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Beautiful devastation: J. Henry Fair’s Coal at MASS MoCA.

Man and Nature

By Nadine Wasserman

Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., through April 12, 2009


Berkshire Botanical Garden, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 31

In the 1972 film Silent Running, Bruce Dern is the sole crew member of a space greenhouse that contains Earth’s last remaining nature preserve. I thought about this movie when I poked my head into Vaughn Bell’s Personal Home Biospheres, commissioned for the exhibition Badlands. These compelling objects also reminded me of a statistic I had read recently, claiming that by the year 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. If this is accurate, how will this change our relationship to the land? Will there be any green space left and will our only access to it be through personal biospheres and rooftop gardens?

The companion exhibitions Badlands, at MASS MoCA, and Cultivate, at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, examine contemporary notions of landscape. At the entrance to Badlands is a quiet work by Mary Temple that is so subtle it would be easy to walk right past it. But don’t. It is one of the only really contemplative pieces in the show. Temple addresses our often tenuous relationship to the outdoors, and by extension to the environment as a whole, by using trompe l’oeil to make it appear as if the shadows of trees are falling upon the wall through a window. The stillness of the image is unnerving. If you look around, as I did repeatedly, you will notice there is no natural light source. In the next room is a similarly poetic yet disquieting vision of nature by Jennifer Steinkamp. In her video Mike Kelley, a ghostly animated tree projected onto a large wall sways in a virtual breeze. The title of this piece refers to the acclaimed artist Mike Kelley, who is known for his abject take on American culture. Another virtuoso sharing this space is Alexis Rockman, whose piece South is based on a recent trip to Antarctica. This piece explores the sublime in nature, and its destruction due to global warming. Another artist who explores beauty and devastation is J. Henry Fair. His striking photographs are disturbingly beautiful given what they portray—toxic leach fields and waste containment pools.

While some artists focus on darker portrayals, Joseph Smolinski takes a more humorous approach. For Badlands he has created a Tree Turbine that both generates energy while attempting to blend into the environment. Like the cell-phone towers you commonly see disguised as trees, this tree is clearly artificial. Another artist who uses an artificial hybrid is Nina Katchadourian, who has attached a manufactured tree limb to a red maple tree outdoors, but instead of green leaves, this one exhibits fall colors. By autumn the fake leaves will be indistinguishable from the real ones. Like Katchadourian, the Boyle Family replicates nature by creating wall pieces that document transitory moments in the earth as in Ploughed Field Study, Kent or Study of Brown Mudcracks with Tyre Tracks and Coal Dust, Portishead. While the Boyle family presents realistic portraits, Mike Glier uses abstraction to depict the changing nature of his own backyard through the seasons. Painting mostly plein air, he describes the work as “an account of the changes of light, color and motif in one place as the Earth tilts on its axis over the course of a year.” Yutaka Sone, on the other hand, focuses on the manmade. Sone documents Los Angeles freeways in intricately carved marble. For Badlands, he has placed his miniature replicas amidst a manufactured forest of potted plants. The Center for Land Use Interpretation also explores the human imprint on the land. This organization is dedicated to documenting and “understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface.” For Badlands, it presents a set of photographs titled Water and Power: 30 Sites in Massachusetts.

The companion exhibition Cultivate gives viewers a chance to see art in a more natural setting. Whereas in Badlands, Joseph Smolinski’s Tree Turbine does not blend well into the scenery, his Cell Tree at the Botanical Garden actually does. It is so well integrated into the landscape that I had to ask one of the gardeners where it was. Another work that is at first not easy to find is Ancient Present by Leila Daw. You have to look up into the high limbs of a tree to see that she has suspended foundation stones with heavy chains. While the stones hang securely, they are precarious enough to appear threatening. The piece is a reminder of the force of nature. Tree of Heaven, by Luke Stettner and Mac Carbonnell, also focuses on nature versus the built environment. For this installation, the artists have laid two vast slabs of concrete over the stumps of Ailanthus trees to demonstrate the hardiness of these plants that grow even in the most inhospitable urban conditions. These are just a few examples of what’s on display throughout the Botanical Gardens.

Given that so many contemporary artists are interested in the topic of landscape, it’s understandable that these shows are not as tight as they could be. While there is some attempt at categorization in the Badlands catalogue, there is no effort at grouping in the gallery space. Similarly, Cultivate lacks an organizing principle. The result in both cases are exhibitions overly broad in scope. Despite this, both offer much to contemplate.

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