Connected \\ February 20, 2019

Diving deep into Nature’s Nation

As a Fellow working in the Interpretation Department at PEM, my role has been to emphasize and support curatorial goals and create unique opportunities to guide visitors’ experiences. I’ve learned a key principle: What we don’t see in an artwork is just as important as what we do see.

In developing an experience for our audience to think more deeply about the environmental and human costs associated with those materials, our team has created “material deep dives.” These offer observations on some of the materials artists used in their creations. In this case, I researched mahogany wood, silver ore and turpentine in conjunction with a chest-on-chest set of drawers, a silver urn by Joseph Lownes and a painting by abstractionist Morris Louis. These interpretive moments involve stories of environmental destruction, rampant injustice against colonized people and health degradation due to exposure.

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Robert Smithson, American, 1938–1973, Bingham Copper Mining Pit, Utah Reclamation Project, 1973. Wax pencil and tape on plastic overlay on photograph. Seibert Family Collection. Art © Holt/Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.


Materials at different stages of refinement are paired with artwork depicting different environments. Raw silver ore chunks sit near the refined silver urn; a piece of mahogany stretches out by a finished work of decorative art; a turpentine can, representing something often invisible in paintings, hangs near a mid-20th century abstract work.

The deep dives are glimpses into different historical industries and raise more questions than they answer. These questions are meant to encourage closer looking and thinking as visitors experience the exhibition. How did this get here? What was the lasting impact of these practices? And what was the cost?

As news of environmental peril mounts, it’s important that we move forward and question how we as a planet have arrived at this point in history and ask what can be done about it. Though quite serious and, at times, distressing, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment gives us a vitalizing push to create a better future together.

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