artist naturalists

Mark Dion: 'Neukom Vivarium' at SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park

I had a job once working at a university museum cataloging their collection into a digital database. And what that means is that I was working with computers in a basement office all day. Yikes! During a particularly gray winter day, I wandered next door to the greenhouses where there was, among other green growing things, an orchid collection. The little lunch-break visit did wonders for me. In an elegant biological cycle, plants give us oxygen, and we give them carbon dioxide, exchanging waste for sustenance in a smart loop. But it was much more than that. As much as I enjoy the urban framework, my sights are always pointed toward wilderness. I am no survivalist, and my appreciation (and apprehension) toward what is true wildness comes from a suburban/urban viewpoint. Still, what is wild is what I am most fueled by, and human interaction with the inhuman is a constant fascination. Let’s be clear– the greenhouse is a quaint quote of wilderness brought into the urban framework– just like zoos, aviaries, aquariums…

While my most fluent language is drawing, I am filled with admiration for artists who engage wilderness more directly. I’m in the middle of a project in which I hope to embody these things more directly (more to come on that). In the meantime, here are some other recent and local (to Seattle) inspirations:

The Long Walk was a recent four-day-long 45-mile walking experience directed by and including a host of fantastic artists. The result seems like the opposite of an aviary– a group of earnest urbanites bringing their culture into the wild in order to help make sense of it.

Nat Evans is a Seattle composer who has been writing music for specific times and inviting people to experience the debut of these pieces as a collective listening party. My husband, Zack, got to experience Nat’s piece for sunrise, waking in the dark and traipsing down to a park where a small group of people pressed play on downloaded copies of the piece at Nat’s direction, and then watched as the light slowly increased into day. I was able to attend the recent sunset version at Carkeek Park. On a beautiful evening, which made the participants visible among the many other visitors only by their attachment to iPods or other listening devices, I joined a group of people as we watched the sun go behind the Olympics, making Puget Sound into a shimmering throb of shifting light. It was a memorable synesthetic orchestration… the music creating a vehicle for the patterns of water and cloud to click out of their representation into an abstraction.

Mark Dion‘s installation at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Neukom Vivarium, is an angled green-glassed green house in which an enormous fallen tree does what it does. Transported along with its massive ecosystem of decomposers and other plant and animal species (banana slugs, false Salomon seal, goat’s beard, Oregon grape, salal, red elderberry…) it quietly and slowly becomes something else– namely, a rich loamy soil that would be a great bed for new trees of its kind. A mother giving her body for her children, maybe.

Tonight at the vibrant new art-sharing space in Seattle, The Project Room, Mandy Greer has invited artist Anne Blackburn to share her more modestly-scaled but still intriguing endeavor– The Shelf Fungus Project:

Carved of out-of-date law books from 1880-1935, these shelf fungus forms were inoculated with mushroom mycelium, soaked in water, coated in wax and installed on cedar nurse stumps that are the remaining scars of old-growth logging around the turn of the century.  Originally installed in August of 2009 at Smoke Farm, a multi-disciplinary non-profit on a retired dairy farm outside of Seattle, the piece was intended to change and decay with the elements in this very rainy river valley, and eventually to return the wood pulp of the books to the logged area via the appetites of the mushrooms implanted within.

Nature had other ideas.

To date, two years later, the only fungal growth has been black mildew growing under the wax, and a white mycelial growth that seems to have originated in the cedar stumps.  However, much more exciting things have happened, including some sort of creature slowly carving small holes into the surface of the wax (slugs?), the slow cracking and peeling of the wax under stress of snow, rain, and periodic flooding, a bright blue/purple stain on the pages of the books, and a bear or series of bears that appear to be interested in the wax covering them and have several times bitten and damaged the installation.

And, in a grainy and pixelated triumph, I have a wildlife camera photo of what appears to be a young black bear at the site.


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