Space gallery's eco-art exhibit takes on sublime, sacred issues
“The Mountain and the Bumblebee,” at Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Space gallery, Downtown, is a different kind of ecological-art exhibit, chiefly because it includes poetry.
Featuring the work of 10 visual artists and four poets, the exhibit not only presents notions of landscape in real terms but also looks at man's impact on it.
“I realized early in my research for ‘The Mountain and the Bumblebee' that language and literature, in addition to visual art, have played an equally important role in shaping our understanding of and relationship with the natural world,” says exhibit organizer Chris McGinnis.
To that end, McGinnis, an artist himself, created the largest installation piece in the exhibit, “Sacer.” The work incorporates text from the Todd Davis' poem “Coal,” which McGinnis has scraped onto one wall with crushed bituminous coal and charcoal.
The adjective “sacer,” in its original Latin, was defined as something sacred, holy or consecrated. This same word eventually found quite a different meaning in post-Augustan prose when it was understood to describe the accursed, horrible or detestable.
“The wall drawing finds meaning within this paradox and embodies the same contradictions that motivate ‘The Mountain and the Bumblebee' exhibition as a whole,” McGinnis says. “We consume the mountain as we read the text. We are, at once, stewards and exploiters of the natural world.”
Davis says he wrote “Coal” as a way of speaking back to the ways we live.
“And I do mean ‘we,' ” Davis says. “It is nearly impossible to divorce oneself from the extraction culture of the 21st century. As humans, we cannot help but leave an imprint upon the world, but I'm afraid we are encouraged to not think about this imprint, to simply move along as if our current patterns of living could continue forever, an economy based upon endless consumption, endless consumerism.”
Because Davis lives in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, near the Blair County villages of Bellwood and Tipton, he is surrounded by the remnants of pulling coal from the earth — both deep-tunnel and strip mining.
“During any given year, about 50 percent of the electricity we use here in Pennsylvania is produced by coal,” Davis says. “I am plagued by the fact that, at present, entire mountains are being destroyed in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky in mountaintop-removal methods of coal extraction. These mountains can never be remade, and it's my personal belief that the Earth is sacred. Such acts are acts of desecration, and in that desecration, not only is the natural, nonhuman world destroyed, but often human lives are irreparably scarred or ended.”
McGinnis took the text of Davis' poem and created a visual and physical representation that reminds us of the cost of our actions.
“His use of crushed bituminous coal and charcoal scraped into drywall brings the physical world, the world that sustains us and that we so often abuse, into the viewer's presence,” Davis says.
Not far away, a video displays mountain scenery. Put on one of the accompanying headsets, and you will hear a treatise on the sublime in “A Brief Inquiry,” a four-channel video loop by Josh Reiman.
Reiman contends “sublime” is a word that is often overused and misunderstood.
“It is a feeling of both pleasure and pain in one awe-inspiring moment,” he says. “It's an uncharted region, both physically and mentally, that may be hard to explain and feel unless actually faced with that moment itself. ... With this, we have always been fascinated by the challenge of the unknown and with exploring the world we live in and beyond.”
While little of this Earth remains unknown, Reiman's fascination with the sublime led him to make a film that speaks to the many theories surrounding the sublime, while making critical commentary of the word's overuse in everyday expression.
“I created an explorer looking for the sublime,” he says, in regard to the character narrating his film in first person. “This exploration is a quest of character, and (shows) the failure and hardships incurred. Imagine a person so driven to find this moment, one that is so personal and subjective, that he walks right by the experience of what we think is sublime, over and over again, never to find it.”
Also addressing the sublime are the paintings of Erika Osborne, whose work is influenced by Hudson River School painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Their work focused on the sublime in landscape.
“The irony, though, is that these artists were coming up during the height of Manifest Destiny,” Osborne says. “They were often funded by the railroad companies or the U.S. government, and their work was used as a sort of Western propaganda — to bring a boom of growth, industry, tourism and indigenous displacement to the West.”
Osborne contends these things have dramatically changed the Western landscape, and the new sublime is something quite different than what Moran or Bierstadt saw.
“Yet, we still tend to look at the West through their eyes — ignoring the landscapes of mining, the military-industrial complex, mass tourism and the like,” Osborne says.
Works like “Storm Over Artillery Sheds” address an aspect of all this.
The remaining pieces on display address similar notions, each in their own way, with poems by Patrick Bizarro, Robin Clarke and Wesley Dunning adding further narrative to an already dense exhibit — one that will take time to wade through but is well worth it.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.