Through the Labyrinth

Frank Juárez

Curating an exhibition takes months of planning. But do we ever wonder how ideas are born? What inspires one to develop a concept that can be interpreted in multiple ways and yet deliver a strong message? How does the journey begin? 

I sat down with artist & curator, Lelia Byron, virtually to discuss the current exhibition, The Shape of the Environment, for which she is the curator. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, we dove right in. 

Byron is both an artist and curator. When people attend an exhibition, they are introduced to a variety of media, processes, and ideas. Some works being aesthetically beautiful whereas some provoking thought and perhaps self-reflection as consumers. We are used to having these types of experiences in-person, but how often do we think about how long it takes to make an idea become a reality? I was curious as to when this exhibition was conceptualized. She said it started about a year ago. Within that year, time was spent looking for artists, talking to artists about their work, working to connect artists with each other, creating an exhibition layout, putting together an exhibition zine, and developing programming to engage with visitors. This, of course, was executed in tandem with her own full-time artistic practice.

Byron explained that part of her practice as a curator is to bring together artists with diverse backgrounds and ways of making art to help foster conversations: between artworks and visitors, between the different artworks, and between the artists themselves. She feels that artists can be curators by creating platforms and bridges to address topical or thematic issues that exist within the art world or in this case something that we all live – the ever changing environment. Artists in the exhibition such as Fábio Erdos, Patrizia Ferreira, Hong Huo, Hattie Lee, Lianne Milton, Richie Morales, Beth Racette, Nirmal Raja, Sparker, Roberto Torres Mata, Maria Amalia Wood, Derick Wycherly, and Rina Yoon explore a wide variety of topics related to the environment including the impact of climate change on migration,the centenarian Ombú tree, resourcefulness in Native histories, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, conversing with burned tree remains, Antarctic’s deep sea, fire and water as a complementary pair, gift-giving as an Indigenous technology, and systems of the Earth.

“My own interest in environmental art really took off when I was a graduate student at the University of the Arts of London. Inspired by the large quantities of interesting materials that were sent to the dumpster after usage, with a few other classmates, we started collecting different waste materials and creating elaborate pop-up installations in unusual places such as an empty store in a shopping mall. From there, I started working on larger projects related to environmental topics, such as turning DIY-recycled plastic bottle caps into a public sculpture in a rural area, creating a 60ft. outdoor freestanding textile sculpture made from plastic waste, or a series of narrative paintings that talked about women coffee farmers and their usage of sustainable agricultural practices.”

When asked on how the idea came to curating an exhibition focused on the environment, Byron said, “Environment is a current topic that we all face across the globe. Art can talk about complex topics and present them in ways that are compelling and innovative.” Followed by if the artists have parameters or did, they have full reign when creating or selecting works for this exhibition. Byron said, “There were no limitations for selecting work. I wanted artists to be able to develop and share whatever ambitious project they had in mind.” To me, having a sense of trust in the artists that are invited says something about the curator’s practice. 

This Fall promises to be a busy art season. With this comes limited time to do any type of traveling so the alternative was to reach out to a few artists via email and ask them to respond to a series of questions regarding their work on exhibit at Arts + Literature Laboratory. 

Richie Morales | A Genealogy of Violence

A Genealogy of Violence on left. Image courtesy of Lelia Byron.

The inspiration for A Genealogy of Violence comes from the enormous contamination the weapon industry does, in the name of profits, it seems like the new god is the money.

What beings are we gestating from the practice of anthropophagy? A wrathful gaze, a raised voice, fingers pulling the trigger twice, three times a week, as many times as needed to save us from the “enemy”.

We have prefigured and configured a perfect system to gestate violence with such cynicism that no legality questions it, with our anthropophagic conduct we have become the soldiers that can’t be welded, the debts that can’t be paid off, living in an era in red, an era designed to emit vibrations at a planetary scale in the pulses of every dead, nascent and killer subject.

We are accomplices and witnesses of the war machinery that fragments families and mutilates childhoods in the diverse corners of this planet where the raw materials to produce armament are obtained. Weapons that carry at their core the genealogy of violence as contained in the gazes, sweat, the accelerated breathing on the ripped and foul bodies. 

The armament industry is the most destructive human activity for Nature.  During their production as well as when firing a weapon, including hunting firearms, materials such as lead, copper, zinc, antimony, and even mercury are released, all capable of infiltrating into soil and water. Ammunition comes covered in one-time use plastic that usually ends up in the ocean. Our mountains are constantly violated by the voracious exploitation that feeds the brutal production of the weapons that kill us. Rivers, seas and lakes are poisoned everyday by the maddening greed of the thirst for war.

The armies of the world produce between 5% and 6% of the global CO2 emissions, even during their periods out of combat. 

Death settles on the violated bodies and territories much after the attacks have ceased, transforming their human, animal, land and sociocultural victims forever. 

In a world were triggered firearms, a nuclear bomb, a bilateral agreement, a decision cutting through the neuronal channels to position death as the focus of action, sense of existence and realization, How much do we really value life?.

*Text written by Claudia Vaca and geryscopio in dialogue with Richie Morales.

Nirmal Raja | Cloud Palace

Cloud Palace
2014
Site specific installation
light sensitive dye on cotton organdy, screen prints, reflective mylar floor
Image courtesy of Lelia Byron

Clouds have long invited and provoked our imagination worldwide. Much like the inkblot test, the associations and narratives we come up with as we gaze up to the sky can be reflective of our subconscious. Clouds have a very special significance in India. They are much anticipated as the carriers of the monsoon season after a long, dry summer. They bring hope and new growth to dry arid regions of India. Gathering dark clouds become metaphors for impending doom and parting clouds become metaphors for hope in mythological stories. 

The inspiration for Cloud Palace is an epic poem titled Meghdootam or “cloud messenger” written by a 4th-century Indian poet- Kalidasa. I read a translation of this work in 2013 and was struck by its beauty even in translation and separation in time. Originally written in Sanskrit, Meghdooam is a love poem. The protagonist, a Yaksha or magical being is cursed by his master Kubera, the god of wealth. He is separated from his wife and asks a cloud to take his message of longing to her.  It is a beautiful and sensual work but also an incredibly rich love letter to nature and place. The poet maps out a route for the cloud to take, giving directions on where to rest, what to observe and places to avoid on its way to deliver this love letter to his wife. In doing so, the poet draws attention to our deep and intimate connection to nature. This epic poem is considered one of the major masterpieces in Sanskrit literature and it is packed with myth, longing, and romance. I was inspired to create a work where the viewer experiences a sense of weightlessness and levitation but one that also provokes a sense of romantic imagination. Nature became my collaborator as the work is made with light-sensitive dye. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from a translation of Meghadootam by Mani Rao[1]:

23.

For my darling’s sake
For my happiness’ sake

You’ll want to go fast, but I imagine

You’ll linger on this hill and that
Fragrant with Kakubha flowers

Welcomed by peacocks
with moist white-edged eyes

I hope you’ll get up, somehow,
and try to go quick

24.

At your arrival in the Ten Citadels
where geese have stayed a few days

A commotion

Shrub fringes a lighter shade
with new Ketaka flower spikes

In village squares
Birds starting to nest clamor
for leftover home-ritual offerings

Edges of the forest a ripe rose-apple purple

I am still connected to the land that produced a masterpiece such as Meghadootam– India. But each visit home, I see unsettling changes in the urban landscape. The cities are filled with traffic, noise, and pollution that seem to increase at unprecedented speed. It is hard for me to reconcile the current landscape with one that is celebrated in Meghadootam. Air pollution is especially high in the cities. In the city of Chennai, where my mother lives, the average air quality index is 117. In New Delhi, it is over 200. In contrast, Madison averages around 40. During my last visit to Chennai, I decided to make a series of works with the dust that collected on my mother’s balcony. I cut out the word “breath” in several major languages in India using adhesive tissue on paper and set them out on the balcony for 4-5 days. The once invisible adhesive tissue darkened as the dust gathered and stuck, making the word visible. The fine particulate matter generated by the cars, trucks, motorcycles, and scooters is what people in Chennai breathe day in and day out causing all kinds of respiratory problems, especially in little children. We all have a right to breathe clean air but this right is fast fading in the very country that celebrated its natural beauty in a poem such as Meghadootam.

1.     http://poetry.sangamhouse.org/2014/08/meghadutam-by-kalidasa-translated-by-mani-rao/

Sparker | Cavernous

Cavernous
2022
Wood, metal, plastic, paper, fencing, rope, paint, light, donated mixed materials
Approx. 14’W x 18’D x 10’H
Image courtesy of Lelia Byron.

Frank Juárez – What inspired Cavernous?

Sparker – I had the idea of a cave in the margins of my thoughts since around 2019, at the start of the pandemic. When I came across the word cavernous one day while skimming an article, I initially misread it as coronavirus. I was struck by how similar the words were in both sound and shape when written, and that the brain would so easily misplace one for the other was a fascinating idea to me. It was an experience I wanted to potentially replicate in my work. So in this case, the title came way before the piece existed, but I knew I wanted to reflect the visual and experiential qualities of a cave whenever I made it. When Lelia Byron approached me with the floor plan at ALL, I felt that would be the perfect space to execute my idea. Through the process of creating my installation, I was exploring the idea of a cave on a physical level. For 32 hours over 2 days, I was intensely studying the movement and undulation of cave walls and replicating them in the artwork, using my hands and body to hold, pull, lift, and place materials with the intent to create a sense of being within the belly of an otherworldly structure. It was an act of mindfulness and though most of the concept for the work was already thought out, the visual aspects for this piece were almost entirely improvised. I brought very little material with me to Madison and the majority was donated by members of the community from an open call on social media. I did not see any of the materials that were donated until I arrived on site for install.

FJ – What does this installation reveal about the world we live in?

S – Walking through the piece, it reveals artifacts of the new millennium- broken electronics, batteries, sound equipment, cords plugged into nothing. A variety of objects from TVs to phones and internet accessories can be found within the lower portion of the installation, near waves of black paper jutting out from the wall.  Moving toward the ceiling, construction cones and plumbing pipes gradually form a tree-like shape and bend over the viewer, with some limbs covered in electrical tape and others in their natural state. This visual zeitgeist of the 90’s and 00’s is held in place by a spiderweb of taut rope and construction fencing, forming a rib-like understructure that is lined by an explosion of neon lights. My hope is that viewers will be drawn in to explore the details of Cavernous and experience a sense of nostalgia when noticing the embedded objects. The removal of objects from their original, utilitarian purpose to be used for the sake of art I think is an act of enshrinement. It heightens their importance and freezes them in the past, as relics of history. This is an interesting idea within the current context of rapidly-developing technology, a climate in which tech materials quickly become obsolete as they are replaced by versions that are “new and improved”.

FJ – What takeaways are you hoping viewers leave with?

S – In addition to adults experiencing a sense of nostalgia, I hope that younger viewers walk away with a sense of wonder. I am interested in capturing a feeling of absurdity or otherworldliness through my artwork. This happens through the suspended movement and the use of everyday objects to form a visually rich environment. It is a little bit like Goodwill meets Alice in Wonderland. The subject matter is offered in a way that is not forced, but magnetic, like flies drawn to light. People get closer and can finally see what is happening in there, and I leave it up to the audience to decide whether to laugh or take the subject matter seriously. I think the point more is to provoke some kind of thought or feeling in the first place.

FJ – Anything else you’d like to share?

S  Cavernous was made possible through direct material donations from locals in Madison for whom I would like to express my sincerest gratitude. It was a challenge and a pleasure to walk into the gallery and be surprised by what was waiting there. A few years ago, I realized just how important improvisation is to my creative work, so I have been trying to allow that aspect of my practice to flourish, which calls for letting go of control. In this case I was loosening up my approach more than ever before with blind material donations. Looking back, this was a positive experience for me in terms of learning to trust myself even more and realizing that it is healthy and beneficial to get the community involved with the artwork in some way.

The Shape of the Environment opened on August 23, 2022, at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, 111 S Livingston St Suite 100, Madison, WI 53703 with a great turn out. There is still plenty of time to see this exhibition and when asked if there were upcoming events Byron said, “of course.”

Upcoming Free Public Events

  • Saturday, October 1, 7-9 pm | Film Screening: Thirst for Justice and 65 
  • Saturday, October 8, 2-4 pm | Adult Papermaking Workshop 
  • Sunday, October 16, 2-4 pm | Discussion Event with Artists and Scientists 
  • Thursday, October 20, 6-8:15 pm |Teen Activism and Climate Change Workshop 
  • Friday, November 4, 5-9 pm | Performance Night and Closing Reception 

Visit https://artlitlab.org/events/the-shape-of-the-environment for detailed information. 

View artists’ works:

If you go:

Shape of the Environment. Curated by Lelia Byron.

Now on view. Ends November 4, 2022. 

Arts + Literature Laboratory

111. S. Livingston St. Suite 100, Madison, Wisconsin 53703 

608.556.7415

https://artlitlab.org


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