New York

Mary Lucier

Greenberg Wilson

In Mary Lucier’s installation Asylum, 1986/91, natural history confronts human history against an apocalyptic postindustrial landscape recreated here as an environmental installation and re-presented in video. All natural light has been emptied from the gallery, and only the flicker of the monitors and the dim glow of light bulbs illuminate the room, which has been divided by fences into three distinct areas: a formal garden arrangement, a toxic wasteland, and a rustic clapboard shack. The interdependence of these environments is enforced by a security cage that physically brackets the entire installation, as well as by the sounds of a ticking metronome and the roar of heavy machinery emitted from a video screen. The arrangement establishes a series of cross-references that articulate humankind’s problematic intervention with nature.

The crisis we face in preserving our planet’s fertility is encapsulated at the juncture of two fences, where the garden meets the wasteland. One fence is made from ornamental wood lattice painted to blend into its setting. The other employs the same diagonal design, but stiff chain-link, associated with security cages and compounds, replaces the wooden grid. Instead of integrating man with his environment, this fence is intended to segregate the two. It seems to be either protecting us from the hazards of industrial waste, or isolating us from the information that may leak out about the pollution and corruption involved in its disposal.

The juncture where the fences meet establishes a boundary between two earthen mounds, each one dialectically opposed to the other. A circle of clean soil that surrounds the base of a classically inspired fountain, adorned with two cherubs supporting a cornucopia, is juxtaposed with a mound of equal size, made of rubble and detritus, completely isolated from the rest of the installation by the wire fence. A surrogate fountain of sorts, the refuse mound spouts sinister nuclear waste instead of water. Suspended above the mound from a fork lift like a hovering geyser, a video screen plays a 12-minute sequence of images showing fork lifts and bulldozers spreading toxic waste over a dumping site—the source of the garbage that lies below.

The ideal of the garden as earthly paradise as a living extension of nature—has been displaced by a new form of landscape: the ever-expanding waste sites, strip mines, and expanses of deforested wilderness. Here the garden’s antithesis expands in unison with the human population and with the increase in the production of human waste. The new garden is no longer the product of the gentle interplay between nature and human intervention; it is now a completely man-made creation. The suggestion here is that, with time, natural growth will be outpaced and ultimately overrun.

Lucier’s Asylum offers little salvation. Her art is critical and establishes a ground from which other art must grow—an art that does not just criticize our living situation but is actually determined to make it better. I am reminded of the work of Peter Hopkins, whose artistic process actually involves rescuing refuse from abandoned industrial sites and using it as material for his art, or of Mel Chin’s collaboration with a Department of Agriculture official to develop an environmental installation using plants that absorb toxic metals in order to clean up a waste site. Projects like these instill hope that art can actually make a difference.

Kirby Gookin