Traditionally, the visual arts have been object-oriented, involving the creation of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture. Increasingly over the last quarter of the 20th century and accelerating here in the early years of the 21st, the leading edge of creativity has become the art of installation, the creation of environments and the staging of events. Art at its best is a form of inquiry, an intellectual activity, a search for meaning that draws on any means an artist finds useful. Recently, we have had a couple of fine examples of this art of inquiry and action here in New England.
Currently (through February 14), the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence is hosting Zugunruhe: An Installation by Rachel Berwick. Berwick, who heads the glass department at Rhode Island School of Design, has establish a distinctive place for herself in the contemporary art world working at the intersection of art and natural science. In the past, she has created projects that dealt with threatened animals such as the Galapagos turtle and extinct animals such as the Tasmanian tiger and with extinct cultures, such as when she taught Amazon parrots to speak a dead native language.
“Zugunruhe” is term used to describe the restlessness of birds just before migration. Berwick’s Zugunruhe is a visual and conceptual inquiry into the passing of the passenger pigeon, a species thought to be extinct since around World War I. The installation takes the form of a nine foot high glass octagon containing a tree covered with passenger pigeons rendered in amber and a small glass globe containing a dial that points to wall texts reporting sightings of passenger pigeons. This elegant visual trope is art as conservation and environmental sensitivity.
Recently (on October 30, November 3, and November 5), the Coleman Burke Gallery, an innovative alternative gallery with spaces in Brunswick, Portland, and New York City, hosted Closer, an art event staged by Aaron T. Stephan, one of the most imaginative young artists in Maine. A few years ago, Stephan planted a gingko tree outside a Biddeford middle school and wrote an entire book, Dig, in which he described how a couple of local milltown boys had dug a hole to China in 1867. The gingko memorialized this fabulous fiction.
Closer was a performance piece that might best be understood as an inquiry into and commentary on the dynamics of the art world itself. Closer began with Aaron Stephan at a podium delivering an artist’s talk to an audience of nine at the gallery space in the old Fort Andross in Brunswick. As he spoke, Stephan’s crew proceeded to busily and noisily construct a room around the audience, walling it off from the artist. One of the last images Stephan projected as his lecture ended was one of his own Vessels Absent, figurative sculptures in the form of packing crates.
Once the room was completed, singer/songwriter Moses Atwood entered and performed for the captive audience. Meanwhile, the construction crew built a dining area atop the room. When the dining area was completed, the audience joined the artists and his assistants on the rooftop for a candlelight meal prepared by his partner, artist Lauren Fensterstock.
Artist Mark Wethli, a professor at Bowdoin College and a principal in the Coleman Burke enterprise, summed up Stephan’s ironic appropriation of art world conventions such as the artist’s talk, openings (closings), music, after-parties, and packing crates, as follows:
“At a time when many artists in search of fresh horizons are training their sights farther afield – toward history, the sciences, social sciences, cultural theory, new technologies, and so forth – Aaron Stephan’s ambition, at least in the case of Closer, has been to use these overlooked accoutrements and marginalia of the art world itself as both fair game and fertile territory in which to play out timeless and cross-cultural themes of passage, transformation, and transcendence.”
Rachel Berwick and Aaron T. Stephan, two artists who help subvert the idea of art as commodity and decoration.
[David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence RI, 401-863-2932. Coleman Burke Gallery, Fort Andross, 14 Maine St., Brusnwick ME, 207-725-3761.]