The Berkeley Art Museum collaborated with an unusual team for its new show. Curators from BAM and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego worked with Rare, an international conservation organization, to send eight artists to culturally -- and environmentally -- threatened places around the world. Each artist chose a different World Heritage Site, and created work in response to his or her experience there.
Though the exhibition seems, from the outside, to put an emphasis on environmental conservation, the pieces are all really about people. And it makes for a richer show. Mark Dion visited Komodo National Park in Indonesia, home to Komodo dragons. His work isn't about the giant deadly lizards or their habitat, but about the people who work in the park. In fact, he made it for the people who work in the park. Dion built a brightly-colored mobile cart stocked with small tools, office supplies, a first aid kit, and games and books for the park rangers. The cart stayed in Indonesia, and Dion constructed a replica to display at BAM. The cart powerfully conjures a place. I've never been to Komodo National Park (anyone interested in funding a KQED Arts blog post on-location, please get in touch), but I could picture the cart sitting by the side of a dusty road on a hot day.
My favorite piece in the show was created by Bay Area artist Rigo 23 in Brazil's Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves. A mobile in the shape of a bomb hovers over the gallery, dropping wooden and feather animals toward the museum-goers below. The effect is magical; the little animals look like a rain shower. Rigo 23 built this and his other piece, a nuclear submarine made of mud and sticks covered in small dolls, together with people living in the area. The locals helped him design and build the basket weapons, and helped imbue them with a sense of life and friendship.
Another collaboration with locals resulted in a new fundraising strategy: Xu Bing went to Kenya, where he worked with school children. The kids drew pictures of trees, which are on display at BAM, and which can be purchased at an auction site. The money goes back to Kenya where it will fund reforestation. In this case, art really is inspiring conservation.
Other artists visited the Galápagos Islands, a mountainous region in China's Yunnan Province, and North American glaciers. Diana Thater filmed animals and people watching animals in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa. The video is frenetic and jittery. It jumps from giraffes to cars to zebras, but is best when it pauses for a breath and lingers on an elephant. It feels small compared to Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's Juggernaut, a video showing the industrial saltworks near a whale preserve in Mexico. The camera slides along a massive salt plain. An impossibly large truck goes by. The rumble of the truck is so low, it's as palpable as it is audible. I was enrapt.
The pieces in this show all act as a sort of witness to disappearing cultures and places. Even though it's not huge, the joy of creative collaboration and the sorrow of loss permeate the show, and make it feel full.
Human/Nature runs through September 27, 2009 at the Berkeley Art Museum at 2626 Bancroft Way in Berkeley.