Arts » Visual Arts

The Nature Of Things

Ambitious exhibit crosses cultures ... and campuses

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Are we part of nature or apart from nature? Mark Sloan and Brad Thomas wanted to know.

Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, and Thomas, director of Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College, hatched a plan to address this fundamental question of man's relationship to his natural environment.

The result is Force of Nature, a visual art exploration involving seven locations and 10 artists. Sloan and Thomas traveled to Japan, interviewed 30 artists, and invited 10 who came to America to visually articulate individual perspectives on our peculiar, adversarial and indispensable relationship to our natural world. The results are majestic, heartrending and, sometimes, inspirational.

The fruit of Sloan's and Thomas' quest is on view at the following locations: Halsey Institute at the College of Charleston (artist: Noriko Ambe); Davidson College (Takasumi Abe, Yamamoto Motoi, Yuri Shibata); Winthrop University Galleries (Rikuo Ueda, Yumiko Yamazaki); McColl Center for Visual Art (Aiko Miyanaga); College of Architecture at UNC-Charlotte (Ayako Aramaki, Akira Higashi); Clemson Architecture Center (Junko Ishiro).

Following is a glimpse of the work seen locally.

At The McColl Center For Visual Art:

"I cast naphthalene butterflies in daily basis for a few days, as if keeping diary of America."

Aiko Miyanaga's diary of her visit to America is cast in evaporating butterflies.

In her piece "Uncertainty of Warmth," eight Plexiglas display boxes are stacked vertically up the rungs of a steel ladder on a brick wall, one box on each rung. Eight white butterflies are pinned on black velvet inside the boxes. Each butterfly is the size of a child's hands joined at the heel with finger spread. The translucent waxy butterflies are made of naphthalene, the moth ball substance.

The butterflies are dated from youngest to oldest, bottom to top. Each shows progressive stages of deterioration; the butterfly perched at the top is the worst for wear. Her wings are crumbled on the edge, her lowest edges have fallen to the base of the case. Life is short for Naphthalene butterflies.

A string descends from a steel roof beam, down the stairwell cavity, to the tile floor 40 feet below. The string is encrusted with salt-like caramelized sugar on a strand of dental floss. The crunchy, irregular salt makes the strand appear fragile, as if blowing on the strand will break it.

The string bottoms out inside a glass flask on the first floor. The piece looks terribly tentative and aggressively short for this life -- salt may dissolve the string, the string will break, the salt will crumble or dissolve.

This piece is called "Ocean." The artist extracted the salt from evaporated seawater she collected on her visit to Charleston. Both "Ocean" and "Uncertainty of Warmth" are designed for a short life, and both illustrate the fragile, changeable quality of familiar substances.

At Davidson College:

Yuri Shibata is an artist who sees our world, and records her world, in the motes of dust we all leave in our wakes. In the central air space of one gallery at Davidson, a paper trail ascends from floor to ceiling. Each sheaf of paper steps to the next and all appear to float airborne, stock still and unsupported. The stepped paper trail ascends from floor level, dirt red crescent rubbed on the gallery wall.

Each floating page is rubbed with the dust gathered from locations visited during the travels in America. Dust from the Van Every Smith Gallery, from Shibata's studio, from a friend's gallery -- each a dusting from one day.

"I believe every particle of dust is a record of time and space ..." Shibata records her passage through time and travel on sheaves of paper etched with vapor particles invisible to us, her fellow travelers.

"Air" is a 10-foot circular sphere of canvas rising from the gallery floor. A torso is illuminated in the center of the inflated canvas dome. The canvas rises and falls like a rib cage pushed by a ventilator, the sound of inhale and exhale follows the slow rhythmic rise and fall of the shallow dome. The illuminated torso images change woman to man to child -- they are anonymous, headless, legless and hipless. The illuminated soft dome in the dark gallery feels like it could last forever or stop in the next five seconds, both fragile and forever.

Meanwhile, Takasumi Abe has his head in the clouds. He takes us with him.

The lights are off in the gallery. Four steel steps rise to a steel walkway which leads into the mouth of an illuminated translucent pod the size of a lunar module. The pod is constructed of tissue paper wrapped around a welded steel spherical armature. From this end of the walkway, the translucent sphere looks like an extraterrestrial visitation.

I walk the gang plank and sit on a steel bench in the center of the sphere. Seen from the inside, the skeletal grid of steel puckers through the white wallpaper like ribs pushing against alabaster skin.

Sounds waft from two speakers planted in the white skin of the pod, the secret sounds of clouds. This is what those puffy monuments floating overhead sound like from the inside -- sheets flapping in the wind, whoop of massive wings, the wash and thump of an ocean tide warped and dulled by wind and distance.

Sit here alone. It's mesmerizing.

Below the vaulted glass roof of the Belk Visual Art Center is a six-foot square black platform rising eight inches above the marble floor. On the surface of this black box is an ornate maze of miniature salt trails, finger thick dunes of salt laid out in careful paths leading to many dead ends and a few exits.

The maze is contained within a broken outer border of salt; the project is intentionally incomplete in one corner. "Labyrinth," by Yamamoto Motoi, is a carefully considered, precisely executed patterning of chaos; as if a seemingly sensible template of reason were laid over an inexplicable, incomprehensible void. It looks like a painstakingly crafted -- and abandoned -- effort to bring order to chaos.

A white translucent scroll rises 60 feet to the glass roof above the miniature salt dunes. Light comes through the translucent scroll to expose an opaque replication of the serpentine salt maze. The faint replica appears to be the ghost image of the earthbound salt, rising and Heaven-sent, as if this earthly coil, once lost, was still visible and still had a path. Motoi's design is intelligently crafted, strangely comforting and as plausible as any competing illustrations of ascendancy I've recently come across.

The works I have seen all deal in some measure with the fragile and ethereal quality of this life's short stage. Time is short, instantly changeable, and transitory -- in clouds, dust, breath, wax -- and is soon to be lost. Each artist, in some measure, reminds us we have not looked closely enough at our surrounding natural world. These surrounding elements are as intractably part of us as the air in our lungs, the salt underfoot and the clouds overhead.

These earth artists are guides assisting us as we witness a part of our natural world. For an observant moment, we stand still and apart from the stuff outside our skin, at the center of the natural carousel. Following this moment, we will step back into the vortex on our own, move to the spinning edge, and eventually, inevitably, naturally fall off. With grace and sensitivity and a little wonder, these artists help make that walk more reasonable.

An excellent Web site -- www.halsey.cofc.edu/fon.html -- chronicles the adventures of the artists' visit to America, and will introduce you to the artworks they left behind. Our natural world weaves through all their work, and is the thread which bonds this work, and bonds us to them.

The exhibit Force of Nature will run through Dec. 6 at several Carolina universities, including UNC-Charlotte and Davidson College. For more info, call 704-894-2000 or go to www.halsey.cofc.edu/fon.html.

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