Chilled in the biting cold of the Arctic, artist Mia Feuer cut strips of tarpaper. Onboard the spectacular 160-foot tall ship, whose three masts reach toward the infinite blue skies, the Brookland artist looked at the mass of non-biodegradable trash she had gathered on the ship’s deck, unaware that only three months later, the found materials, crafted as Dog Sled, would be exhibited in a major Washington, DC museum.
“An Unkindness” recently opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and is 32 year-old Feuer’s first solo museum exhibition.
Occupying the museum’s rotunda and third-floor gallery, the compellingly violent exhibition features four monumental artworks, including Dog Sled, made by Feuer during a summer 2013 artist residency with The Arctic Circle. Concise but forceful, “An Unkindness” confronts one of the most grave and global issues of today—man’s destruction to the environment and natural landscape.
Feuer’s colleagues describe her as an artist who is exceptional for her level of thought and dedication to process. Dozens of anecdotes paint vivid images of Feuer dressed in black and working gloveless—unthinkable in subzero temperatures.
She was thrashed around by piercingly cold waves and caustically teased by crew members, frustrated with the mess Feuer made of the ordinarily polished deck, and annoyed when she requested basic tools like knives, necessary to cut through the neon-colored Polypropylene rope, found washed upon the shores of Sallyhamna, a territory inhabited only by bears.
“I think she really had to take her typical process and throw it in the air and let it land as it would in the Arctic,” explained The Arctic Circle Director Aaron T. O’Connor, “It was madness."
The resulting artwork is a chaotic entanglement of yellow, green and red string, blue plastic and thick brown rope. Each element is wound together and around heavy tarpaper Feuer hauled from the depths of a collapsed coal mine in Longyearbyn. In the gallery setting, one feels a sense of antique history and imagines the artwork as a vehicle traversing the vast landscape.
“I thought the language of energy was already present in the history of these materials, where and how they came. Everything was so synthetic,” Feuer said.
Several artists who participated in the Arctic expedition recalled their shock at the volume of trash seen in the high Arctic, an area that becomes plagued with trash and driftwood due to its position at the very end of the gulfstream, according to O’Connor.
“We went places that not a lot of people went and I’m speculating that we stopped at places where nobody had been. I was horrified that our trash from North America and South America and all over the world, ended up there through the ocean currents,” said Blane De St. Croix, an Arctic Circle resident artist whose sculpture, installation and work on paper explores the geopolitical landscape.
When the Antigua set sail in the very northern territory of Svalbard, Norway, Feuer had been working on the logistics for “Rink,” an artwork now installed in the rotunda of the Corcoran that doubles as a functioning ice rink for a solo skater.
Travel photographer Paul Teolis and Boston-based illustrator Kate Sheridan were in the Arctic with Feuer and both recall Feuer speaking extensively while on the voyage about her plans for the ice rink. Sheridan traveled to Washington, DC with two other Arctic Circle artists for the private opening and spoke of her excitement at seeing the work materialize from the much talked about theoretical concept.
“There are these very dark undertones to the whole show, not just visually, like it’s black,” said Feuer of the rink made of black petroleum instead of snow-white ice, “But there is this darkness in the disappearing of the winter, the melting ice caps, global warming, the burning of hydrocarbons. It’s all related to the same sort of lies.”
Teolis, who like Feuer was born in Canada and has lived in the United States, explained in a Skype interview that though he did not think Feuer was political in character or that her artwork had political motives, it was important “An Unkindness” be shown in the United State because there tends to be a northward ripple effect when issues are raised in Washington.
“I don’t think she’s controversial, but I think she’s getting people to talk,” said Teolis, “I feel like her voice is going to get louder in Washington and I hope the work is going to get her attention in Canada.”
Feuer’s research-based artworks have materialized in concept and form over the past three years, since she first traveled, not to the Arctic or the tar sands, but to Egypt in the wake of the 2011 revolution.
“You’re always aware and you know not to litter. These are things you understand about being in the zeitgeist, but I never got super interested in this exploring oil politics until I was doing research in the Middle East,” explained Feuer.
While visiting The Suez Canal and Tahrir Square during a stint at the El Sahara Artist Residency, Feuer’s initial humanitarian interests soon evolved to reflect an intense concern for oil politics. Upon returning to the states with Indigo powder bought from a market in Cairo and water from The Nile River, Feuer erected The Cairo Tower Collapses/A Fishing Boat in Alexandria is Constructed. The massive, twisting sculpture references the 1961 tower built by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with money provided by the U.S..
Feuer won a $10,000 Trawick Prize (Bethesda Contemporary Art Award) for the work, and the stage was set to catapult the artist’s investigations into oil politics.
Boreal and Midnight Sun
Cast in an eerie blue light, Boreal is a supremely large structure composed of a cacophony of fallen timber and dozens of sanded smooth Dow Chemical Styrofoam insulation tiles. A broken archway made of aircraft cable despairingly emerges, through which a putrid and offensively large branch covered in jet black feathers, gummy and viscous instead of silky and vibrant, penetrates, pointing to Dog Sled and another Arctic-inspired work, Midnight Sun.
Standing below the branch and facing the archway, the viewer feels as if he is approaching disaster.
When Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801 crashed on August 1996, killing 141 passengers, legend tells that nearly all the women and children of the Soviet settlement Pyramiden perished. A year later, the deadliest mining accident in Norwegian history occurred in Pyramiden, leaving the city devastated, and eventually abandoned.
“Nothing was deteriorated. Nature or time holds onto it longer and it seemed to be a statement of how humankind tries to make its mark unto the beautiful brutal land,” said De St. Croix.
Feuer’s sculpture masterfully captures the effect of an otherworldly timelessness. Each tile is thoughtfully placed to create an allegory of melting ice, and not only does the unnatural white Styrofoam harness and absorb the blue light, but the sculpture in its entirety also takes on the cool glow as an inherent characteristic.
Feuer explained her great efforts in rendering the light exactly as she remembered it in the Arctic, and the curatorial concern certainly shows.
“It really feels like being in those mines,” said Sheridan who spoke powerfully of the dingy smell of the abandoned spaces, “The way she lit it, you can feel the coldness.”
In a curatorial triumph by Feuer and Corcoran curator of contemporary art Sarah Newman, a cool blue light gracefully descends and diffuses in the atmosphere to mimic the mysterious blue glow of ancient ice. The effect is accentuated when juxtaposed against the warmth of a spotlight appearing to emanate from Midnight Sun. The glow highlights Dog Sled with an artificiality that mirrors the synthetic material below.
“I’m trying to keep this dichotomy of this synthetic and also hint at this natural beautiful phenomenon that will disappear if we keep going the way we are,” said Feuer.
The Arctic Circle participants describe the ghost town as not only eerie for its emptiness, but also as embodying a strange paradox, both in the aesthetic and the literal.
Garishly bright colors and dollhouse like architecture fill the former communist utopia. Uninhabited and rarely visited, yellow murals, soundless pianos, dusty 35 mm film reels, and a dilapidated teal blue couch occupy otherwise empty space.
“I saw this light fixture in the family community center,” recalled Feuer, “I imagined whoever made it when there was still life in the city built it because their kids were longing for sunshine, and I wanted to put sunlight in the room.”
Midnight Sun is a simple structure. Eight narrow rays with lights in yellow, green, blue and red, shine a glimmer of hope upon Dog Sled.
Especially as winter nears, the fixture hints at kitschy Christmas decoration, and one wonders if the work is an intentional reference to the Svalbard children’s myth that Santa Claus lives in one of the Soviet era mines.
A Collaborative Effort
Feuer’s personality is as grandiose as her artworks.
Artists and crewmembers on The Arctic Circle echo one another in their unanimous praise and astonishment at Feuer’s dynamic energy and endless enthusiasm during their eighteen-day adventure.
“I loved seeing how she makes the best of situations even when there are resources working against her and people and time and weather and all kind of things. She can just make the best of it and seeing the fruits of those efforts, I’m so proud of her,” said Sheridan.
While artists are typically drawn to The Arctic Circle residency for the unique landscape and the desire to immerse themselves in a project without the distractions of modern technology and everyday life, artists typically leave the experience most thankful for new friendships and spontaneous collaborations.
“The Arctic Circle program is about community building, about bringing people together, the sharing of ideas,” said O’Connor.
In her role as assistant professor of sculpture and art foundation at George Mason University, Feuer constantly uses her natural energy to stir excitement within her students. Her unique vibrancy touches all Feuer meets.
“She really gets people excited,” said Caroline Spencer, the Corcoran Curatorial Intern and Feuer’s main assistant for “An Unkindness.”
As part of the NOW at the Corcoran exhibition series, “An Unkindness” offered opportunities for student involvement, and Feuer’s exceptionally warm reception offered invaluable and unprecedented experiences.
“There are some artists who are going to work privately and prefer not to work with a group. But Mia, because she is an academic, she was very eager to involve students,” said Georgia Deal, Corcoran College of Art + Design program head of printmaking and faculty liaison to Feuer.
While Feuer initially wanted to work with students to produce, after Deal visited the artist in her studio last spring, opportunities for stronger collaboration quickly emerged.
Feuer had been struggling with finding the right materials to render birch bark in the most realistic way possible. The birch bark was for the tremendously large trees in An Unkindness, the tumultuous mass of Styrofoam, tarpaper, feathers, shredded rubber tires, and other petroleum-based materials that hangs ominously above Rink and references the marred landscape of the Alberta tar sands.
Looking at the photographs littering the walls of Feuer’s studio, Deal thought of her own collection of birch bark and suggested the printmaking graduate students help Feuer photograph the trees and then screen print the pattern onto tarpaper.
“It was this match made in heaven,” said Feuer who had never before collaborated with printmakers, “I just wasn’t really aware of the potential of printmaking for sculpture, and especially with my love of repetition, printmaking makes so much sense.”
Student involvement extended far beyond the print lab. Students volunteered to paint, attach feathers, sand Styrofome, and now, as the exhibition opens, to “rink sit” and help visitors pick out skates to glide on the dark ice.
In many ways, though “An Unkindness” highlights the horrors of human destruction, it also harnesses and illuminates the power of human connections and innovation.
Skating in Rink below the nearly suffocating An Unkindness, looking up at Boreal with slight anxiety that the structure may come crumbling down at any moment, and standing under the warmth of Midnight Sun, contemplating the history of Dog Sled, the viewer feels infinitely alone and small among the gargantuan structures.
The feeling may be equated to how O’Connor describes looking back at the ship anchored in the Arctic waters as he hikes ashore, reminding himself that the dot in the distance is his life support.
Standing in the presence of Feuer’s sculptures that so clearly reference environmental disaster, the ominous future feels oppressive and the viewer cannot help but to search desperately for a solution. In the presence of such massiveness, one realizes he cannot match the impending disaster on his own. If he is to survive, he must use his resources, forge spontaneous friendships, and collaborate with his peers to make a lasting change.
Bringing the Art in DC to You,
An Unkindness is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through February 23, 2014. To see the full list of exhibition related programming, click here.
Photo: Mia Feuer, Boreal, 2013. Timber, Styrofoam, steel, feathers, tar, black enamel, aircraft cable, and blue light. Dimensions variable, approximately 16 x 24 x 20 ft. Installation view, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Mia Feuer, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and CONNERSMITH. Photo by Paul Bothwell.