March 3 – 31, 2017
Sanitary Tortilla Factory, Albuquerque
In the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, among the tufts of brush, cacti, and tangles of hiking paths and winding mountain-bike trails, sits the Embudo Dam, just one of the many flood-control structures that exist throughout the neighborhoods of Albuquerque. This imposing and curious khaki-colored slab of concrete is the focus of Erin Fussell’s recent exhibition, Deep Waters, Thin Places (March 3-31), at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery. Fussell views the dam as equal parts stage, hang-out spot, and “echo sound chamber.” While it would be easy to explore this space as simply a manifestation of humankind’s desire to control the unpredictability of nature, Fussell asks her viewers to come to a more philosophical understanding of the work. Through a series of video and performance pieces, she presents an argument for approaching the Embudo Dam as a metaphor for an “internal state of being.”
Deep Waters, Thin Places is Erin Fussell’s Masters thesis exhibition, and the individual works are best understood when viewed as different answers to the same question: how do we navigate the gray zones, the liminal spaces we encounter daily—physically, politically, mentally? The Embudo Dam, with its variable functionality, alternating between its status as a powerful and necessary water channeling device and its more frequent state as an awkward monument of civil engineering, becomes a platform for the artist to explore other dichotomies: control and release, past and future, action and stillness.
Themes of contradiction and contrast dominate each of the works and serve as the aesthetic thread connecting the different elements in the exhibition. The dominant piece of the exhibition projects an image of frothy, tumbling water on two adjacent walls. Placed between the projector and projection are two sparsely constructed wooden structures mimicking the architectural design of the Embudo Dam. Their shadows impose themselves upon the image of rushing waters, much as the actual dam is imposed upon the landscape. The video is silent, and this absence of the thunderous sound created by such a volume of rushing water is strangely unsettling. In fact, the only sounds present in the exhibition come from an adjacent video in which jars containing water of different levels are turned by disembodied hands. The jars’ slow rotation against a concrete platform produces a grating sound that is both dissonant and melodious. In front of the video’s screen sits a small pile of shattered glass, presumably the same glass jars in the video. Again, Fussell employs contradiction and the unexpected to elicit feelings of unease and uncertainty. The physicality of the glass, sharp and dangerous, immediately brings the viewer into the video’s two-dimensional time and space. One can imaging the jars of water falling or being thrown, the water in them escaping, no longer contained.
The video is silent, and this absence of the thunderous sound created by such a volume of rushing water is strangely unsettling.
A third video projection records movements of performers on site at the Embudo Dam as they run, crawl, twist, and brace themselves against the wind and the dam’s steep incline. This piece most clearly highlights the object-ness of the dam itself, and as viewers, we arrive at a clearer sense of the dam’s locality: how and where it sits in its space. Further situating the dam in real space are several framed diagrams hanging to the left of the performance video. What look like schematic drawings are prints created by Fussell that served as prompts for the each of the performances. The markings on these works borrow their appearance from engineering plans for the Embudo Dam. They read as maps, both of the landscape and of the performers’ movements through that landscape.
Fussell’s exhibition does not dare suggest that hers are the only answers. Rather, her interpretations are merely a few of the possible responses to a question posed in her exhibition statement: “As the architect of your own inner landscape, when do you exercise control, and when do you let go?” As we all face a future that seems increasingly uncertain, with questions raised daily about our personal lives, our political stability, and our environmental sustainability, it is even more important for artists to ask these questions.