Le Museé du Grand Dehors: Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg's Collaborative Installation

Le Museé du Grand Dehors (The Museum of the Great Outdoors) reveals “deep histories and futures,” according to Chicago-based visual artists Sara Black (at VCCA on a 3Arts fellowship.) and Amber Ginsburg. The title pays homage to French speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux who advocates a non-human centric view of the universe “We want the title of our piece to point to this greater understanding of reality beyond human experience,” says Sara.

Sara and Amber are working with 8550 Ohio, an artists residency program located on a tree farm near Athens, Ohio. At 8550, some artists in residence produce site-specific work that is installed on the property. 8550 is off the beaten path, but Amber and Sara envision their Museé du Grand Dehors as a kind of a roadside attraction.

“We started by thinking about the particular site at 8550 Ohio because it has a very rich ecosystem,” says Sara. "The tree farm is adjacent to a large tract of protected forest. We're interested in the juxtaposition of agricultural and non-agricultural land. This points to the contrasting perceptions we have regarding what we call 'nature'. We either co-exist with it, or it is here for our use."

Le Museé du Grand Dehors will consist of a 10’ x 10’ x 10’ triangular structure positioned on top of a wooden tower 50 feet in the air, just above the tree line. The elevation is a metaphor for how humans view our non-human context. In 19th century landscapes, the artist is often depicted on high looking down on "nature". To enter the museum, you climb a staircase attached to the tower. The interior room has a ceiling that slopes downward toward two windows overlooking the treetops. This room houses objects made from, and is itself constructed from, a single harvested tree. The tower and museum will be placed directly above the tree’s stump. Altogether the structure and its contents comprise three generations/levels of craft, each requiring a different amount of time to realize depending on the technology required to produce the craft.

Amber and Sara consider the construction of the structure to be the most basic of the crafts. The next level up is furniture. Because of the location, they are considering looking to the Amish tradition of furniture making, which had ties to Ohio. “Whatever we decide, we will learn that tradition,” says Amber. “It’s very important to us to fully engage in the process in order to take up this question of the tree and its museum and its situation in all forms.” As makers, the act of making is really important; in fact, it is the content of the work.

The final, highest (and most unusual) craft is transforming the tree into a diamond. To accomplish this, the remaining material from the tree is burned to about 8 oz. of ash and is then sent to a laboratory where it is “grown”. The process takes around seven months to complete. In the end, you get a stone that is chemically identical to a mined diamond.

The diamond is not just attention-grabbing, it also speaks to the whole notion of deep time by turning something rather fragile, that may have a 200-year life span, into something with real permanence. Sara further points out how the De Beers’s slogan: “A diamond is forever” fits nicely into the project as it reveals the apposition between human centric vs. non-human centric perspectives: it both refers to the life of a couple as well as the eternal nature of the material. "We are interested in the fact that absolutely everything is 'forever,'" says Sara. "Including the carbon from that tree. All trees. All things. By transforming the carbon ofthe tree into a stone we hope to reveal this fact, and point out that 'forever' in the De Beers's slogan only references a particularly human perception of forever linked to a human life span. The 'forever' that the stone embodies is ungraspable, but in many ways far truer."

“The purpose of the museum is to open human perception into our interest in deep time,” says Amber. “Or time beyond a human generation, or even generational thinking about family lineages. We also want to be able to talk about these economies and this environment.” Thinking about deep time provides a way to get outside of the human-centric worldview.

“In this work we are considering craft (in construction, furniture and jewelry), human resource and material use (diamond mining and forestry),” Sara continues. “The mutability of value in materials and things, and deep or geologic time as something outside our regular grasp. We’re using the tree as a centerpiece to make visible various entangled ecologies and economies including deep histories and deep futures.”
When Sara and Amber arrived at VCCA, the only thing that had been resolved was the tower structure. So they sat down with the intention of tackling what Sara refers to as “this beast”. “The beast has really evolved since we’ve been at VCCA so that’s very exciting,” she says.

Amber and Sara’s time at VCCA proved fruitful in the development of another collaborative project as well. A sad bookend to Joseph Beuys's Utopian 7000 Oaks–City Forestation Instead of City Administration, Sara and Amber are proposing producing 7,000 pencils made from the wood of an oak tree killed by sudden oak death, a disease spreading through species of oak trees in Northern California, Washington and Oregon. The disease, and the less virulent, burr oak blight affecting the Midwest, are the result of the changing temperatures caused by climate change. Ironically, the severe drought in California has helped slow the progress of the disease.  

On the one hand, the pencils are pallid versions of Beuys’s living trees, but on the other, pencils are creative tools from which ideas and art are generated. “We chose pencils because we were thinking about trees through a human lens,” explains Sara. “The human lens I am referring to is the production of various ubiquitous products from forest plants. The pencil is such a humble object and yet office supplies (paper, pencils, etc.) are responsible for a good deal of our consumption of what we call ‘forest products.’”

Right now the two are working out the kinks. Much to their relief, they just learned that while SOD is extremely contagious—so much so that you cannot transport the wood from a county where the disease exists into a SOD-free county—if the bark and leaves are removed and the wood kiln-dried, the disease carrying spores are killed off. After much investigative legwork on their part, they turned to a chemist for the final okay. One of their favorite aspects of their research-based practice is it allows them to explore an idea as much as they can before resorting to experts. “Where we like to work is just beyond the edge of our knowledge,” says Amber. Out there on a limb is where the exciting ideas occur.

3Arts works to sustain and promote Chicago artists with a focus on women artists, artists of color, and artists with disabilities to ensure diversity of voices and visions. 3Arts supports artists in multiple and tiered ways—through validation, promotion, residencies, project support, and unrestricted cash grants to foster risk-taking and determination. 


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