Experiments in the Field: Creative Collaboration in the Age of Ecological Concern, the timely, engaging and provocative exhibition open through Sept. 26 at the Berkeley Art Center (by appointment only), presents work in a variety of forms and media by a diverse group of East Bay artists: The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, Adriane Colburn, Alicia Escott, Stacey Goodman, Chanell Stone, Livien Yin, and Minoosh Zomorodinia.
Organized by Berkeley-based guest curator Svea Lin Soll, and elegantly installed in BAC’s tranquil, wooded oasis, the show speaks in a range of voices, often obliquely, to our current state of imminent eco-catastrophe.
Alicia Escott and Heidi Quante are the collaborative duo behind The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a public participatory project dedicated to inventing new language to describe or re-frame contemporary experience. Working with artists in the exhibition and other BAC community members, they coined the neologism spectramergensee, a portmanteau word that could well serve as the show’s subtitle.
Its lengthy, aspirational, if somewhat overloaded, definition is mounted on posters in the gallery’s patio. Here’s part of it:
spectramergensee: The way that a crisis and a natural disaster may bring people together, and out of their routines; entering into or emerging out of the cocoon of private space into a new sense of community through disruption.
Adriane Colburn’s 2019 colorful, mixed media sculptural installation The Spoils (see top photo), resembles the contents of a giant pinball machine escaped from its container. Its labyrinthine form and disquieting mix of data points, unrecyclable materials and models of endangered animals suggest a map of disaster based on global commerce: a precarious, unwinnable game sabotaged by its own flawed, unsustainable system.
Livien Yin’s mixed media sculptural weaving Bombyx Papaver is—for this reviewer—the most subtle and compelling piece in the show. Beautiful and evocative in itself, its form suggests the Guzhen, a stringed Chinese musical instrument called by Westerners “the Chinese zither”. Its title, Bombyx Papaver, refers to the Linnaean classification for the silkworm and the opium poppy flower.
All the materials it’s made of—silk thread, cotton, wool, white opium poppy seeds, maple wood and peach blossom branches—allude to aspects of historic Western imperialistic plundering of Chinese natural resources and culture, and the West’s economic exploitation of Chinese people and their labor.
Bombyx Papaver is one in a series of the artist’s riffs on the Wardian case: the sealed glass terrarium, invented in 19th Century England, that made it possible to transport live plants (invasive, destructive organisms included) safely across the seas. The Wardian case radically transformed international commerce and local ecosystems. Among other things, it allowed England to break the Chinese monopoly on tea by bringing tea plants to its colony, India, for cultivation.
Not all the works in the show have so many multilayered allusions embedded in them, but they’re rewarding nonetheless.
Qanat, Minoosh Zomorodinia’s mixed media sculptural installation, combines found metal scrap salvaged from San Francisco’s Recology (the solid waste recovery center) with video projection, the sound of trickling water, and ice, to evoke a desolate post-nature irrigation system in a “garden” made of discarded metal and electronic media. Qanat is the Persian name for “a gently sloping underground channel to transport water from an aquifer or water well to the surface for irrigation or drinking.” The piece suggests dark days ahead for our own water system in parched, drought-ridden California.
A series of arresting, lyrical black and white photographs by Chanell Stone portray Black people in urban American settings, amidst the remnants of the natural world that still exist around them: scraggly trees and shrubs, blighted back yards with foliage struggling to survive amidst rubble. For the artist, these images both dramatize the alienation from nature forced upon Black people by American racist history, while documenting her, and their, attempts to reconnect them with it. Despite their surface bleakness, these images are luminous, tender acts of reclamation.
Stacey Goodman uses drone videography as a paradoxical medium. It’s potentially insidious, a technology for total surveillance and control, further estranging us from nature and each other. Yet it can also reveal our human relationships to the natural world.
Goodman’s three drone-made videos—This Tree—Devotion, This Tree—Mastery, This Tree—Communion—follow the artist himself, from a great height (God’s eye view?), as he crawls on his belly toward a tree growing on a grassy hillside.
Goodman’s slow, agonizing treks are reminiscent of the punishing urban crawls performed by another Black American artist, William Pope L., but with a radically different intent. Pope L. lays his body on the line, dragging himself along on filthy city streets, to enact the enduring legacy of pain, subjugation and humiliation suffered by black bodies in our nation for over 400 years.
In contrast, Goodman falls on his knees to embrace the earth, with a living tree as his destination. His tests of endurance are a kind of Hadj or pilgrimage: a spiritual journey toward interconnectedness. Embodying a longing to merge with all earthly life, his actions are a form of worship, and of hope.
Alicia Escott’s Coastal Live Oak installation is the most literal work in the show. It’s a harvest of oak tree limbs and branches from the glade surrounding the gallery, festooned with inorganic detritus left behind, accidentally or deliberately, by human visitors. There are jewelry, hair ornaments, copper wire, even a cell phone, entangled in the branches. The piece fills a wall, decoratively, but doesn’t do much to stretch the imagination. Not mine, anyway.
In bringing these artists’ work to our attention, Experiments in the Field spurs viewers’ imaginations toward creative responses to the linked environmental and socioeconomic messes we’ve made of things. Go see it in person, if you can, before September 26.
If you can’t make an appointment, view the show online and check out the artist interviews.