Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mercy, Mercy Me

We all remember those angry trees from the movie, The Wizard of Oz––smacking Dorothy’s hand and fast-balling apples at her and the scarecrow—they’ve been frightening children for nearly three generations––they still frighten me. A fed-up Mother Nature turning the tables on us has been a reliable plotline in horror and disaster fiction. Recently, in the global warming movie, The Day After Tomorrow, we had the weather taking revenge on us and back in the 50s, The Day of the Triffids, gave us walking, stinging, man-eating plants. In the exhibition, Vanitas, by visual artist Matthew Ohm, we have nature coming back as a ghost to haunt us for our ecological sins.

Pitzer College’s Lenzner Gallery has been turned into a garden maze, but the garden is dead and it appears to be upside down. Barren bushes hang from above and are snipped to a level just below average height, creating a lowered, skeletal ceiling. The bushes are whitewashed, and they cast ominous double and triple shadows on the wall of the dimly lighted gallery. Stooping slightly to walk under the sharp branches one has the feeling of being oppressed and trapped by nature. Then another realization occurs, the branches become roots. We are right side up after all but we are underground. The branches are the dead roots of the nature we have abused and we, hauntingly, are now buried beneath them. It seems that, in Mr. Ohm’s horror story, when all the plants died we soon followed.

In an alcove off the main gallery there is a large, spider-like branch. It spreads out to touch the walls on either side of the small room and reaches down to the floor at three different places. The various ends of the branch are sawed-off cleanly, creating the illusion that the wood continues to grow into the next room and down to the basement below. At the center of the branch, where these many legs come together, is a bald patch where another leg once grew. The many rings of this old tree are clearly visible. Above this wound hangs a plumb bob––one of those brass pendulums that surveyors and engineers use to gauge straight lines––hovering less than an inch from the naked wood. Like a sad moral to the installation in the first room here it seems that humans are still trying to bend nature to their will. All the straight lines on this branch are amputations; the presence of the plumb bob promises many more. No wonder the trees are angry.

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