Three Exhibits

October 9, 2015
Eric Magrane

Tucson Museum of Art’s Arizona Biennial, closing on October 11, includes many works addressing environmental themes, and two other exhibits closing later this month---at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Ironwood Gallery and the Tucson Jewish Community Center Fine Art Gallery---also have UA and environmental connections.

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Sculpted kevlar and carbon fiber golden eagle wings by Jeffrey J. DaCosta greet visitors to Tucson Museum of Art’s Arizona Biennial. At first they feel oddly flightless, disembodied avian appendages mounted to the wall. That is, of course, until museum-goers pose for pictures with the piece, temporarily offering their bodies to the wings. It feels as if the kinetic energy of flight is captured and stored here, waiting to be released.

This metaphor of kinetic energy might be an apt way to approach much of the work in this year’s Biennial, which is organized into four themes: Nature, Reclamation, Violence, and Seduction.

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion, the energy of movement. I go to art to be moved, to end up somewhere different than I was before, to be provoked into new ways of seeing. Art can offer up both a mirror of broad cultural and societal preoccupations and pressures, while at the same time it can contain within it critiques or other ways of looking at the same preoccupations. This is its stored energy.

That we are currently seeing such a wide range of exhibits with environmental themes and connections, in Tucson and elsewhere, may speak to shifting cultural perceptions on climate change and its embedded socio-cultural-environmental challenges. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” The UK climate art group Cape Farewell, for example, is one of the groups that draws on McLuhan’s idea in climate art projects.

Here in Tucson, different conceptions of naturEllen McMahon and Beth Weinstein, Prone to Collapse, 2015, Video, sound, cardboard tubes, pine needles, paper, fabric, 6’ x 10’ x 10’. Courtesy the Tucson Museum of Arte that are interwoven through the Arizona Biennial can be illustrated through two installation pieces, Daniel Johnson’s “Turf War, 2014” and Ellen McMahon and Beth Weinstein’s “Prone to Collapse.” Johnson’s is a square swath of Astro turf enclosed by a white picket fence. While the picket fence and lawn reference a kind of familiar suburban American ideal that includes lawns and a nuclear family, the fence is an act of enclosure, perhaps referencing a kind of detachment or alienation from nature.

McMahon and Weinstein’s piece can also be unsettling, but is inviting at the same time. McMahon and Weinstein, both University of Arizona professors, worked with images of forest canopy, recycled rolls from reams of architectural paper, and fir needles from mulched Christmas trees to build “Prone to Collapse.” The piece is set up like a canopy bed, and museumgoers are welcome to lie down with pillows stuffed of pine and fir, listen to a forest sound-scene by Jesse Chehak, and gaze up at images of the shifting canopy.

On a recent visit to the exhibit with a group from IE’s Art and Environment Network, Weinstein noted their impulse to work with “material captured in its flow,” a kind of recycling or repurposing of material to help tell an environmental story. That story is one of tree die-off and forest collapse related to climate change and drought.

Lying in “Prone to Collapse” is a dream-like experience, tinged with loss and sadness. It makes me think of the concept of solastalgia, a kind of nostalgia for place not based in distance from a place, but a sense of distress and loss while one is in place. In other words, like mourning the forest while being among the trees because of knowledge of environmental change and the forest being “prone to collapse.”

To get a taste of these works and others in the exhibit, check out this Arizona Public Media video or visit the museum before the exhibit closes October 11.

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What happens in the rainforest doesn’t stay in the rainforest, an exhibit by Jake Bryant at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Ironwood Gallery, includes photographs of UA rainforest researchers in the field. Displayed strikingly against green walls, these photos show science in action through images of researchers collecting data in rainforest scenes, such as under a dense canopy of foliage, or on towers high above the forest below.

The exhibit, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, brought Bryant into the field with researchers, including the UA’s Scott Saleska, Joost van Haren, and others, to show the human side of rainforest research. '"Having the opportunity to photograph these researchers at work in the Amazon rainforests enabled me to capture the personalities behind the scientific data produced," said Bryant. Exhibit visitors can also listen through headphones to researchers speak about the work they are conducting in the photos.

It’s striking how each of the images, while foregrounding the researchers, displays the interplay between researcher, instrument, and rainforest. The photos show the human side of measurement, and one is very likely to leave this exhibit thinking about what cool lives the researchers have.

What happens in the rainforest doesn’t stay in the rainforest is up through October 25 at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Ironwood Gallery.

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Returning to the kinetics of art, I’d like to finish by noting a current exhibit that centers around food, which is, of course, another kind of stored energy.

The Latin root of the word culture is “colere”—to tend, to cultivate. Food and culture, of course, go hand in hand, something that community events like Tucson Meet Yourself, happening this weekend, help illustrate. Mara Aspinall’s photographs do this as well. She has traveled around the world, and on those trips she has photographed food in many places and cultures. Many of these photographs are on display in Naked Food: Photography by Mara Aspinall, which can be seen at the Tucson Jewish Community Center Fine Art Gallery through October 20.

I asked Aspinall to share with me a few stories about these photos. She told me about being knee-deep in a Cape Cod bog where she took her very first food photo of cranberries. She told me about cinnamon and star anise in the Night Spice Market in Dubai. She told me about durian, which is prohibited in taxis, subways, and hotels because it is the smelliest fruit in the world.

These food photos speak of abundance. Of form and color. Of life. Within the photos, you might see the repetition and difference of pattern and shape. You might be drawn to the aesthetics of the food itself or the aesthetics of its gathering.

Stephanie Choi, a UA student and the chair for the new UA Students for Sustainability Environmental Arts committee, helped curate Aspinall’s exhibit. “There's something comfortable and familiar about seeing food,” Choi said, “but also something exotic about a lot of the foods on the walls. I think this creates a space for curiosity, wonder, and imagination—which is what I think all art should do.”

Naked Food: Photography by Mara Aspinall, can be seen at the Tucson Jewish Community Center Fine Art Gallery through October 20.

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Image Captions:
*Ellen McMahon and Beth Weinstein, Prone to Collapse, 2015, Video, sound, cardboard tubes, pine needles, paper, fabric, 6’ x 10’ x 10’. Courtesy of the Tucson Museum of Art
*Jake Bryant, Above the canopy: Neill Prohaska, graduate student, University of Arizona, Atmospheric carbon and water exchange. Courtesy of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute
*Mara Aspinall, Chard. Courtesy of the photographer and the Tucson JCC.

Note: Part of the text above about Mara Aspinall’s photographs is included in exhibit notes that I contributed for the exhibit. I also have poetry displayed at the Desert Museum along with What happens in the rainforest doesn’t stay in the rainforest.