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UMOCA’s curation centers Utah public lands in an experimental call to action

May 13, 2024 06:44PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

“Everything Is Collective: Expected Image” (Genevieve Vahl/The City Journals)

Large panels of brightly colored gradients and speckled texture remain ambiguous in the wide angled photographs capturing the almost otherworldly compositions below. Historic oil paintings of what once was hangs in an almost mystical, land before time ode to a place. Intricate drawings of found items, once lost to their original owners, are rediscovered through a force left outside of the frame. A force generating a sense of loss and longing throughout UMOCA’s galleries. 

The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art has curated its several galleries to center Utah and its public lands, the Great Salt Lake and its dwindling health, interrogating our mistreatment of the land, creating a call to action in its somber reverence. Setting a tone of melancholy and curiosity; a sadness for what has been lost already, yet a curiosity in how to begin curbing these trends.  

“The lake and our air quality are recognizable signs of the climate issues Utahns are facing, which are fast becoming rallying points for action,” the artist statement for the museum’s main show, "As the Lake Fades,” reads. “As the lake disappears and lake bed soil is exposed, toxic chemicals like arsenic, copper and mercury have the potential to make their way into the air, adding to already unhealthy levels of pollution in the valley and causing long-term effects on the health of residents.” 

All the exhibits in the museum thread this throughout their independent galleries, mediums and artists. Working in conjunction with one another to draw viewers in through beauty and visual conviction to face the reality that this destruction is from our own doing. Eliciting discomfort in the dire state being showcased, calling viewers into action through the art’s volition. 

“Everything Is Collective: Expected Image” (Genevieve Vahl/The City Journals)


In the upper level Street Gallery is presented “Everything Is Collective: Expected Image,” a slew of  “experimental works in response to how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) uses visuality, photography and images as a crucial part of its land management policies,” reads the artists’ statement. “These policies dictate the ways the nation’s public lands and natural resources are understood, apportioned, conserved and exploited.” Using the Visual Resource Management System (VRM) to determine the “‘scenic or visual’ values of America’s public lands.”

A room plays two projections, one of drone coverage of vast land swaths on a topo map, the adjacent showing human captured video hiking in to these points. Reappropriating land survey footage out of its scientific context begins questioning this system’s uses and functions. To “subvert the guidance, protocols and imagery presented by the VRM system…The collective’s goal is to make new visual works that challenge accepted conceptions of nature, conventional landscape epistemologies, anthropocentric viewpoints, land use interpretation and capitalist values as they relate to the western landscape.” Recontextualizing the footage to interrogate why we use this system and who gains. 

Scouring every inch of the landscape feels, in this museum context, a futile attempt to gain control by trying to quantify it. Using this footage from the VRM System to “dictate the ways the nation’s public lands and natural resources are understood, apportioned, conserved and exploited.”. 

Defenselessness seen in the multiple renditions of a photograph of a power transformer, perhaps, – an unknown yet clearly a man-made object – plopped in the middle of the desert. The artist cut out the man-made object, even though it was the main subject of the photograph, and replaced it with an underlaid image of plants. A representation of returning to the earth, recontextualizing what could have been there had humans not been so entitled as to place such an unnatural element in the remote desert. The reappropriated image questions our entitlement to the land, placing machinery on precious biocrusts and flora we think is ours to do anything with. 

An appreciation for preserving biocrusts cultivated through Jorge Rojas and Dr. Sasha Reed’s show “The Biocrust Project” in the lower level Exit Gallery. Continuing to tackle this intersection between science and art that “Expected Image” began upstairs.  

“Despite the inherent connection, artists and scientists typically work in isolation. Canyonlands Research Center’s (CRC’s) Artist in Residence (AiR) program seeks to educate and engage diverse audiences in ecology and climate solutions through explicit collaborations between artists and scientists,” the artist statement read. Using art as a way to make science and policy accessible – bringing scientific understanding of these precious biocrusts and their importance to the desert’s health to the people. Like the way “Expected Image” brings understanding to the BLM’s land management policy using the VRM. Forming a respect to be brought into the desert with the viewers to best preserve, respect, treat the land in their actions. 

“Art and science can help us experience these small but important communities, allowing us to know, respect and support them.” Using art to better preserve our lands, the biocrusts, the Great Salt Lake. Looking at the land through beauty instead of money signs. “To subvert the guidance, protocols and imagery presented by the VRM system.” Subverting the capitalist drivers, questioning the anthropocentric viewpoints that barrels towards commodifying and capitalizing off the land for our own gain at the expense of the land’s health.

Seen exactly in Sant Khalsa’s photographs “Western Waters.” The black and white photos taken between 2000-2002 elicit a sense of ironic humor in capturing western stores turning their business models into commodifying our most basic human need: water. “‘Western Waters’ addresses the commodification of nature, water, as a consumer product, and human desire for never ending thirst,” the artist statement read. Discussing the scarcity mentality and low access to fresh drinking water in the west because of overpopulation and over development, gatekeeping and commodification of natural resources. Bringing into focus the priorities of our country. 

The costs of water overuse seen in Diane Tuft’s visually alluring photographs in the upper level Projects Gallery. Tuft’s photography exhibit, “Entropy,” creates a silent wonderment from her aerial images of bright colors and swaths of gradients that use beauty to sound the alarm of environmental demise. 

“The saturated colors, visible cracks and crystalline textures found in this body of work are born from the lack of moisture making its way to the lake,” the artist statement said. Fuschia water fades into violet. Chartreuse ground is pocked with water holes. The sassy colors are a product of algae and microorganisms called halophiles with a unique pigment that emerges with increasing salinity from the loss of water in the Salt Lake due to evaporation and lack of replenishment. 

Tuft’s color blocking of bright, brilliant colors of smooth, untouched surfaces brought a sense of calm before the storm of environmental demise, if our habits remain unfettered. A quiet reverence to the beauty, yet the lingering loss barreling on if left unchecked. Alluring the eye in its brilliance to unveil a hidden dark side. 

“As the Lake Fades” in the lower level main gallery is a retrospective continuing to look at how our capitalist driven decisions have drastically altered the health of the Great Salt Lake. Using the various artists, their mediums and the grandeur of the lake’s importance to our environmental region as “rallying points for actions.” 

Alfred Lambourne’s “Cliffs of Promontory Great Salt Lake” from 1883 opens the exhibit, an oil of white men finding themselves on the shores of this inland sea surrounded by mountains in the middle of the desert. The land looks almost Jurassic in its antiquity and lack of human intervention. Where migratory birds have been stopping long before the rigged sailboat docked on shore. Where brine shrimp have been the main food source for the birds forever. An ode to a place that once was. 

Tom Judd’s “SALTAIR” also opens in retrospect, a photo transferred on canvas of the original Saltair, in its Indian Gothic style, sitting on wooden stilts in the middle of the Great Salt Lake with people swimming in the water at its feet. A structure that no longer exists. The swimming hole that no longer serves locals to cool off in the desert heat. Water levels no longer that high and full. The opening pieces look back on the glory time of the Salt Lake before industrialization and colonization ran rampant. Soft, picturesque moments of times that once were. 

Like the lives that once were of the highly detailed pencil drawings of found objects by Mary Toscano. Creating eerie and ominous compositions that activate wonder and curiosity of the lives of these objects emerging from years below water’s surface. A fold up chair looks over the shrinking vastness of lapping water, sitting in a quiet reverence, remembrance. Of what once was. The objects bring a visual representation to the lake shrinking, unveiling hidden objects from times that once were. The shrinking of the lake felt in the bleak white of the paper, the water receding away from our foreground, feeling its slow but sure departure. 

Andrew Young brought data visualization downstairs in his visualization of climate change in his piece “A Record of a Heedless History.” Concentric circles to form a sphere through time that represents how each year has deviated from the earth’s historic average temperature. Red being hotter than the historical average, blue being cooler than. The sphere starts mostly blue, gradually intermingling with red in the center, then our contemporary anthropocene is saturated, dark red. A second sphere of concentric gray circles titled “A Space of Pivotal Possibility” apexes with its colored neighbor, reaching into the future time scape representing what is on our horizon. The unknown of what those colors will be. Seeing the climate crisis through the lens of the Great Salt Lake: Increasing temperatures increases evaporation rates of the water, evaporating water means more exposed lake bed, more exposed lake bed means more heavy metal dust to be blown into our air. More revealed lakebed exposes more lost items, remembering a time of once was.   

Alicia Anderson’s “Lacustrine” video was striking in its visual and audio use of migrating birds. “‘Lacustrine’ means dried lake plain, a dried geological feature that forms from the past existence of a lake and its associated sediments. … Writing about her work, Anderson says, ‘It flows from the confluence of identity and earth, and attempts to question and reposition how humans fit in this world.” She reads a beautiful, poetic monologue, talking about the birds, time and space, their existence and our existence now happening simultaneously, yet not symbiotically. A meditative look at these dried lake plains that we fence off, questioning the dedicated zones we have partitioned for birds, when they are actually free and boundless. They do not abide by our arbitrary desire to control their whereabouts. 

The various exhibits thread a sense of futile irony to humans’ desire to control this impossibly vast, far reaching place that is so much bigger than us and our folly computer systems.