Spill: Crude Response opens at Aspen gallery | AspenTimes.com

Spill: Crude Response opens at Aspen gallery

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Gulf of Mexico Louisiana (USA). May 27th, 2010. Area where the Deepwater Horizon wellhead -the BP leased oil platform- exploded on April 20 and sank after burning.

ASPEN – While the numbers, warnings, facts and arguments have no doubt been flying in lectures and discussions at the Aspen Environment Forum, three people have come up with a different way of framing the challenges and opportunities presented by environmental concerns.

The exhibition Spill: Crude Response – oil, plastics and perspective, features three artists whose work is centered around issues of the environment. The exhibition, co-organized by the San Francisco-based Baum Foundation, opens Wednesday, with the artists giving talks at 2 p.m.

The artists take varying approaches: Daniel Beltra makes what he calls conservation photographs, whose beauty serves as an invitation to a dialogue about environmental degradation. Aurora Robson takes materials out of the waste stream and makes sculpture and works on paper of them. Kenji Williams’ “Bella Gaia” is a multimedia project of film, animation and music that offers a global perspective on planet Earth.

Despite the differences, the artists have a common aim: to foster a closer, more nurturing relationship between humanity and the earth, and to inspire viewers to act with that bond in mind.

“Just as we have emotional relationships with our partners, our children, our friends, and will naturally protect them, I feel we need to develop a more personal relationship with our planet,” Williams said – a view that echoes in the work of Beltra and Robson.

For Daniel Beltra, 2009 was consumed by an exhausting project, a book about the world’s rainforests, commissioned by Prince Charles. The year found Beltra traveling to the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia to create the images, then making a book which Prince Charles handed out to world leaders who gathered at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December.

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So when he first heard about the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, some 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, Beltra’s first reaction was to stay at home, in Seattle. Not only was he tired, but the leak didn’t seem urgent: “They were really very good about not giving out information,” Beltra said of BP, the British company that leased the offshore drill.

By the end of a week, though, as the extent of the leak began coming clearer, he had made plans to get to the gulf. And once in Louisiana, as Beltra saw the disaster for himself, a five-day assignment for Greenpeace became a four-week stay. Then in mid-June, Beltra returned to the Gulf Coast for a second visit of two weeks.

The result is a series of photographs of devastating beauty, taken from several thousand feet above the water. Beltra’s eye for composition is sharp, and the colors and textures that emerge from the combination of oil, water, light and the chemicals used to combat the flow of oil can be enormously appealing. But Beltra’s interest is in getting people to think more deeply about what has caused these iridescent colors, why these boats are sailing through thickly textured waters.

“I don’t want it to be just beautiful,” he said. “I want people to think about the impact we are having on our planet. I hope they will open a stronger dialogue about living in a more sustainable way.”

A native of Madrid, Beltra began with two primary interests, in biology and photography. It was photojournalism that developed into a career, but the interest in biology found an outlet as Beltra specialized in images of nature. Eventually he moved away from photojournalism – “where everything is direct and on the surface and very clear,” he said – to projects focusing on degradation and conservation of the environment. A recent project had him in Patagonia, Chile; in September, he is off to Alberta, Canada, where the installation of pipelines is being planned to transport oil extracted from tar sand.

Beltra acknowledged the attractiveness of his photographs. “There is a plasticity and a beauty. But the beautiful images come on their own. Or maybe that’s just my eye,” he said. And pretty pictures serve the purpose of getting people to take a close, lingering look: “Think about war photography. Images of corpses – people don’t want to see that. It is too graphic, too rough.”

But what brought him to the Gulf of Mexico is something other than beauty.

“It became evident this would be one of the biggest environmental stories of my lifetime,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s the biggest.”

Early in her career as an artist, Aurora Robson used images she had seen in recurring childhood nightmares. The idea was to make something negative – frightful nocturnal experiences – and turn them into something positive. But after a while, Robson began to ask herself if buying the paints and canvases to make her paintings was entirely a step in the right direction.

“I felt I was part of the problem, adding to the chaos rather than taking away from the chaos,” the 38-year-old said. “I felt trite, and I felt guilty.”

In 2001, Robson glimpsed a way to be nothing but solution. Outside her New York studio was the usual collection of discarded trash, but Robson – who was raised in relatively pristine Hawaii and Canada – saw the junk with fresh eyes. The ubiquitous plastic bottles, she noticed, “have these complex, compound curves, and the same diaphanous qualities that the nightmares had.”

Robson took it on as a challenge to use waste lifted from recycling bins or picked up right off the street, rather than store-bought materials. And she saw it as a process that fit in conceptually with the idea of making something positive out of something that had been a blight.

At 212 Gallery, Robson has two kinds of work. The first is a series of works on paper made from the junk mail that has littered her mailbox. The raw materials were a nuisance: “It was very disturbing – the waste, to have so much disregard for the planet,” she said.

But she did notice that junk mail tends to use “positive, assertive language – despite the fact that, in itself, it’s a very troubling thing.” Those uplifting words are prominent in Robson’s pieces.

More dramatic are the sculptures. Among the three pieces in Aspen is “Up Drop,” made of 4,000 plastic bottles. The piece, with its green and blue tones and floral and aquatic forms, suggests life and growth. Robson refers to it as “this utopian green environment.” (Another recent piece, “Lift,” commissioned by Rice University, used 9,000 bottles, as well as motors and LED lights, all solar-powered.)

Robson was questioned recently by a collector who was concerned about the archival integrity of her sculptures. Robson thought this person was missing a fundamental point – that the worst, and defining, quality of plastic bottles is that they don’t disintegrate.

“That’s archival integrity,” said Robson, who gets gifts of unusual bottles from friends, is well-known at the local recycling center, and has developed an obsession with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an oceanic repository of plastic waste. “This stuff lasts a thousand years. If you want archival integrity, use plastic bottles. I love and hate that these things have so much structural integrity.”

In 2005, Kenji Williams, a violinist and filmmaker, was invited to Kazakhstan for the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft. As part of the trip, Williams went to Moscow’s Star City, a training site for astronauts, where he met Mike Fincke, an American who had been to outer space.

Williams had a question for Fincke: What changed when you went to space? “And he said he had a complete transformation of how he saw planet Earth,” Williams said. “He told me the Earth was glowing, beautiful, vibrant. You see the Earth without politics, without boundaries, just this bubble hanging in space. Talk about putting things in context. His favorite planets used to be Mars and Jupiter; now it was Earth.”

Williams had a question for himself: Given that he couldn’t send people into space, how could he replicate that transformative experience? The answer Williams has developed over the last few years is “Bella Gaia.”

“Bella Gaia” – which Williams presented Tuesday at a private reception at 212 Gallery, and which is featured today at the closing of the Aspen Environment Forum – combines animated images from NASA, Williams’ compositions, and photographs (including some by Beltra). The multidimensional look at the planet includes information about air traffic, energy consumption and climate change, but it is presented through visuals and music, rather than words and numbers.

“Gaia,” Williams points out, is the Greek equivalent of Mother Nature, and is now often used to refer to the Earth and its occupants as a living, interconnected whole. His project is intended to reflect that sense of the word.

“It’s an experience of relating with the Earth in a way beyond words,” Williams, who plays live violin in the piece, said. “So it’s very much right-brain, emotional. It’s like a living piece of media – like a weather report, but of all natural and human activity, and how it’s relating.”

stewart@aspentimes.com