Chicago

Michael Paha

Perimeter Gallery

Michael Paha’s installations are true organic theaters, complex and fully staffed ecosystems displaying interdependent links in the chain of life. He presents creatures of the earth, water, and air in continual performance, playing out slow-moving dramas over which the artist has limited control. His projects probe and intertwine the disciplines of science and art; they both instruct and delight.

House Unattended, 1989, a 26-foot-long piece that dominated this exhibition of three installations, is animated by the sight and sound of trickling water. Like some liquid Muzak, this soothes the viewer into a tranquil and receptive state. The piece as a whole is dense with water lilies, duckweed, papyrus plants, and ferns; its nether pool contains fish and tadpoles. Nine wooden support columns, carved to resemble weathered posts, are connected by horizontal elements, creating shelves or boxes where plants and grasses grow profusely. These areas, and occasionally the reeds below, are populated by placid lizards and frogs concealed in the overgrowth, who emerge from time to time to munch on plant life or the insect larvae that Paha leaves for them. Crowning this environment is an enclosed netted space where two pairs of finches fly up and down the length of the installation, isolated from the goings-on beneath them. This massive assemblage of wildlife seems oddly artificial and exotic in a gallery setting.

Paha has coined the term “arsarium” to describe this genre of environmental object, conjoining the Latin word for “art” with a suffix taken from “solarium” or “aquarium.” His experiences and skills as a preparator at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History have been put to good use here. House Unattended has the quality of a demonstration piece, a living diorama. Despite its great size, it has the feel of a miniature to it, like an earthwork or macrocosmic environment tamed and brought indoors. While the actions of the individual denizens of this world might seem arbitrary, Paha’s ecosystem is ultimately describable, and played out as if in a doll’s house.

The medium—life itself—carries with it implicit possibilities of change and death. Over the course of the work’s display, unexpected plant forms bloomed into life and several of the animals died. The discovery of mutability and of death in a semicontrolled Arcadia was, if not planned, no failure on Paha’s part. A subtext to House Unattended (dealt with more literally in The Mission, 1989, a smaller piece concerned with the de- and reforestation of tropical rainforests) is the need for humans to accept the responsibilities and risks that come with the domination of nature. These installations, always balancing fragility and resilience, suggest that the stakes therein are large indeed, with an outcome much in doubt.

James Yood