(More from MB Maher, far-flung AGO correspondent. Winter storms, family stuff, a host of things kept me from attending Natural Discourse‘s Digital Nature 2019 at the LA Arboretum this past February. So I’ve been pumping Mitch, who has worked with Shirley Watts on her botanical garden-specific installations since the inception of ND back in 2012, for info harder than usual. And of course I have to share. I don’t know how else to prepare you except to assure you he writes like he talks, references to Plato’s Cave included. Following is the unabridged, unedited froth of his tech-wonkish impressions from Digital Nature 2019. )
I won’t have time to write much – just got on the scene with Shirley mid-installation. As I
arrive, a peacock throws his tail into my face – he was seated above in a branch with his
plumage running an aquamarine river down to head-height & then whammo mouth full of
feathers. I capture above image of his walk of shame as he realizes his mistake, squawks, & pulls his tail out of reach. This place is lousy with fornicating peacocks. Wish you could be here!
Immediately meet Benj whom I know from the Folly Bowl standing on a 15 foot ladder offering his services gratis to install and calibrate (4 projectors interlaced!) Brigitte Zieger’s side-scrolling forest video piece…
…imagining a bucolic but vacant landscape, a world without us, where the only traces of a long-dead civilization are our tattered protest signs. Calls for economic policy action, regime change, human rights for humans that don’t exist anymore – all that’s left of us are our slogans – including but not limited to a sign from the era of George W. Bush reading Fuck the Troops, which understandably the Arboretum was not interested in having on County property, wading into the morass of vintage obscenities and the relevance thereto – Brigitte will remain in Paris for the exhibition & there is some debate about letting her know by email that Benji has rotoscoped / sanitized the crawl of her infinite canvas. You’ll remember Brigitte from her video piece at LACMA show years ago when a sassy belle epoch gunslinger stepped out of her pastoral wallpaper & shot at museum goers. (I include that film still for you below.)
Brigitte could be the star of the show, just by virtue of square footage – in the end, I’m a
sucker for 200 linear feet of travertine projection surface. I spend the most amount of time with this piece, equally because of its difficulty to document as its pure enjoyment factor – the slow crawl of the engraved images rolls like the paper scroll of a visual player-piano.
David Janesko & Adam Donnelly are building plywood camera obscuras aimed into the desert plantings to remind us of the grace & pagan wonder of optics — allegory of the human eye — the first way you’ve ever perceived anything, through the crapshoot of the fovea — & I feel for them, I really do — this is my bread & butter – never stray far from plato’s cave, et cetera – but these are dioramas for optics nerds — & I’m not sure general audiences can be awestruck by something so understated — we still overlook the sorcery of coin-operated telescopes on the roof deck of the Empire State. A fully fledged scene should be playing out in front of these lenses — drama enough to turn the camera obscura into rich cinema or a cosmic peepshow — instead a static hazy projection of a euphorbia — which, I’ll be honest, I looked at for quite some time.
I meet David on a gravel path near his obscuras when the place is still empty, a few minutes of quiet before they let the crowds in, & he’s with his own digital camera shooting thru some kind of toilet paper tube with a prism fixed to the end of it & a diopter lens hot- glued behind it – he disassembles it for me there on the path with the practice of a solider cleaning a rifle — the prism separates red, green, & yellow & the diopter stacks the separations back together for the sensor. With the cardboard lens taken apart, I can see straight down the barrel to his CMOS sensor & I exclaim like a pedantic photographer, Oh my gosh your sensor will get dusty! Mad-scientist image-makers care not for such things, & I’m grateful he didn’t laugh in my face any more than necessary. He reviewed a few images for me on the back of his camera to show the effects of the prism & it took my breath away — oversaturated high-contrast multiple-exposure images in the family of Wim Wenders’ dream sequences from Until The End of The World. Finger-like branches & cacti multiplied in candy-colored funhouse mirrors. I immediately bought some prisms.
Andy Rappaport of Minnesota Street fame is installing a trifold screen in the fountain, visible from street, which looks great against the backdrop of the foothills, ostensibly about climate change & rising sea levels although I have not seen the wall text (there is no wall text yet) and video friends (Jason) have immediately requested an audience with Shirley on the possibility of screening their own films in said fountain against said backdrop of foothills and natural splendor.
We are all racing the weather. I hear Chris Kallmyer ask Shirley as he sets up a quantity of tube amps, electric lanterns, LED light bars, “What’s our rain plan?“ and Shirley just laughs the tired laugh of somebody who hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in five to seven business days. It looks like we’ll lose Saturday night to forecasted storm which is a blow / tragedy / best case scenario given our February wintertime scene. Some clouds with a weak constitution began to fizz moisture an hour ago and I felt the desire to throw myself over one of the hundred-thousand-dollar projectors but was told by a technician that they can actually tolerate a lot more moisture than we were seeing.
As usual, my mission is to pull apart magic hour like saltwater taffy & spread the good light
across 10 acres of exhibits — which invariably doesn’t work. I regret not balancing ambient twilight with projections on more than a few video installations — the trickiest shit, of course, being Shirley’s own video piece out in the parking lot. She somehow tracked down a 75,000 lumen projector to compete with passing auto traffic, built a family of oil derricks from 2x4s, rigged them with projection screens, & ran imagery of carefree palm trees against blue sky, California wild fires, chaparral looking prescient, embers looking vindictive, et cetera. The effect is striking (video doesn’t lend itself to shaped frames very well very often) but I never figured out how to document it properly.
Mia Feuer has taken over the greenhouses with a family of hippopotafemasaurs she’s cast
from curvaceous studio models into hydrocarbon goddesses of uncertain origin but
bacchanalian stature (see above recumbent allure). Shirley brought Mia to speak years
ago – do you remember? – about her work in the tar sands inserting birch trees back into
the mud slurry upside down – encouraging ravens to live in the inverted root systems of
the bitumen flats, if memory serves. Her family name means fire.
Given her vast and incomprehensible workload there in the greenhouses as the hours tick
down to opening night, I often excuse myself from her company with a bow of my head
and a sincere wish of, “Godspeed,” and Mia immediately corrects me each time without
looking up from her work to say, “Goddesspeed.” Just visible, embedded in the S-curved
tail of the front-facing Odalisque is the nozzle and hose of a gasoline pump.
One night as she inserts hundreds of giant framing nails into florists’ foam to gild the
spiked tail of the huntress, (each nail squeaking into the foam with high-pitched and
excruciating echo-location pings), I offer her my memories of Liza Lou who once beaded
100,000 blades of emerald green grass in a suburban backyard diorama. When asked
about her particular brand of madness / the unnecessary labor of beading the lawn, Liza
responded, “The dignity is in the doing.” And Mia likes this very much. She tells a story
about witches being pierced with nails to prove they weren’t witches and how much
pleasure she takes in adding each nail to the huntress she’s built so that this foam woman
could fight back like a comic book character, if called upon, and launch a storm of nails at an aggressor – or enjoy the metallic jostle as her armored tail slides behind her.
A sibling of cerberus & hydra, the chimera is depicted often with a lion’s body, a snake’s tail, & a goat bursting out of its back – if you came upon one in antiquity with only a toga & a broadsword to defend yourself it was pretty much game over – and that’s pretty close to the feeling you get standing next to these creatures. The specificity of the hands and feet is so unnerving – at one point during the opening, I meet a woman regarding the Artemis figure with a look of the sublime on her face & while I’m photographing her, by way of explanation she says, These are my hands. She points to fingers pulling an arrow from a quiver and says, I was in the studio over christmas and Mia needed a few extra castings. The rest of this isn’t me [she gestures toward the hippo], but still it’s so strange to so clearly recognize my hands on someone else.
A single gasoline jerrycan is the central but low-key link to the fossil fuels that power, you know, literally the petrochemical foams she built the hippoladies with, but also our built world, our demise, et cetera. “Solar Mothers,” is rife with apocalyptic suggestions, even tropes, & it’s no mistake that the jerrycan is both shiny and chrome. Listening closely, some of the hippofems can be heard to say, Witness me!
John Carpenter set up in the meadow on a 10×10 scrim, strangely less interactive than his 2017 piece & lamented to me that he had missed out on the travertine wall this time around. The moment for Carpenter’s piece came around closing time on opening night when the barmaid at the cash bar had started to get a little freer with her whiskey pours & a woman in a broad-brimmed Spanish hat began impromptu to dance flamenco between the projector and the screen so that her agile silhouette appeared in Carpenter’s undulating algorithms seamlessly — as if he had written a part for Spanish dance all along! I raced into position with my camera, but the lady finished her dance as I tightened my focus & stepped out from behind the screen self-consciously. Her boyfriend & a few others applauded and then the night was over. More soon, m