Contributed by Robin Hill / Our personal narratives are inextricably entwined with what the philosopher Gaston Bachelard refers to as The Poetics of Space. His work contemplates the spaciousness of consciousness one experiences in relation to architectural space, real or imagined, and the indispensability of shelter to life. Without shelter, we are what Bob Dylan aptly describes as “void without a form.” Consider the millions of Venezuelans displaced by the pandemic. Their story of seeking shelter, powerfully told in a recent New York Times piece, alerts us to the urgency of that need and also to the spatial luxury – mental as well as physical – that material abundance affords those of us who are lucky enough to have it.
The timely exhibition “Shelter Is,” curated by Lucinda Warchol for ArtYard, “brings together the work of nine artists whose practices consider the physical and psychological function of shelter, its construction, and its improvisational nature.” It was in full development before the reality of the pandemic changed our lives for the foreseeable future. No one could have predicted that the exhibition would foreshadow our collective new normal, that of sheltering in place.
Upon entering the exhibition, I was hit with a flood of my own childhood sense experiences, deeply rooted in architecture, a response anticipated by Warchol. The exhibition includes handsomely displayed, non-pedigreed architectural models culled from eBay and large-format photographs of nests, hives, and nomadic shelters, and other forms of shelter. It revived my own archetypal notions of shelter, reaching as far back as 1968 when Resurrection City, a temporary shelter project designed for the Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington was built. It remains one of the most influential experiences of my life.
Often, powerful exhibitions trigger, for artists particularly, a sense of direct conversation in a novel language. We get it. We are of it. We do it. For what it’s worth, I speak chicken coop, beehive, backyard fort, woodland clearing, chuck wagon, campsite, dumpster diving, and furniture rearranging, and Warchol’s show activated the frayed circuitry of my own shelter history.
Anchoring the exhibition is a floor-to-ceiling paper banner upon which is printed a poem, written by Warchol herself, which invites viewers to embrace ideas about shelter that transcend the practical. The last section of the poem reads: And it can be The Land, The Body, The Limb, The Branch, The Gesture, The Root, The Collective, The Thread, The Knowing That What Is Lost Can No Longer Be Taken.
There is a poignant sadness in the self-portraits of the photographic series Disappearance Suits by artist Maria Gaspar. The artist wears site-specific camouflage clothing designed to make her disappear in wilderness settings, pointing to the alternately tender and horrific relationship humans have with nature. Gaspar describes her practice as “examining the social anatomy of place,” Influenced by the hyper-local, she “challenges understandings of geography and the social constructions of space by mediating, subverting, and flipping the familiar or unnoticed to provoke new interpretations.” The images in the exhibition, which the artist refers to as performance stills, capture the space between presence and absence and hold the power of farewell hugs, with all of the uncertainty that accompanies them.
The artist Heather Hart is known for her interactive large-scale architectural installations, built on a desire to provide, in the artist’s words, “spaces for personal reclamation,” a sentiment inherent in the Drifters’ 1964 song lyrics: “When this old world starts getting me down//And people are just too much for me to face//I climb way up to the top of the stairs//And all my cares just drift right into space//On the roof…” One senses that Hart’s rooftop has been generously lowered, like a kneeling bus, to make the climb easier. Play and disaster are two sides of a coin in the work. While lounging on one of the roof’s dormer windows, I was struck with competing notions: the wonder of children’s imaginary universes where one can traverse a ceiling, icebergs expanding undersea, and the horrific images of people on rooftops awaiting rescue after Hurricane Katrina. Another ongoing project of note that augments the interactive and transformative nature of Hart’s work is Black Lunch Table, a collaboration between Hart and Jina Valentine, whose aim is to establish “discursive sites, at literal and metaphorical lunch tables, wherein cultural producers of color engage in critical dialogue on topics directly affecting our communities.” The installation at ArtYard will be activated by a series of site-specific performances curated by the artist throughout the exhibition.
The Canaries, a photographic series by Thilde Jensen, first published in 2013, sheds light on a little-known subculture of people, which includes the artist herself, who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a rare environmental illness that is not fully understood. Because there is disagreement as to whether the illness is purely physical or a physical manifestation of a psychiatric disorder, the anguish of those it compels to be isolated is compounded. The community that Jensen depicts in her photographs, which in tone border on the sacred, live and work in makeshift shelters that provide them with the protection required to alleviate their pain. One experiences an uncomfortable range of feelings, from disbelief to morbid curiosity to empathy, when looking at this powerful visual essay on vulnerability.
Jumana Manna’s 66 minute documentary film Wild Relatives explores seed preservation as a way into understanding notions of home and the tragedy of displacement from it. The film documents the first withdrawal from the Global Seed Vault located deep inside Norway’s Svalbard archipelago by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a Lebanon-based gene bank headquartered in Aleppo until 2012. It tracks the journey of the seeds, (which are ultimately replenished and returned to the Global Seed Vault) in the hands of a host of collaborators, the most important and inspiring of which are the young farmers themselves. If the sublime, visceral qualities of the photography aren’t enough to bring you to your knees, the narration will; “A seed is like love in the hearts of humans.” and “The peasant plants authenticity in his nursery.”
Lucy + Jorge Orta ’s overarching project fuses climate activism and global citizenship to engage viewers in critical dialogues about the Anthropocene age. At its core is a powerful teaching mission, exemplified by the deployment of familiar, up-cycled safety and survival detritus in the construction of beautiful tents, which invite a celebratory yet dark meditation on shelter as body, and body as shelter. In an article written as part of the Citizens of Everywhere project, this collaborative duo was cited for “making one of the most striking artworks of ARTCOP21”, an exhibition which ran alongside the 2015 Paris climate conference. Their project Antarctic World Passport Delivery Bureau distributed Antarctic passports to participants who were then asked to sign a commitment charter “for the protection of the environment and the future of the human race.”
The quietest and perhaps most conceptual work in the exhibition is Erin Diebboll’s monumental graphite drawing of a city block, represented by fences and border walls enclosing a negative space defined by ghost structures. The drawing is part of a series of projects entitled Land Use which explore the ways in which land is divided and subdivided, and examine fences, creeks, and drains to the San Francisco Bay. When Diebboll was an Artist-in-Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in 2015, she spoke about “how we house our memory of spaces, both occupied and vacated, in the real estate of our minds.” During her residency she interviewed people about their childhood homes and translated their narratives into drawings. The phenomenological shelter provided by Diebboll’s art of mapping offers nothing short of the simple affirmation that we are connected, knowingly or unknowingly, to all that has preceded us.
The sculpture Car (tomb) is the first collaborative work by Lucia Thomé and Mariel Capanna. Inspired by a photograph of Capanna’s late mother posing in front of a white Renault 9, it evolved out of a mutual interest in funeral and burial practices, as well as a fascination with the material culture of tombs and their architecture. In an interview with Title Magazine, Capanna notes that “there are so many weird, well made, charmingly poorly made, strange, funny objects associated with tombs.” They employed the painting technique of fresco on the sculpture’s surface to symbolize the cyclical and transformative properties of materials. They were interested in “how the material goes from stone, to putty, and back to stone again.” Their intentionally crude rendering of the car, in slightly reduced scale, tips sorrow into humor and back again. The interplay of these poles of emotional grounding, combined with the sheer ambition of this work, drives this remarkable and prescient piece home, literally and figuratively. (Also in the exhibition is a solo outdoor piece by Thomé, consisting of an earthenware house structure enclosed in a greenhouse, requiring weekly maintenance of its perpetually cracking surface – a fitting metaphor for the temporal nature of shelter itself.)
“Shelter Is,” featuring work by Maria Gaspar, Heather Hart, Thilde Jensen, Jumana Manna Lucy + Jorge Orta, Erin Diebboll, Lucia Thomé and Mariel Capanna, curated by Lucinda Warchol. ArtYard, 62 A Trenton Ave., Frenchtown, NJ. Through December 28, 2020.
Note: ArtYard is a nonprofit art center whose mission is to serve as an incubator for creative expression and a catalyst for collaborations that reveal the transformational power of art. It is currently housed in a 2000 square foot factory space which sits alongside the Delaware River in Frenchtown, NJ, just 66 miles due west of New York City and will soon move to its new home, a state-of-the-art exhibition and performance space, just up the road.
About the author: Robin Hill is an artist whose work focuses on the intersection between drawing, photography, and sculpture. Her recent work takes on a collaborative sensibility, where objects and materials which have been rejected by others have served as starting points for acts of transformation. She is on the faculty of the Studio Art Program, Department of Art and Art History, at the University of California at Davis. Instagram at @rhillstudio
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