. And stunning.

David Walker taking a picture of one of the agorae at The Open City. Photo by Bill Fox

David Walker taking a picture of one of the agorae at The Open City. Photo by Bill Fox

The site extends from the dunes and wetlands of the coastline up through meadows and into the hills. The structures range from shared residencies to amphitheaters using wood, concrete, brick, and stone. Every kind of material seems to be deployed. So is every type of process, from bricklaying to the automatic writing exercises of the Surrealist poets. The portion of the property that José takes us through is devoted to a series of agorae (open meeting spaces where all decisions are debated and made), an amphitheater, the community cemetery, and ritual enclosures, all built in brick and connected by running water. For a cooperative within which no project can more forward if so much as a single person votes no, it’s remarkable how extensive and cohesive are the architectural interventions.

What I noticed was how vibrant a country Chile has become. Despite the social and economic challenges, no one seems to be saying “we can’t do this,” but instead takes on projects with great verve. South America’s tallest building, a 60-story skyscraper by Cesar Pelli, is going up in Santiago among a welter of construction cranes around the city, and contemporary art spaces are taking over old industrial buildings. Everywhere we looked we found a mixture of pre-Columbian, Colonial, and contemporary life that is unique in the world.

The Open City has long been admired by architectural theorists and students worldwide (and if you want to find out more, Road that is not a Road and the Open City (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tid=5661&ttype=2) from MIT Press is a great place to start). Created to be an experiment without end, La Cuidad Abierta is also, as José says, “a way to learn how to live in an unfinished work.” If ever there were a goal for what art + environment could teach us, that might be it.

Travels in Chile — Part 3 of 4

Casa Larrain by architect Cecilia Puga. Photo by Bill Fox

Casa Larrain by architect Cecilia Puga. Photo by Bill Fox

On our last day in Chile, David Walker, the architect Cecilia Puga, and I – along with our host, artist Josefina Guilisasti (http://www.josefinaguilisasti.cl/biography/), drove two hours north of Santiago to Bahía Azul (http://coolboom.net/architecture/bahia-azul-house-by-cecilia-puga/), a small collection of houses perched above the rocky coastline. Cecilia has designed one of the most remarkable residencies that can be seen anywhere, a family retreat named “Casa Larrain.” The house, consisting of three sheds, is constructed out of concrete. Although a relatively expensive material to use initially, over time its cost is justified by how well it withstands the fierce storms and salt air from the ocean.

The great trick of the house is that the central third of its three shed shapes is nestled upside down between the other two, a pun on the weight of the material, but also a cost-effective and handsome solution to using repeated forms in an unexpected way. Indeed, what could have had the heavy-footed appearance of a coastal defense bunker is instead a structure that opens itself to the light and air.

Kitchen at Casa Larrain with the coast of Chile below the house. Photo by Bill Fox

Kitchen at Casa Larrain with the coast of Chile below the house. Photo by Bill Fox

Travels in Chile — Part 2 of 4

Josefina Guilisasti, an internationally renowned Chilean painter, introduced David Walker, CEO Nevada Museum of Art, and Irene Abujatum, the director of Galleria AFA (http://www.galeriaafa.com/). The gallery is housed in a suite of rooms on the second floor of an older building in the downtown area near the national museums. Irene is one of the country’s leading contemporary art dealers, and while in her gallery we met Cristián Salineros (http://www.cristiansalineros.cl/), a sculptor who has been working around both Europe and South America. His series on transmission towers, an ever-present figuration up and down the length of the world’s longest country, changes the viewer’s sense of scale and orientation in the landscape by rotating an element of exterior infrastructure inside the gallery – a neat perceptual trick as well as a handsome sculpture.

Cristián Salineros, transmission tower from the series Landscape on Reserve, a thirty-three-feet-long metal sculpture suspended in a gallery. Photo courtesy of Galeria AFA.

Cristián Salineros, transmission tower from the series Landscape on Reserve, a thirty-three-feet-long metal sculpture suspended in a gallery. Photo courtesy of Galeria AFA.

Sachiyo Nishimura (http://www.snishimura.com/), a Santiago-born artist living in London who also shows at Galleria AFA, has been photographing another segment of the electrical grid, the wires above railroad yards. She then superimposes a grid of her own, which fragments the aerial fabric into discrete units. The resulting works, black-and-white photographs that show how we subdivide sky as well as ground, are striking.

Sachiyo Nishimura, one of the large photographs from Composition Schemes showing the grid drawn on the image by the artist before cutting it into separate images. Photo courtesy of Galeria AFA.

Sachiyo Nishimura, one of the large photographs from Composition Schemes showing the grid drawn on the image by the artist before cutting it into separate images. Photo courtesy of Galeria AFA.

Andrew Rogers — Time and Space

Andrew Rogers, an Australian businessman who in mid-career switched to being an artist, invited me to come to his opening at the 18th StreeT Arts Center in Santa Monica to help open the “Time and Space” exhibition of his geoglpyhs placed around the world. Andrew started his art making as a figurative sculptor working in bronze, then evolved into abstract art. He still spends most of his time on large bronze commissions for public and private spaces, but for the last thirteen years has spent about twenty percent of his time creating a massive series of land art works.

The project, which now has forty-seven stone geoglyphs placed in thirteen countries and all seven continents, has deployed as few as a handful of people placing black rocks out on a frozen lake in the Antarctic to as many as a thousand Chinese soldiers building rock walls across several square miles. Andrew photographs the results each time from the air, sometimes flying only a few hundred feet above them in a hot air balloon or helicopter, but also documenting them with satellite images taken from as high as 480 miles.

The works fall into two series. At each site he works with local people to select a visual symbol native to and important in the life of the region, which he translates into figures such as the “Ancient Language” piece seen above in Chile. The other series consists of a motif he repeats in each place, one of his “Rhythm of Life” works–the one in Slovakia is pictured below. Andrew thus links the local to the global while committing that most ancient of gestures, linking sky to ground, Earth to Heaven.

You can find Andrew Roger’s work at his website: http://www.andrew rogers.org. It’s an interesting exercise to locate the works on Google Earth, first to see the works, but then to put them into the context of roads, towns, and larger geographical features. His land art may have its roots in the geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines in Peru and the rock art of his native Australia, but its contemporary reality is as a sign system meant to be read from above as if our continents were pages in a book.

“Rhythms of Life” by Andrew Rogers in the High Tatras Mountains of Slovakia, 2008. The granite stones create a figure 35m x 45m, and can be found at: 49 deg 00’ 13.69 deg n,  20 deg 46’ 19.78 deg e. Photo by Andrew Rogers, all rights reserved.

“Rhythms of Life” by Andrew Rogers in the High Tatras Mountains of Slovakia, 2008. The granite stones create a figure 35m x 45m, and can be found at: 49 deg 00’ 13.69 deg n, 20 deg 46’ 19.78 deg e. Photo by Andrew Rogers, all rights reserved.

Travels in Chile — Part 1 of 4

David Walker, the director of the Museum, and I flew to Santiago, Chile a couple of weeks ago to work on an upcoming CA+E exhibition, The Fog Garden.

The structures of the ironically titled “garden,” are being developed by architect Rodrigio Perez de Arce and his students at the Catholic University of Santiago. They are based on field в studies in the Atacama Desert, where scientists have been conducting research on fog collection in the world’s driest desert since the 1950s. The structures are designed to wring moisture out of clouds as a source of potable water.

The research site is Alto Patache, a steep and dramatic ridge that rises 2600 feet above the narrow coastal flats below. The only source of moisture in the region is the fog that rolls in nightly from the Pacific Ocean, and centuries ago native people walked up from the shore to collect water dripping down the uppermost cliffs. Today, Rodrigo and his students are designing sculptural forms that will both irrigate small gardens at the site, and collect enough water for piping to other locations.

Working on The Fog Garden was just the beginning of a series of extraordinary encounters with art and architecture in what is one of the most prosperous nations in South America

Contemplating one of the Fog Garden models that will be in the exhibition are David Walker and our hostess, the artist Josefine Guilisasti, on the left, and Rodrigo Perez de Arce with one of his students on the right. Photo by Bill Fox.

Contemplating one of the Fog Garden models that will be in the exhibition are David Walker and our hostess, the artist Josefine Guilisasti, on the left, and Rodrigo Perez de Arce with one of his students on the right. Photo by Bill Fox.

Art as a Way of Knowing

Founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium is a prototype for hands-on museums around the world. In 2013 it will from relocate from San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts to Piers 15/17 on the city’s waterfront, where it will refocus its mission on environmental science. Image courtesy of the Exploratorium

Founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium is a prototype for hands-on museums around the world. In 2013 it will from relocate from San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts to Piers 15/17 on the city’s waterfront, where it will refocus its mission on environmental science. Image courtesy of the Exploratorium

This last week the Exploratorium in San Francisco hosted a two-day conference devoted to “Art as a Way of Knowing.” Funded by the National Science Foundation, the conference organizers convened “an international group of artists, scientists, museum curators, writers, educators, and other cross-pollinators to explore and discuss the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments.” Presentations careened widely and wildly from art critic Jeff Kelley discussing the influence of the early 20th-century philosopher John Dewey on the Happenings of Allan Kaprow to Geoff Manaugh and Matt Coolidge talking about the confluence of geography and architecture, to Margaret Wertheim describing the incredible growth of the Coral Reef Project by the Institute, for Figuring.

But the real joy of the conference came from a night at the Exploratorium itself. If you’ve been to the legendary “museum of science, art and perception,” you know that many of its exhibits specialize in making us aware not just of how the world works–it’s physics and chemistry, for example–but also how we see the world, which means how we are often fooled by our preconceptions. Rooms are not the size they appear to be, objects disappear in front of your eyes, things move that really don’t, and more. But the best trick
of all was to realize how contemporary art has come to pervade what used to be a much more science-dominated environment.

Upon entering the cavernous space, we were greeted by an ongoing solo piano performance of Erik Satie’s circa-1893 composition Vexations, which consists of a short phrase to be repeated 840 times–which usually takes about 18 hours. It was a calm introduction to what would prove to be a rich visual experience and audioscape. Nearby, for example, independent curator Chris Fitzpatrick, composer Thomas Dimuzio, and NOAA cetacean acoustics expert Dave Mellinger set up an alcove that invited listeners to recline on enormous pillows while listening to a humpback whale composition.
Jeff Kelley had installed a station from which visitors could check out a cot and bedding, then go find a perfect place and time for a bed, the recreation of a classic Kaprow performance work from 1986. The Exploratorium volunteers were instructed in the nature of the piece–the conflation of a private act in a public space–but nonetheless Kelley, while using one of the cots, was at one point told that he “had to move along,” the assumption being he was a homeless person. Kaprow would have loved it.
The stealer of the evening, however was a performance of Black Rain by Brighton-based artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, collectively known as Semiconductor, whose films often deploy digital noise and “computer anarchy” to explore the intersection of the material world with our senses. Black Rain, which uses images from the twin NASA satellites known as STEREO imaging coronal solar ejecta, has become an internet hit, and is powerful enough at that scale. But seeing it projected on a huge wall with a live performance of the dense score reminded everyone in the building that art is experience, and that remains the definitive way of knowing.

Black Rain is sourced from images collected by the twin satellite, solar mission, STEREO. Here we see the HI (Heliospheric Imager) visual data as it tracks interplanetary space for solar wind and CME's (coronal mass ejections) heading towards Earth.

Black Rain is sourced from images collected by the twin satellite, solar mission, STEREO. Here we see the HI (Heliospheric Imager) visual data as it tracks interplanetary space for solar wind and CME’s (coronal mass ejections) heading towards Earth.

Dispatch from Rio #1

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Today we caught the subway to the General Osorio metro station in Ipanema. This metro stop has a newly opened sixty-meter high elevator (equivalent to a 23-story building) that leads to the Cantagalo and Pavão/Pavãozinho favela communities (the elevator services a population of about 28,000 people – a city in itself). Use of the elevator is free. It is connected by a covered walkway to a smaller tower, twenty meters high, that leads directly into the Cantagalo community. These favelas are lodged in the hillsides of Copacabana and Ipanema in the center of Zona Sul (the South Zone) in Rio. The elevators to the second smaller tower are not yet operational. There are plans to relocate some of the favela residences here to make it more “friendly” and to add a second viewing platform for the general public. The residents of the slums in the South Zone have a higher human development index than the rest of residents in Rio, though these slums still suffer from issues of drug trafficking, water shortages, landslides, fire, and open sewer systems. Santa Cruz, the West Zone, has the worst human development index in Rio. This is where the recent escalation in violence, due to the “pacification” campaigns, originates from.

In April last year, over 250 lives were lost in landslides in various favela communities around Rio (what Mike Davis refers to as cities of slums). Rescue workers suffered from nausea as they searched for survivors in Niteroi’s Morro do Bumba favela community. The nausea was caused from the inhalation of methane gas (Morro do Bumba is built on a garbage heap that emits large amounts methane as it decomposes). A protest/installation, organized by the NGO Rio de Paz, was staged in response to the floods. About twenty children from the City of God favela, with gags in their mouths, protested the poor housing conditions in favelas by building a wooden shanty on Copacabana beach with material collected from several favelas that were affected in the landslides. The protesters asked for improvement of housing conditions to be prioritized in the planning for the upcoming 2016 Olympics. The action was attended by Brasilian celebrities, who later led the participants, with flowers and food, up to the Santa Teresa slum that was also severely affected by the rains. About 1.3 million people live in the approximately 750 favelas in Rio de Janeiro.