Twin exhibits explore the strained relationship between humans, the environment
At first blush, the thematic connection between two new exhibits at the San Jose Museum of Art seems tenuous at best. But after spending time in both galleries, two sets of entirely different means and media unexpectedly complement each other. In one, we peer into the lives of an often unrepresented and invisible group of Americans: the working class. In the other, the scope expands, often abstractly, as several artists explore humanity’s relationship with nature.
Walking up the stairs, approaching the entrance to “Indestructible Wonder,” animal sounds spill out in all directions from one of the two galleries—the kinds of noises one hears in films about the jungle: the guttural howls of distant, unseen beasts. The distorted calls and muted shrieks are coming from Gail Wight’s Center of Gravity, 2008. About a dozen pillars of light hang from the ceiling, suspended above the floor, arranged in three fluid rows that form an oblong shape.
What Wight is trying to say is vague, but the artist does force us to look closely at something—and the feeling of interacting with the sound and light is transportive. Concrete meaning behind all of the artists’ works on display may be found in the central text guiding the curation of “Indestructible Wonder”: Rachel Carson’s seminal environmentalist text, Silent Spring. In her groundbreaking work Carson wrote, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Each artist here is asking the viewer for an act of attention—to look deeply into depictions of the natural world and to recognize its wonder—or, in some cases, to observe the destructive assault humanity has been waging on the planet. One work straddles the line between the two extremes. SJMA commissioned WaterTable (2016) by artist Evan Holm specifically for the exhibit. This interactive piece is a 24-foot long table. It’s hollowed out and filled with water; a submerged stereo system plays 17 yards of cassette tape led through a voice recorder. Listening in on a pair of wireless headphones, the voice of W.S. Merwin, the 17th United States Poet Laureate, speaks; Merwin recorded two of his poems in collaboration with Holm.
Tiny aquatic plants—duckweed—circle on top of the water, turning in time with the cassette spools. Merwin recites from his poem, “The Search”: “Around me birds vanish into the air/shadows flow into the ground.”
This isn’t an innocuous depiction of nature. Someone has disappeared, and something else has frightened the birds away.
Walking across the hall into “Life and Labor: The Photographs of Milton Rogovin,” the everyday lives of ordinary people are transformed into a poetry of their own. Rogovin, who died in 2011, photographed a moving series of portraits of miners, steelworkers and the poor. All of the photographs are black and white, small enough that they also require time and attention.
The exhibit is divided into three sections: “Family of Miners,” “Working People” and “Lower West Side.” In the first two, most of the photographs are framed in pairs. At a glance, it isn’t immediately apparent that the same person is in both pictures. The one on the left is taken of the subject at work: a coal miner in a T-shirt, his skin and clothing covered in black dust; a steelworker in a bandana, jeans and a sweatshirt at her tool bench. The one on the right reveals the home life and family of the subject. It’s a remarkable and poignant transformation.
The photographs at work are uniformly darker; the ones at home contain smiles and light. The work is clearly punishing for both the body and the soul. Without commentary or analysis, Rogovin presents a group of people struggling to keep their personal lives intact. That the coal mining and the steel work appear to be harming the natural world and our relationship to it cannot be discounted.
It’s an uncomfortable shadowland sitting across the hall from “Indestructible Wonder.” Ideally, everyone could afford to be cognizant of how our actions, as part of the modern industrial era, affect nature. But the humanity Rogovin captures on film depicts an urbanized culture and class of people unintentionally distanced from their agrarian roots: they’re just trying to put food on the table.