Excavating Carbon Sink: Meditations on Art Removal

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

‘Arguments,’ such as they are, given in support of the removal of public art in our time range from political to aesthetic to moral. In some cases, as in the April 2003 toppling of Sadam Hussein’s Baghdad statue, the removal is documented as a cause célèbres. In others, as in the recent removal of disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s statue, the endeavour is shielded from the prying eyes of the emotionally involved public and secreted away in disgrace. But what of the abstract, those works not attached to a specific person? Perhaps one of the most famous cases of public art removal occurred on the night of March 15, 1989, with the dismantling of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, previously resident of New York City’s Federal Plaza. From the moment of its 1981 installation, Tilted Arcgenerated a nationwide debate, both within arts circles and without. Complaints included the inconvenience that the 120ft long, 12ft high piece of curved steel caused the Plaza’s office workers, the fear that it would attract graffiti and its potential for terrorist use as a blasting wall.[i] So, following a public hearing, Tilted Arc was cut into three pieces and unceremoniously carted off to a scrap yard. A similar scrap yard ending recently befell artist Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, formerly installed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.[ii]

I previously wrote about Carbon Sink on this site, following the controversy it attracted, largely a product of the ire felt by Wyoming lawmakers in coal rich counties. Notably, Representative Tom Lubnau felt compelled to “educate folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.”[iii] This and other threats garnered a brief spate of international attention before the controversy ostensibly ceased, as Drury predicted it would. Fast-forward nearly a year, to a week after the University’s May 5th spring convocation when, like Tilted Arc, Carbon Sink was unceremoniously removed, as quietly as possible. However, unlike Serra’s work,Carbon Sink was denied its proverbial day in court. From the time of its removal, those of us not living in Laramie and near the site, waited until the end of July to learn of the piece’s destruction via Jeffrey Lockwood’s Wyofile article. No pre-emptive press releases were issued, no public forums were called. Reasons cited included the unlikely (the piece was always meant to come down) and the insulting (it was too costly to maintain). The wood was sent to the university dump, while the coal was (of course) sent to a power plant.

Approximately a month after Drury’s coal burned, the West exploded in flames with the worst wildfire season in recent memory, fuelled (to some degree) by the pine beetle killed forests. These human and environmental tragedies prove, more than ever, that sensitive and complex work like Drury’s is vital. In my first analysis of Carbon Sink, I hoped that it would serve as a marker for memory in the minds of the state’s future leaders headed for a career in energy policy. Clearly, this is no longer possible in the way that I had hoped. But if the powers-that-be think that an incongruous patch of freshly lain sod can cover the fact of Wyoming’s energy dependence, they are ignoring the reality that every realist painting of unspoilt landscapes and every photograph of a running river reveals more in what they leave out than in what they include. The state’s residents know that just outside of the frame is an oil derrick; hidden in the river is tainted water. In desperately clinging to sanitized ideas of Wyoming, uncomfortable political, environmental, and aesthetic realities are cast into stark relief.

Though Carbon Sink’s removal marked a sad day for the arts, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope from the artist himself, who speculated last July that if the work was “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”[iv] I would argue, that when a state scrambles to control its art, this often means the tide is turning. I doubt Wyoming has seen its last “Carbon Sink”.

[i] Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 78.

[ii] Lockwood, Jeffrey, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming”, Wyofile.com, July 2012. http://wyofile.com/2012/07/behind-the-carbon-curtain-art-and-freedo…

[iii] Representative Lubnau quoted in: Laura Hancock, “Criticism of ‘Carbon Sink’ art at UW generates heat,” Gillette News-Record, July 17, 2011.

[iv] Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: An interesting and revealing article about Chris Drury’s artwork was published by Wyoming Public Media September 28, 2012: http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/documents-show-artwork-removed-e…

Seattle Studio Visits: Lorna Jordan and John Grade — Part 1 of 3

Lorna Jordan, Terraced Cascade (Scottsdale, Arizona), 2002-2007.  This environmental artwork is also a garden and an outdoor theatre designed as a miniature watershed and abstraction of the human body. Photo by Lorna Jordan.

Lorna Jordan, Terraced Cascade (Scottsdale, Arizona), 2002-2007. This environmental artwork is also a garden and an outdoor theatre designed as a miniature watershed and abstraction of the human body. Photo by Lorna Jordan.

January 2012

I spent the days before Christmas with CA+E Research Fellow and writer David Abel making studio visits in Seattle. It’s hard to imagine a more congenial and collegial group of people than the six people with whom we met. Upon our arrival on a Thursday afternoon, we first visited environmental artist Lorna Jordan, who has worked on projects for public spaces from Arizona to Wisconsin, Fort Worth to Calgary. As is obvious by the drawings, blueprints and models in her spacious studio, her designs are informed by the marks humans make on the land, sustainability issues, and systems theory. Increasingly, she acts as much as an urban planner and architect as an artist, employing a variety of professionals in various fields to work on projects as needed.

Jordan has conceived her current work for “Central Park” in Madison, Wisconsin as “a laboratory that synthesizes nature and art, utility and recreation…. [that] manifests the expressive potential of art in an emerging eco-society.” Working as the artist within a large design team, she appeared to us to be raising the bar for how an urban park can reclaim a former brownfield through green technologies, as well as providing a unique aesthetic experience in the city. There’s an excellent interview with Lorna in the March 2011 issue of Sculpture Magazine, if you want to learn more about her work.

The next morning David and I travelled downtown to the former residential hotel where sculptor John Grade has colonized several of the ground floor rooms, converting them into a woodworking studio on a large scale. The first thing John pointed out were sections of 165-foot-long wooden beams salvaged from a 19th-century sailing ship, pieces of which will be assembled into a 65-foot-high sculpture suspended from the ceiling of Seattle’s new Museum of History and Industry. The museum is built on a pier over Union Lake, and the work, which you will be able to gently swing by the push of a hand, will pierce the floor to connect with the water below the pier. This will allow the bottom of the sculpture to slowly degrade over time. Grade, while making exquisite objects large and small, never travels far from his preoccupation with entropy. An almost surreal metaphor for this connection to time and decay were his exhibitions in 2009 and 2010 of tall white forms suspended over and then lowered into pools of black ink, which essentially melted them. Grade has also buried wooden sculptures in Washington State and Nevada to see how they disintegrate differently over time.

Evident during both visits were commitments to the integrity of concept, high levels of craft, and a desire to serve the public as well as the formal demands of their media. This would continue throughout the other visits we made, more about which in the next two posts.

John Grade, Elephant Bed (Brighton), 2009. Corn-based polymer, biodegradable methyl cellulose skins. 20 forms, 24' x 6' x 6' each. Image courtesy of Davidson Gallery.

John Grade, Elephant Bed (Brighton), 2009. Corn-based polymer, biodegradable methyl cellulose skins. 20 forms, 24′ x 6′ x 6′ each. Image courtesy of Davidson Gallery.

Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.

Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.

A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.

Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.