The opening of the museum’s new facility in April 2006 coincides with the sesquicentennial of Madison’s municipal charter. The intersection of these two events is the inspiration for the museum’s major opening exhibition. Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison invites seven artists to explore the layers of history, memory, and culture that have shaped the city of Madison and Dane County.
Major sponsors for Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison are the Madison Community Foundation; the Webcrafters-Frautschi Foundation; the Madison Cultural Arts District; the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation; the Miller Brewing Company; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Endres Manufacturing Company Foundation and the Overture Foundation; Associated Bank; Alliant Energy; AT&T; Chamberlain Research Consultants; the Madison Arts Commission; and the Terry Family Foundation. Additional support for Between the Lakes has been provided by Madison Trust of the Brittingham Fund; the Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Please stop by the lobby to check out a free auidioguide tour of the exhibit. ArtPacks developed by the Education Department are available on weekends.
For Between the Lakes, Armajani has created a sculptural installation exploring the tenets of Emerson’s teachings regarding nature, man, and life, and the work of art. Although Armajani was born and raised in Iran, he was introduced at a young age to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other American proponents of democracy and populism. During his research for this exhibition, Armajani discovered that Emerson traveled to Wisconsin in 1860 and addressed the state legislature on February 23rd; this singular event, recorded in a letter Emerson wrote to his daughter Ellen, became a point of departure for the artist. Mixing Emerson’s ideas and the legacy of his ideas, Armajani visualizes for us the influence of Emersonian ideals in the progressive land of Wisconsin.
Entitled Emerson’s Parlor, the work consists of three glass spaces and several symbolic objects, including a wooden coffin, a table, two bare bed frames, a white house with a black roof, a scarecrow, and a diamond-shaped mirror. Both the coffin and the white house relate to a seminal time in Emerson’s life when his first wife, Ellen Tucker, died of tuberculosis. Grief stricken, Emerson was said to have opened her coffin and witnessed the corpse himself. The white house relates to Old Manse, where Emerson lived when Ellen died, and to the house Victor Hugo occupied during his exile from France. In addition, the diamond-shaped mirror embedded in the wall of the structure underscores Emerson’s belief in self-evaluation and exploration. Loss, exile, self-reflection, and transparency demonstrate Armajani’s interest in bringing Emerson’s ideas to physical form.
For Matthew Buckingham, the history of Madison does not begin in 1836, when it was declared the state capital, or in 1856, when it was chartered as a city. Buckingham’s film installation, entitled Behind the Terminal Moraine, explores the dramatic retreat of the grand glacier that left behind deposits of minerals, soil, and water that characterize the landscape of this city. The 16mm film shows us images of the narrow isthmus and the lakes suspended in the snowy freeze of winter. Interspersed are the voices of three children, all from the third grade, when state curriculum mandates units on the history of Wisconsin or Madison. The children tell tales of how they have learned about the recent and distant past of this area–how it was once known as Taychopera, or the land of four lakes, and is now known as Madison, after the American president James Madison who had no direct connection to the city.
In Buckingham’s installations, he often works with the traditional narrative of an area, such as the Hudson River Valley or rural New Hampshire, and recreates it as one way to uncover necessary facts about the past but also the apparatus that hones and structures history.
Wisconsin artist Truman Lowe has long been influenced by his surroundings. Growing up in the Ho-Chunk community of Black River Falls, Lowe was raised with the undulating rhythms and rewarding landscape of the Wisconsin River. Lowe’s artwork--utilizing wood, feathers, and reeds, among other materials-- references the landscape and its impact on the artist. When Lowe decided to work with Navajo and Oneida Ethnobotanist Donna House for Between the Lakes, the two individuals knew from the beginning that their collaboration would address the loss of life and culture that marks the history of this landscape and the rest of the country.
In their collaborative installation, a tree stands as the central element. At once referencing the past and leaning towards the future, the tree is a pillar in the gallery representing steadfastness and perseverance. The willowy leaves of tree, made from vellum but reminiscent of ribbon appliqué, are ghostlike and based on the handiwork of Lowe’s mother. Two baskets, representing the past and the present, demonstrate both Ho-Chunk and Oneida craftsmanship. Each one contains various elements relating to the life of today and the life forever lost to us. Rice, tubers, cranberries, corn, and the paper of songs show the past we can only barely access, and the second shows us various examples of metal and plastic objects that structure our lives from mobile phones and coca-cola bottles to toy cars and GPS units. The elegiac elements of the installation make us think about the loss of life and experience that underlies the existence of our own culture.
Taiwanese-born artist Lee Mingwei challenges traditional notions of a work of art. Instead of making objects that occupy a given space in a gallery, Lee’s works are collaborations with people, places, and institutions around the world. From his interaction with individuals, certain visual and physical themes develop as metonymic devices, standing in for the entire process of the work.
For Between the Lakes, Lee decided to orchestrate the ancient Chinese ritual of the Zhua-Zhou. For a Zhua-Zhou, relatives and friends of a one-year-old baby bring gifts to a party. The gifts could be pens, pencils, books, or mobile telephones, or any number of other objects. The child is placed on the floor among the items. If the child gravitates towards one object over another, it is an indication of what he/she might become in the future. The event as a whole begs the question: what role this child will have in this community. For this project, Lee poses the question: what role will the new and improved Madison Museum of Contemporary Art have in our city?
Lee encouraged anyone involved with the project, with the building, with the past and future of the museum, to think about and then comment on this question. The responses have been thought-provoking, generous, loving, and numerous. Certain objects given, such as money balls or elephant piggy banks, convey our need for increased funding. Other gifts such as a Genesis patch or a cookbook with artfully folded pages express our ability to bring creativity and innovation to Madison. In the end, Lee made it clear that art might begin with the artist, but it always includes us.
When Wisconsin artist Truman Lowe decided to work with ethnobotanist Donna House for Between the Lakes, the two individuals knew from the beginning that their collaboration would address the loss of people and culture that pervades this area. Like other projects in the exhibition, this installation uses a sense of history that deliberately extends beyond the last 150 years to include the thousands of years of Native settlement and culture that so prospered in this area.
In their collaborative installation, a tree stands as the central element. At once referencing the natural and the constructed, the tree is a pillar representing steadfastness and perseverance. The willowy leaves, made from vellum but reminiscent of ribbon appliqué, are ghostlike and based on the handiwork of Lowe’s mother. Two baskets, representing the past and the present, demonstrate both Ho-Chunk and Oneida craftsmanship and relate to the tribal affiliations of the two artists. Lowe was born and raised in the Ho-Chunk community of Black River Falls; Donna House is Navajo on her mother’s side and part Oneida on her father’s. Each basket contains various elements relating to the life of today and the life forever lost to us. Rice, tubers, cranberries, corn, and the paper of songs in one of the baskets show the past we can barely access. The second basket shows us various metal and plastic objects that structure our lives, from mobile phones and Coca-Cola bottles to toy cars and global positioning devices. Two video projectors installed in the gallery show changing images of Ho-Chunk settlements no longer in existence as well images of Italian immigrants that settled Genoa, Wisconsin. The elegiac nature of the installation makes us think about the exploitation and destruction that underlies contemporary civilization.
For Between the Lakes, Madison artist Nancy Mladenoff has created five paintings addressing the constantly changing dynamic between species—flora and fauna—in our midst. Mladenoff’s first painting of the series, called Vortex, includes images of wine glasses, sparrows, creeping snowberry, wild indigo, and cockroaches. Reading about the history of Madison and thinking about her surroundings, Mladenoff became interested in the species that have existed here for thousands of years and in the species that were introduced, sometimes to harmful effects. The European Sparrow is one such bird. First brought to the new world by Europeans who longed for remnants of their former life, this “street bird” as it came to be known, was introduced to Madison in 1877. Its aggressiveness and penchant for eating voraciously soon meant that it had driven away many of the other species that live in the city.
Another painting in the series, called Undertow, depicts elongated renderings of docks, birds, butterflies, bugs, and algae. Algae is one of the most important environmental issues affecting the lakes today. Mladenoff chose to juxtapose three kinds of algae, namely swift-waterpond weed, curly-leaf pondweed, and the toxic blue-green algae. By mixing the good, the benign, and the harmful, Mladenoff asks us to analyze the dynamic of life forms around us.
Like Siah Armajani and Matthew Buckingham, Alec Soth is interested in the legacy of liberalism in Madison. Specifically, Soth explored the life and people of one of Madison’s 23 housing cooperatives in the city. Structured to share costs and resources, and to provide a collegial forum for social and political activities, these housing units are a living vestige of the radical thinking of the 1960s.
For his photographs, Soth focused on the Lothlorien cooperative which occupies a Tudor-style house on the southern shore of Lake Mendota. Soth’s photographs, taken with a
8 x 10 format camera, often take a long time to capture. The subjects are required to sit or stand in front of the camera for long periods of time while the artist makes endless adjustments. Consequently, the individuals, seem to be more comfortable and more at ease than in other large-scale photographs. The individuals from this project, such as Stephen, Anna, and Glyphia, seem to want to share their lives, beliefs, and intimate moments with us–a rare opportunity even in art.
Not all of the photographs are of people. Four of the images focus on the lush passageway from the house to Lake Mendota. Because of the importance of this glacial lake to the city of Madison, Soth’s photographs are lush and sensual reminders of our responsibility to care for and nurture the lakes and their environmental health.