In The Passage, Tucson artist Nika Kaiser reimagines endings and the possibilities of a post-human future inspired by the reemergence of Glen Canyon.
TUCSON, AZ—Nika Kaiser tried to be something other than an artist. When she moved from Arizona to Portland in her early twenties, she wanted to work in environmental justice. She reasoned that this would be the most direct and tangible way to navigate her relationship with climate change.
Instead, Kaiser pursued her MFA in visual art from the University of Oregon. Kaiser decided that if she was going to understand our changing landscapes, she would do it in the only way she knew how to, through her art practice.
The work of Kaiser, who’s in her mid-thirties and living in her hometown of Tucson, is intrinsically linked to a sense of place, whether it’s exploring environmental injustices or giving voice to fragile ecosystems under attack by climate change. Kaiser’s primary medium is video, but she also works with photography and installation. The Passage, a new work that will soon be on display at a Tucson gallery, is a large-scale video installation that weaves together narratives grappling with the climate-driven phenomenon currently transforming Lake Powell.
In March 2022, the water levels at Lake Powell, a human-made dam located in southern Utah and northern Arizona, sank to a historically low mark not seen since before the reservoir reached its total capacity in the 1980s. As the water recedes due to rising temperatures and an ever-growing drought, glimpses of what lies beneath—the 186 miles of Glen Canyon—are revealed. Before the damming of the lake in 1963, the canyon, located 100 miles from the nearest paved road, was one of the most remote sites in the country. The controversial federal government decision to flood Glen Canyon altered the biological diversity of the area and destroyed the abandoned cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Kaiser’s The Passage—which depicts ghostly figures streaked in red mud and white calcium reemerging from the evaporation of Lake Powell—asks the observer to decenter themselves from an imagined future that Kaiser is creating. It is a performance that illustrates a reawakening and the potential of what might come after an end.
“The inspiration for the work came from the grief that I think we all experience iteratively over and over, seeing headlines, seeing shifting landscapes, experiencing firsthand what’s starting to transpire,” Kaiser tells me on a pleasant day in March 2022 while we sat on a grassy courtyard lawn adjacent to the Tucson Museum of Art. Kaiser has tight dark curls that frame her face and big eyes that she directs to meet your gaze when she is speaking.
Pidgin Palace Arts in Tucson will display an iteration of The Passage in the upcoming two-person exhibition Environmental Transcendentalism, which opens April 16, 2022 and includes work by Celia Reed. Kaiser’s piece will be shown on one screen with three accompanying photographs—stills extracted from the video and digitally augmented. The photographs are constructed to cascade off the walls and slide onto the gallery floor.
Since this will be a pared-down version of a larger installation, Kaiser admits she won’t know if she has achieved what she has set out to do with The Passage until the work is installed and people move through the space. The art piece, scheduled to remain on display through May 14, 2022, will include soundscaping, immersing the viewer in the layered sound of field recordings and found atmospheric audio.
Kaiser’s process varies with each new project, but it’s always rooted in a place. In her previous work, Threshold: Sonoran Sea, she traveled to coastal Sonora, Mexico to explore the fragility of nature on the shores of one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on earth. She first conceptualized that project by spending time in the Gulf of California and exploring what is embedded beyond its surface.
For The Passage, Kaiser focused on a brief moment in geologic time when Glen Canyon’s history was violently disrupted by human intervention. Additionally, in a visually abstract and not entirely legible way, Kaiser has embedded text excerpts from Desert Islands by the French postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
“Deleuze says there is this inherent second coming in anything that exists. And what transforms then is this multiplicity of what came before, and that’s what I’m trying to think about in this post-human future,” she explains. “As unimaginable as it is for us, there’s so much beauty and possibility in the way that we can navigate this end and decenter ourselves from it.”
Through her installation, Kaiser hopes to provide space for others to reflect upon their own existential connections to places inexorably changed by human presence. This process could be adapted to areas where people experience climate crisis despair, which arguably could be anywhere in our ever-increasingly globalized world.
“I was fascinated with this sort of peak sensation of grief that I felt standing there on Glen Canyon Dam,” says Kaiser. “I thought, ‘I want to know this place in this moment.’”