Returning to and from THE LAND: Connectivity and Crafting Residency

‘Connection 01’ knotted cotton string and vegetation | Abigail Doan | New Mexico (2006)

[ republished from Landviews: Online Journal of Landscape, Art & Design ]

THE LAND/an art site is located eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque in the piñon and juniper-scented foothills of New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains. The pueblo mission ruins of Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument are situated nearby, as is the train-whistle-punctuated town of Mountainair, the former pinto-bean capital of the world and the now faded hub of the Santa Fe Railway. As THE LAND’s September 2006 artist-in-residence, I prepared myself for an immersive week of surveying and studying the unique characteristics of this remote art and conservation site.

THE LAND’s acreage offers a vast tract of wilderness to survey when traversing the desert on foot under the shifting canopy of the central New Mexican skies. I was fortunate to have arrived at the site after a summer of significant rain and unexpected moisture. The color of the high desert vegetation was unusually brilliant and spiked with bold accents that animated the brush and ground cover everywhere. THE LAND’s atmosphere is charged with opportunities for observation and introspection that are heightened by spatial and temporal isolation and the inevitable slowing of internal rhythms. The site allows for only intermittent reminders of the world beyond via the occasional plane overhead, the train that passes every hour, and the way that the distant world becomes an atmospheric, canopied layer over the fabric of one’s daily existence at the site.

Founded in 1997 as a non-profit arts and conservation program, THE LAND has hosted a unique cross-section of artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and thinkers from around the globe. Its founders, Tom and Edite Cates, are devoted to fostering an ongoing dialogue with individuals who are attracted to the idea of low-impact, site-specific, land-based art. Most residents arrive with a proposal or plan in place; however, they are encouraged to explore the possibility that time spent observing and living onsite is a subtle and valuable art form in and of itself. Perhaps it is the very lack of explicit artist activity at THE LAND that encourages one to look more closely for environmental cues and to see beyond the framework of traditional art processes. Invited guests experience an inherent desire to pay homage to the raw beauty of the place, to describe its ecological wonder, and to extract its essence from the unspoiled hills and arroyos.

The Albuquerque-based writer J. A. Lee, a frequent artist-in-residence at THE LAND, conducts nature-writing workshops that encourage participants to explore ideas related to observation and descriptive language in a manner that reweaves the distinctive qualities of the site with a seed/sound narrative. Similarly, the composer and sound artist, Steve Peters, undertook a project at THE LAND in 1999 where he devoted himself to recording and archiving sounds that were detected onsite each hour of the day and night over the course of an entire year. His ensuing piece, Here•ings: A Sonic Geohistory, captured the complex atmosphere of THE LAND’s environment via an acoustic ecology and a meandering pathway of sculpted stone benches whose seats are inscribed with poetic text phrases that immortalize Peters’ recordings and notations.

documenting the atmosphere and vegetation in New Mexico | Abigail Doan (2006)

A residency at THE LAND offers an artist the opportunity to create a site-based dialogue in an open-air workspace that genuinely expands one’s understanding of environment, practice, and connection to place. I had worked in remote desert locales before, creating temporary, site-specific fiber installations crafted of lightweight materials such as hand-spun paper twine, plaited vegetation, and floating crocheted fiber. These on-site projects were a means of highlighting the fragility of desert ecosystems and the local flora and fauna subsisting therein. Fiber, as a construction material, allows me to interact unobtrusively with the surface of the land in partnership with sunlight, wind, and the shifting atmospheric conditions that shape an ecological zone. I am also fascinated by the potential that fiber forms have in colonizing an ecological state, without the sculptural imprints or permanent marks of other art processes.

Typically, I prepare for a new body of work by walking (lightly) on a site and observing and documenting (drawing and photographing) its textural qualities and features. I search for subtle traces of organic activity and connective threads that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. THE LAND’s proximity to the area’s historic pueblo mission sites not only yields an archaeological stash of small pottery shards, but also varied expanses of vegetal species that lace old footpaths and carpet the site’s terrain and topography.

Ground Cover 01 | knotted fiber, plant-dyed wool, and autumn vegetation | Abigail Doan | New Mexico (2006)

My subsequent series, ‘Ground Cover’, was an attempt to highlight the protective layer and vital nutrients that indigenous plant species provide for the fragile desert topsoil. These fiber pieces were not fabricated from living plants, but from dried matter and wrapped fiber that I introduced temporarily as ‘tumbleweed’ structures that might potentially inhabit the site. The photographic images that document these ‘fiber placements’ serve primarily as a record of the installation itself, though in some instances, the fiber bundles might be later exhibited along with the photos in a formal exhibition. The tumbleweeds are not meant to be sculptural objects per se, but tools for crafting a dialogue with a specific place and its unique biota. I find tumbleweeds to be apt metaphors for this discourse, as they typically create impermanent, untraceable paths over the surface of the land and travel great distances with only the aid of wind, dust, or climatic phenomena.

The unusually rich layering of ecological information at THE LAND inspired me to re-examine how an abundance of intact resources might be better interpreted or aerated. Perforations in the atmosphere, be they sound, light, or wind-generated, allow for a steady stream of sensations that rewire one’s connection to the immediate surroundings and the vast ecosystem. Being ‘nowhere’ on the map might have allowed for being ‘everywhere’ in this open spatial network, as the incorporation of my fiber constructions began to include the entire fabric of the land, its haunting cholla remains, and a shadow-filled screen of the macro and micro at play.

Connectivity might ultimately be the portal that one creates as a seamless interface with place, space, and surface. To be located within, to remain, to rest, to leave as is — all essential qualities when interfacing with THE LAND. A residency not only affords us the opportunity to connect with the land but to finally let go of the temptations to transform or alter what already thrives in the craft of place.

[all images and text: © Abigail Doan ]

projects and writing exploring the intersections of site-specific, landscape phenomena and art lab/design methodologies.

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