Exhibition schedule: Pasadena Museum of California Art, May 4–August 31, 2014
One could argue that no contemporary topic has more urgency and complexity than that of the interaction between humans and the natural environment. Whether considering contemporary political policy or theories of geologic time, the question of how this moment in human history will come to terms with its existence in the larger world, literally and figuratively, is prominent across academic disciplines and various media discourses. Time, Space & Matter: Five Installations Exploring Natural Phenomena, curated by Betty Ann Brown at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, enters into this discussion, according to the introductory text for the exhibition, by “re-situating [sic] commenting on, and giving new form to environmental processes and the various histories of human interaction with them.” Yet both individual works and the exhibition as a whole fail to meet this claim, and in doing so give a perhaps unexpected view toward more problematic contemporary ideas about the natural and the human, art and science, and display and inquiry.
The overly broad focus of this exhibition on time, space, and matter finds a more negotiable entry point in essential natural processes of decay and renewal that fuel organic life (although this is still overly capacious). Each of these processes finds minor expression in the exhibition, for example melting ice and crystal growth, yet upon entering the galleries, one is struck by the reserved nature of the works within—a feature that is particularly striking and indeed curious in light of the world outside. The Pasadena Museum, committed to California art, is situated in northern Pasadena, in the literal shadow of striking desert landscapes and the steepest mountains in the continental United States. On any given afternoon, Santa Ana winds might produce ungodly heat or a marine layer of cool air and fog that might never burn off. This is to say nothing of the probable, punctual presence of fire, bears, mountain lions, and wild flocks of parrots—much less the more sustained condition of drought or deluge (often both) in southern California. This landscape is also the legendary terrain in which a large portion of the history of cinema has basked. Perhaps even more relevant to the contemporary moment might be the complex ecosystem present in the local Whole Foods, located a few hundred miles south of the Owens River valley, one of the most productive agricultural sites in human history. This last example points as well to the absence of any reference to the socio-economic politics shaping global systems of nature, which current popular discourse on anthropocenic climate change makes clear are deeply affected by and integrated with, not separate from, the human. Within the last fifty years of art production, it is possible to trace a dynamic dialogue on the effects and affects of nature as subject, from early land reclamation projects in the 1970s to a vast array of contemporary social practice that takes environment as its focus.
At the Pasadena Museum, the light- and temperature-controlled space is out of joint with the outside in every sense of the term. Suvan Geer’s A Space with Two Movements (2014) serves as the introduction to the exhibition, installed in its own small gallery. Here an analog motor rotates a thin metal form that reads as a clock suspended between a pile of sand and a tree stump. It is a didactic image of time and its multiplicity. The installation also includes abstract video projections over which manufactured wind blows silk. The installation seems to posit diverse scales of time, but presents a rather staid kinetic sculpture that has trouble engaging a viewer accustomed to processing different modalities of time constantly (walking with an iPhone as the most ubiquitous example). Further into the exhibition, Mineko Grimmer’s installation, Intermittent Composition (1988), uses melting ice to free rocks that then fall down to sonic effect, as the sediment hits bamboo or metal on its way to puddle below. This could be seen as tangentially referencing the global catastrophe of ice melt or the local catastrophe of drought, yet in practice it does not quite manage to bridge that material and intellectual expanse. Instead it mostly settles on a more local interest in material transformation, one that while mildly pleasing (when rocks drop they make a sound) could nonetheless be encountered in any contemporary display (art or otherwise) that borrows the pleasant juxtaposition of bamboo, water, stone, and sound from Japanese aesthetics. Similarly Christine Nguyen’s installation, First Light and Its Refracting Powers (2014), provides a slight echo with certain intellectual histories: glass cases of objects vaguely remind one of encyclopedic collections of cabinets of curiosity, while folded and dyed papers reflect some consideration of photography (salt is prominent in both the two- and three-dimensional forms). The overall effect might offer a pleasing display, yet feels pseudo-scientific and without concern for larger issues at stake. It echoes a certain contemporary impulse in culture more broadly, which favors handmade goods and a return to the “natural”: terrariums and block-dyed prints come to mind. In both cases, nature is distinct from the subject and framed as aesthetic.
Part of the problem with the exhibition as a whole, and some of the works within it, is the limited understanding of “natural phenomena” it puts forth. Is a rock prone to gravity in isolation any affect of nature that matters? The question becomes: what is at risk when materials and processes act in a seemingly singular manner? All of nature and all of art are in play in complex ecosystems in which the sociopolitical is key. To ignore this fact or neutralize it ranges from uninteresting to irresponsible. Where are the discussions, for example, of production and waste in the art world itself? What would happen if we tracked the carbon emissions of art fairs and glossy magazine pages? Or why isn’t gender equity mentioned more often as an aspect of ecological soundness? Against these possibilities, the physics at play in the exhibition feel easy, Newtonian, strangely ahistorical, apolitical, and distinct from the viewer. Gravity is not only key to Grimmer’s work but also to George Geyer and Tom McMillin’s Floating Gravitational Arc (2014)—a stark sculptural exercise in glass balanced against small gusts of air produced by a fan, giving a pedestrian illustration of balance. With popular science discussions veering toward the multiverse, and contemporary geopolitics linking climate change to human conflict, a more expansive inquiry is needed.
By contrast, Lita Albuquerque’s work addresses some of these concerns. In “Sometimes the sea is silver, sometimes it is actually red, other times it is an azure blue” Or is it ultramarine? (2014), she acknowledges the complex relationship of observation and reality, and chooses a pigment renown for its trade value. She also incorporated a performative element at the opening, where time was presented on a human scale, through the pouring of salt. Albuquerque, whose career spans from pigment drawings in the deserts of Land Art to contemporary investigations of polar regions, stands as a crucial link from this contemporary work to earlier explorations of “nature” while also employing references to more ancient human cultures as well as cosmic events. Her art opens up the field of reference for the show, but only through the larger lens of her career.
Grounded in a moment of emerging awareness of global environment and media, a gathering of artists engaged with our actual “natural phenomena” could and does often range across issues of labor, resource allocation, media, American empire, industrial decay, natural history methodologies, local politics, place, and more. In this context, Time, Space & Matter fails to offer a new perspective, and perhaps even encourages a regressive view, for by now we understand art in situ in the most extreme locales, or encounter radical conditions brought into art (Mark Dion’s ecosystem of a rotting tree, Neukum Vivarium [2004–6], comes to mind). Nor does it provide refuge—a space to think, to wonder, to explore mentally and visually, as its materials remain mundane. Instead, in the here and now of the gallery, material and motion become signifiers for a physics and nature that never really was.