In 1872, a ship named Mary Celeste was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, devoid of passengers but still somehow filled with untouched cargo and personal items — the greatest maritime mystery to date.
This iconic ship has become a metaphor for unexplained disappearances, for things in nature that occur outside the realm of human comprehension. In the current Artspace exhibit, “Marie Celeste” (the fictionalized version of the vessel), 11 artists explore this metaphor, questioning a relationship to a natural world that has become increasingly difficult to understand.
The exhibit is perhaps best exemplified by Stephen Bush’s oil painting, “Rhodamine Mabel Bungaara,” in which a beekeeper hunches over a scorched vermilion landscape. A cow sits dolefully in the foreground; red mountains stretch across the canvass behind it. The man himself is completely clothed and masked, suggesting a separation from his surroundings. Yet his relationship with nature is more complex than that: although his mask prevents him from truly interacting with the landscape, he is also reaching out to the ground, almost touching it, indicating a concurrent desire to engage with the earth.
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This paradox — of seeking to be part of nature while at once alienated from it — permeates the exhibit. One particularly powerful piece, Mayumi Nishida’s “Introduction to Water,” asks viewers to pour water into the ceramic vase that forms the center of the piece. The water activates strings of LED lights that hang overhead, creating the illusion of rain falling into the urn. Pouring water into the vase evokes an idealized past in which people gathered water from wells and were one with nature — before machines and other man-made distractions got in the way. But when the lights turn on, viewers also appreciate the symbiotic relationship between water and light, between nature and technology, between art and industry.
Despite this optimism, the exhibit is ambivalent about humankind’s future relationship with nature overall. A collection of pieces by Jessica Schwind and Joseph Smolinski portend a dangerous and desolate future: in one, a National Geographic magazine with the headline “Global Warning” is submerged in a white bucket and surrounded by lifeless butterfly cutouts. Another interactive installation, Nick Lamia’s “Cities for our Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids’ Kids,” lets viewers rearrange colored blocks on the floor to create a sprawling technicolor metropolis. This urban center is entirely man-made, all the way down to the floor on which it stands. These pieces add balance to the exhibit, leaving viewers feeling uneasy and uncertain about nature’s fate.
The show is least ambivalent in its vision for art. Art adapts to its surroundings; as society becomes more emphatically synthetic, so too does the art it produces. For example, Shari Mendelson has on display a sculpture of an elephant-like creature made from plastic and teabags, “Light Green Bottle” (a vase made from discarded and reused plastic) and “Silver Vessel,” a strange receptacle made from aluminum foil. Using these synthetic materials is a way for artists to adapt, to embrace the changing landscape of their world. And as artists adapt in this way, they reaffirm the need for art as we will always need commentary on our world, no matter its form.