"Human/Nature: Art and Landscape in Charleston and the Low Country"
Spoleto Festival USA
The ground-breaking and controversial site-specific exhibition, "Places with a Past," was part of Charleston's annual Spoleto Festival USA six years ago; this year, Spoleto presented another site-specific exhibition, "Human/ Nature: Art and Landscape in Charleston and the Low Country." Thirteen artists from the United States, Europe, and South Africa were invited to use the "physical and cultural landscape" of Charleston as a source of inspiration in creating installations for the exhibition. With such an all-inclusive theme, the works on view did not form a very cohesive exhibition, but several of the artists produced innovative and challenging works of art.
Herb Parker constructed a temple out of sod covered with a decorative wrough t iron fence. Sited in a park, Enclosure: Vista (1997) echoed and recreated the surrounding historic houses and enclosed private gardens, but with primal undertones. Parker's grass house softened the edges of architecture with a material that refuses to stay within the lines and that will eventually decay and collapse. The interior passageway was lined with columns and featured a rammed earth set of steps leading out to a view of the water.
Two South Carolina artists, master blacksmith Philip Simmons and self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar, collaborated on a small enclosed church garden. Simmons designed wrought iron gates and a wall piece with a heart motif that Fryar expanded upon in several topiary pieces and a stone-laid walkway.
Martha Jackson-Jarvis created her own courtyard next to another church. Rice, Rattlesnakes, and Rainwater (1997) was one of the most ambitious and successful pieces in the exhibition. Surrounded by a wrought iron fence which incorporated African symbols and four "bottle trees" embellished with brilliant blue glass bottles, the space was filled with elaborately detailed and brightly colored glass and ceramic mosaic pieces. Two elongated house shapes, reflective of the shotgun-style houses found in the neighborhood, were encrusted with shells, terra-cotta fish, and mosaic images of rice plants and mosquitoes-animal and plant life indigenous and important to the history of Charleston. Four large ceramic rain barrels were covered with vibrant orange, red, and blue mosaics and sculptural reliefs that shimmered in the sunlight.
Ronald Gonzalez effectively captured the contrasts and paradoxes of Charleston in his work-in sculptural installations that both fascinated and repelled. His three-part work, titled Scattered Remains: Corpus, Keeper, Profane (1997) was installed at the Gibbes Museum of Art and at Magnolia Cemetery. Corpus, the most compelling section, was located on an old burial plot in the cemetery and consisted of a series of plaster figures and crosses enclosed by a rusting fence.
These eerie figures, slightly larger than life-size, with long skinny arms and legs, bulbous bodies, and clubbed hands, made the plot look as if the corpses had been put above the ground, instead of buried beneath it. The yard was filled with crumbled plaster and hundreds of plaster crosses, set in the ground and stacked up against the fence. The burnt plaster figures merged the shape of a cross and that of the human body into a form that mimicked the gravestones surrounding the plot, turning the monument and the corpse into one seamless image in a highly provocative installation.
Outside of town, on an old plantation from the 1850s, landscape architect Martha Schwartz focused on a row of small slave cabins, located to the side of a white-pillared plantation house. She created giant laundry lines out of poles and wires running out from the cabins and into the fields. Hundreds of white sheets hung from the lines with thousands of wooden clothespins. The lines rose in height, from 4 feet to 14 feet, and as they extended into the fields the sheets correspondingly increased in length and width. In between the rows of sheets, Schwartz whitewashed the grass, creating the effect of giant carpets leading up to each cabin. Part of the effectiveness of the work was due to the sheer quantity of the sheets, row after row coming out from behind the cabins and marching into the fields, like a huge processional of ghosts or the contents of a giant's laundry basket. The work captured both the beauty and horror in the history of the site; it was both somber in its ability to bring out the injustices of the past and playful in the maze-like space the staggered rows of sheets created, crossing a multitude of boundaries-physical, emotional and historical-to create a landscape found both in dreams and nightmares.
Much further out of town (about 30 miles) another landscape architect, Adriaan Geuze from The Netherlands, created a temporary room in the middle of a cypress swamp filled with birds, alligators, and Spanish moss. You could get to Geuze's work by walking down a path through the woods or by rowing a boat out into the swamp until you came upon a large moss cube (20 by 30 by 60 feet) seemingly suspended just above the water. Formed by draping Spanish moss over rows of wire, the room had a boardwalk that allowed you to walk out over the swamp and provided a space to sit within the moss. Light filtered softly through the curtains of moss and you could hear the sounds of swamp from inside. It was a serene, contemplative space, a room that enclosed nature and, like Herb Parker's temple, made an amorphous natural material architectural.
Mary Lucier's mixed-media installation, House by the Water (1997), also combined architecture and nature in a mesmerizing work of video, audio, and sculpture. Located in an old warehouse downtown, the work consisted of a small clapboard house on stilts surrounded by a chain link fence. The two-story high room was dark, the only light coming from the video, which was projected simultaneously on all four sides of the house. The video combined radar pictures of storms and hurricanes with images of rising waves and rushing rivers. Interspersed were shots of period actors portraying small scenes (reading a bible, running through a house, dancing) and views of historic houses in Charleston. The visuals were accompanied by sounds of storms, music, people talking, and birds singing. Completely surrounded by sound and immersed in darkness, you were easily pulled into the work: a layered, kaleidoscopic mix of history, technology, and the primal power of nature-both redemptive and catastrophic.
Also included in the exhibition were Thornton Dial's drawings, wall assemblages, and mixed-media sculptures; South African artist Esther Mahlangu's brilliantly colored, geometric murals; Charles Simonds's ceramic installation; Patrick Dougherty's three-part sculpture of woven saplings; and a poorly sited series of monumental cast bronze sculptures by Magdalena Abakanowicz.
With its focus on nature, gardens, and the environment, "Human/Nature" is not likely to be as controversial as its predecessor, "Places with a Past," which had a more political and social stance. But this series of site-specific, public art projects did effectively reach out to communities in Charleston that are not usually impacted by the Spoleto Festival, and one hopes that its advent signals an ongoing commitment to innovative visual arts programming by the festival after a six-year hiatus.
-Linda Johnson Dougherty
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