Thoreau's Cabin

Though sewing has always been a part of my life, it's undeniable that I've spent a considerable amount of my time engaged in the art world, in professional and academic contexts. While this blog is mostly for sewing and fiber, I'm excited to also use this blog as a platform to discuss other fine and applied arts and delve a little deeper into the world of craftsmanship, aesthetics, and ideas.

Yesterday I was finally able to make to over it to the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA. If you've never been, the DeCordova is an excellent contemporary art museum outside Boston, famous for its expansive sculpture garden.

Currently, they have an exhibition on view called Walden, Revisited. The Walden referenced here is both the well known book by Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond, located in nearby Concord, from which it takes its name. I thought it would be fitting to discuss this show, as Walden's story prominently features a cabin!

The show is divided into two discernible sections, two different 'Re's, that each break down into their own series of connections to the author and his canonical book: re-interpreting and re-evaluating. While some of the work in this show seeks to re-evaluate the mythical solitarian, the majority of the work re-interprets Walden through the aesthetic, ideological, or intellectual qualities of Thoreau's original project.

Most of the work on display seemed to be inspired by Thoreau's core project at Walden Pond: observing his natural landscape and documenting its many facets in a variety of ways. What for Thoreau came to be as journals and logbooks has been translated into imagery and objects by many of the artists. In the photo at the opening of this post, artists compare colors observed at the pond to Monet paintings and take aestheticized measurements of the ponds depth.

As I thought about the show later on, an unexpected theme emerged: A great deal of the works included achieve this re-interpretation through collaboration. One of the big themes in Walden is of course solitude, which seems to contrast the idea of collaboration. Though as I worked through these connections in my mind, the strict definition of collaboration started to unravel.

 Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley,  Ice Out at Walden , 2010

Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley, Ice Out at Walden, 2010

For example, Marsching's work above, a print made using both digital and traditional printing techniques to create a visual representation of wind patterns at Walden. Marsching also collaborated with a dancer to create choreography inspired by these wind patterns.

 Gina Siepel,  Re-Surveying Walden , 2014

Gina Siepel, Re-Surveying Walden, 2014

Gina Siepel chose to re-survey Walden Pond in collaboration with a few others in the spirit of Thoreau in a self-built boat. Her museum-within-a-museum included discussions of flora and fauna, colors, gestures, and a cross examination of a lake in Germany with a transatlantic collaborator.

Another collaboration, one of my favorites in the show, was a sound piece developed by Ana María Gómez López and Pamela Jordan. You stand on a circle of carpet under a directional speaker, listening to a composition of ambient nature and city sounds while looking at a small a snapshot of Thoreau's cabin pasted on the far wall of the gallery. Something about the sonic experience paired with the distance of the cabin as a snapshot on a wall seemed very intentional and effective. Additionally, what I thought was field recordings of telegraph wires turned out to be the rattling of a vent in the room. Unintentional, but just as effective.

 David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

 David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

I suppose however, that one could also view many of these works as being collaborative with Thoreau, in an indirect way. Perhaps, thematically, this (and Walden) mirror the success or failure of collaboration with nature as a society and as an individual. Brook's work - he creates a lot of installations that cross examine nature and the built world - seems to dig into that space between failure and collaboration with nature. His Myopic Wall Composition infuses the iconic gallery wall with chunks of wood salvaged at Walden, but also chooses to reveal 'behind the scenes' of this construction.

 Deb Todd Wheeler,  Searching for Imposters , 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler, Searching for Imposters, 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler's video installation takes a keen look at a failure of that collaboration. Her porthole videos show what appear to be jellyfish - apparently one spring brought mysterious freshwater jellyfish to Walden Pond - but are in reality, plastic bags. This is perhaps where we transition into where this collaboration with nature falls apart. This disharmony between man and nature is what inspired Thoreau's Walden project and arguably, the reason for its partial undoing.

 Oscar Palacio, photograph from  Walden ─ then and now , 2013-14

Oscar Palacio, photograph from Walden ─ then and now, 2013-14

Corralled in a separate section of the museum are more directly critical works, like Palacio's photographs above, showing a different kind of human 'collaboration' with nature.

 Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

 Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

Also included in this grouping is Jennifer Sullivan's video One-Week Walden, in which her character, inspired by reading Walden, ventures into the 'woods' of suburban upstate New York and attempts to commune with nature while living in her dad's pop up camper. The result is a lot of funny introspective monologues and dance sequences, wigs, and images of garbage.

 Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

 Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

Hillary Wilder dismantled - literally - the iconic notion of Thoreau by reconstructing the famous desk upon which Walden was written in painted paper.

 Corner of James Benning's  Two Cabins . The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

Corner of James Benning's Two Cabins. The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

One of the few works that actively engaged the cabin itself could be construed as most critical and perhaps the creepiest. The two channel video by James Benning featured the window view from replicas of the cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Bennings study of the two cabin dwellers is loose and investigational, not a direct comparison. After having built a replica of Thoreau's cabin on his property, he created Kaczynski's as a counterpoint. However, it begs a reconsideration of the recluse when a known antagonist's ideology can find ties - if only a minute few - with one of America's sweetheart literary naturalists.

 Gina Siepel   After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study ,   2010

Gina Siepel After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study, 2010

Another work by Gina Siepel shows a more humorous critique of the 'solitary man in nature' trope. (FYI - The backdrop of this shot is a cluster of decorative fake birch trees in a high-end suburban mall outside Boston)

In this show, the connections are many to the world of craft and society, beyond the 'naturalist' perspective. Thoreau's cabin is the original 'Tiny House' (we missed the lecture on Tiny Houses, unfortunately) or summer artists residency. Many other works took opportunities to work with nature positively as inspired by Thoreau. But I'll save that for your visit to the museum, or at least the website.

In a sense, Thoreau's work in that cabin - writing, surveying, his very form of living - would, taken out of its obvious influential context, be right at home in this show.  As I think about it, the dialogue between the artists exhibited in the show and Thoreau himself becomes more and more interesting.

One quote from Thoreau that I felt best exemplified my experience of this show (and it was included in several places) is the following:

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

One chair: Thoreau, Two chairs: Thoreau and the artists in dialogue, and Three chairs: trans-generational conversation between the three - our role as artists in society.

The theme of the show appears to me more dynamic than that of pure inspiration. After shedding all aesthetic and critical framing, we find another contrarian 'artist,' observing the world around him and responding in a variety of media. And, like many of his young artist/writer non-contemporaries, he often did laundry at his mother's house and had dinner with his mentors.