Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Love of Ruin

Just in from the Tucson Museum of Art Biennial, but I must warn my readers: I left my notes in a suitcase. Many names and titles are sadly missing, but I will fill those in at a later date.

The major impression: Very interesting to see a thread running through the best works: a fascination with clean, dry death and a kind of crisp aging. This is the most site-specific biennial I've ever witnessed. On a museum map, I jotted down concepts like document, past, ageing, relic, death, and decripitude.

This being the Sonoran desert, there is a very real sense of dessication everywhere you go. Leave something out and it doesn't exactly rot (California forests) or turn to mold (New Jersey farms) or get eaten (Bali alleyways). The deterioration of things in southern Arizona is slowed by the dry climate. Compared to other places I know, it takes a little longer for objects to rust around here, and there isn't the moist devouring process of rains, insects, and bacteria.

So it may really be of no surprise that the works in the Tucson Biennial would exude dryness, a crisply preserved PAST, and unsullied ...may I venture STERILE... death.

Dust, dead horses, gravesites and the human mark are shown in various media but all in suspended decay. Just like a dry horse skeleton one might come upon in the desert.

The desert itself is a kind of display case if not merely a pedestal. Those hiking in the desert are treated to remains of all kinds, suspended in the heat and dryness, offering a kind of dry beachcombing. Picking one's way thru the Tucson Biennial was like that!

The massive photo portrait of gleeful, wrinkled retirees by their suburban swimming pool (water nearly unseen) was one captivating work exemplifying this sense of dessication. It was not just a parody of the life-giving desert oasis, but it was a glorification of preservation by drying.

There was an interactive piece, possibly by Lucy Petrovich, quite ambitiously employing 3D glasses and a joystick type of control, which leads the viewer through a graveyard. It's quite fun to virtually move through a tree or go along a brick wall, but the rigid white crosses and seemingly plastic flowers were perpetual reminders of the site's purpose. Never realistic in terms of texture or rendering, the graphics made me feel like I was in another dimension, a kind of half life. Is this what the dead see? In line with resident retirees and the desert's radioactive materials storage areas, I was struck with a sense of the desert being used for the purpose of storing death itself.

But therein lies also the twist of artificial landscape, which is more easily noticed in a place like Tucson than in other cities. The desert is massive, impossible to ignore. Whether you drive or fly into Tucson, you are fully aware of the forbidding natural landscape, and of its almost miraculous human civilization. Arizona has some of the world's most artificial habitations. Lawns and pools are changing Phoenix' climate, and threaten to do the same to Tucson. Artists like the photographer above and Petrovich understand this sense of the artificial.

Artists who chose to portray bodies almost always went for artifice, in either the sense of preservation or depersonalization. I noted to myself that Rembrandt Quiballo's work impressed me, but I am not sure if he is the artist whose photo representations of the body as image only, without spirit or life, was a highlight in my tour of the exhibit. I think these were two different artists, for Quiballo, it seems, works in oils. Would that I remembered the name of the other artist!

Recording dust balls was the subject of one photographic piece, also interactive (the images were displayed in book form, so that the viewers can turn pages). Again, an intimate if not fully loving presentation of the dried up dregs of a place (in this case, the museum galleries themselves).

Do we map things just to claim them or to preserve them? Man has charted, mapped, cataloged, and labeled this earth to an obsessive extent. Hard to tell if the hard-ass Arizona claim staker has a sense of humor about this, but many of the artists took a light-hearted glimpse at the matter.

Lora Alaniz gave a memorable cart-ography video, footage of a shopping cart that sometimes anthropomorphed as a suffering, wandering individual. Sometimes the subject just seemed to be a tool under punishing use, grinding along in the aching physical realm. Dig, Tucson has plenty of derelict types because it's cheap to live there. But this wonderful piece made me conceptualize territory, a huge issue in Arizonans powerful and ordinary. Staking claims, mapping, blazing trails, putting on a label... it's pure WEST sensibility. Kay Emig has a piece called Four East Mesa Trailheads that blew me away. I noted "seed beads" next to her name, and I do recall an amazing work that used this vernacular medium to excellent effect. Also noteworthy: Peter Happel Christian's Brief Notes on Existence and Will Sanders, who understands depth.

Out here in the desert, it's a game of the dichotomies of ruin and preservation, life and death, unclaimed and charted, the past and the now. This brilliant collection speaks to these matters, reads the desert, charts a slow passage of time... in soft, clear voices as plain as a dry creek bed.

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