The Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada, August 26, 2017—January 21, 2018; Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska, April 6, 2018—September 9, 2018; Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, California, October 27, 2018—February 18, 2019
In October of 2017, the Nevada Museum of Art hosted their triennial Art + Environment conference and opened the exhibition Unsettled in Reno, Nevada. The conference boasted Center for A + E director William L. Fox, senior curator Ann M. Wolfe, curatorial director JoAnne Northrup as well as artists and museum officials from the Americas and Australia. Part institutional history and part speculative future, the conference and Unsettled redefines what we think of as the West. Imagining this is most possible by reimagining the globe’s orientation.
They extend the concept of the West to include international coastal regions surrounding the Pacific Basin. From Alaska to Patagonia, from Papua New Guinea to Australia, the edges of the Pacific Plate are sites of overwhelming upheaval. Unsettled frames disrupting motifs–cultural collision, nuclear anxiety, performing the earth, and mapping the invisible–under a new geography called The Greater West. The Greater West is a shared frontier where these scattered regions face each other across the tumultuous Pacific Ocean and Basin.
The gallery space is a microcosm for geological and -political tensions, expanded conceptually. Chocolate Room (1970–2004), by U.S. artist Ed Ruscha, comprises over three hundred panels of chocolate silkscreen and occupies an entire room. This work defamiliarizes the Hershey brand, which has a contentious and genocidal history in Central America. On a wall outside the galleries downstairs, Which Way Does the Arrow Point (2017), by Colombian multimedia artist Minerva Cuevas, observes and flips the visual rhetoric of advertising through parody. The cultural icon Smokey the Bear, who relayed the dangers of forest fires through public service announcements in the 1990s, breaks an arrow in half, and the end of the arrow is the Chevron petroleum logo. The two icons parody the relationship between petrol-imperialism in the Nevadan forest systems and its impact on neighboring First Nations communities. Bolivian installation artist Sonia Falcone’s Field of Color (2013) consists of eighty-eight clay bowls filled with spices, centering the hostile history of the spice trade within the space. This constellation of works within Unsettled is the sharpest in terms of considering material histories.
Performance photographs by Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo show the artist buried up to her neck in pine timber sawdust, the shaved remnants of an exploited natural resource in her home country. This abused conducted by the state and reinforced by the global economy parallels human rights violations as well as the imperial, industrial infrastructures that incite violence toward indigenous Mayans, especially women. Her works resonates with Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series, shown as well, whose voids left in the ground, dusted with red powder, also tempt readings of environmental and corporeal violence. Ana Teresa Fernández’s performance of Erasing the Border (Borrando la Frontera) (2012) depicts her painting the border wall between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. Using Martha Stewart brand of sky blue paint, Fernández blurs the boundary among the nations, the border wall, and the sky.
Galindo, Mendieta, and Fernández tempt readings of environmental and corporeal violence.
The state of Nevada occupies, so to speak, a unique position. In her conference address, Ann M. Wolfe asks, Why here? Why now? By way of an answer, she describes geological, geographical, and historical conditions of the region. One reason could be that the region is home to the oldest petroglyphs, 14,800-years-old at the Winnemucca Dry Lake one-hour outside of Reno; another, that the White Mountains that run along the edge of the Great Basin boasts some of the oldest trees in North America, the bristlecone pines, that are about 4,800-years-old; or another, that the state was a site for gold and silver extraction in the nineteenth century, subjected to the “Boom and Bust” phenomenon documented by Carleton Watkins in their collection. Like the regions within the Greater West itself that homed hominid nomads tens or even hundreds of millennia after Homo neanderthalensis, Nevada is also one of the last places to be settled by United States colonists. It gained statehood in 1864, and it was the final area of land explored and defined by the Clarence King’s United States Geological Survey, photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan. It is one of the last states connected by the transcontinental railroad that passed through Reno, built by Cantonese laborers. It was also a first: The United States first water reclamation project, the Derby Dam (1904-05), diverted water flow from Winnemucca and Pyramid Lake, and yielded increased population sprawl. And Nevada is home to Northern Paiute, Washoe, Western Shoshone, and Southern Paiute American Indian peoples and land, the state’s first nations.
Indeed,Why Here? and Why now? New York artist Frohawk Two Feathers’ 2012 Map of the Pyramid Lake Region extends his mapped mythologies through the fictional kingdoms of Lemuria. As in other works, he imagines long, speculative, regional histories wherein seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England combine to form a colonial superpower. To this end, he uses early modern cartographic methods, sometimes replete with mythological imagery.
For early cosmonauts, space travel would enable the reconstitution of their loved ones as well as procure new planets upon which they would live out all of their days.
Perhaps given its incredibly negligent and fallacious status as terra nullius, “nobody’s land,” Nevada is grounds for prisons, military bases, corporate industrial parks, and soon a Google data center. The region has been grounds for 928 known nuclear tests conducted by the United States Department of Energy from 1951 to 1992. Indeed, 100 above-ground tests and 800 subterranean detonations occurred during this time, the latter resulting in subsidence craters that pockmark the landscape. Nuclear anxiety and themes of destruction resonate through the exhibition and join with the unsettled motif. Patrick Nagatani imagines altered landscapes in Uranium Tailings, Anaconda Minerals Corporation, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico (1990). His collages mark imagined geographies in the arid and semi-arid southwestern region, formerly (but in the not-too-distant past) subject to violent nuclear testing. In particular, his photographs of World War II–era Japanese internment camps mark largely forgotten sites of humanitarian duress in his collages.
One of the more ambitious works in the exhibition is Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, which piggybacked off of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in November 2018. The first known sculpture in space, Orbital Reflector reflects the sun’s light back to earth from a distance of about 350 miles (575 kilometers). Commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art and fundraised through Kickstarter, the sculpture is the first non-commercial, non-scientific, civilian satellite launched in history.
Without a doubt, Orbital Reflector is indeed an object of technical and cosmic history-making, but its historical roots grow from our relationship to the Earth. In his address to the conference, Paglen recalls nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Christian Nikolai Fyodorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task that endeavored for human immortality and resurrection through space travel in the spirit of collecting the scattered, evaporated particles of every deceased person. For early cosmonauts, space travel would enable the bodily reconstitution of their loved ones as well as procure new planets upon which they would live out all of their days. The spirit of their Transcendental Communism spurred avant-garde Ukrainian abstractionist Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915), which, Paglen provokes, is photorealist documentation of the process of that immortalizing reconstitution. Even from Archimedes’ vantage, cosmic-minded labors imagine and construct different presents and futures.
Located at the westernmost edge of the largest desert in North America and near the edge of the North American tectonic plate, Reno and the Nevada Museum of Art act as a metonym, or according to William L Fox, a “rhetorical transect,” for the planetary and cultural operations shared by the Greater West.
Unsettled is what the Greater West looks like. As JoAnne Northrup says in her conference address, the Greater West is not a concept that is institutionally or governmentally driven. The Greater West is geographically driven, and I would add, geologically driven. Looking at a map of Pangaea, Northrup notes, we notice that the regions within the Greater West are fragmented around the edges. The earth’s late-Paleozoic residents, looking out from these edges, would be encircled by an unbroken Pacific Ocean, the most dynamic and upheaval-prone regions of all time. Unsettled is an image of what this perspective from the edge offers.
This reviewer’s conference and exhibition attendance was made possible through the Dean’s Academic Year Travel Grant from the University of Pittsburgh. Many thanks to NMA archivist Sara Frantz and History of Art and Architecture administrator Linda Hicks for their help in coordinating the trip and to Marina Tyquiengco for her curious company.
Parts of this review were first published in the Race-ing the Museum issue of our graduate student journal Contemporaneity, edited by Tyquiengco.