Saturday, January 10, 2009

Intelligent design

In a post some time ago, I mentioned the artist Tara Donovan. At the time, I knew her work only through art mags and the internet. Then, in mid-October, the Institute of Contemporary Arts brought Donovan to Boston for a major show, a entire floor of the gallery devoted to her astonishing installations. I visited the day before I left for Exuma.

Donovan works with the most banal of industrial artifacts -- straight pins, plastic cups, paper plates, wooden toothpicks, plastic drinking straws, scotch tape, buttons, adding machine tape -- in massive quantities. By gathering the lowly and inanimate in teeming numbers she achieves effects that can only be called organic, much as you and I are both conglomerations of a few simple kinds of atoms and vastly more than that.

Her signature piece, I suppose, is a sky of styrofoam cups, suspended from the ceiling of a gallery, billowing in their thousands, glowing eerily. In the stark white space of the otherwise bare room one felt as if one were walking on a cloud-draped, sun-startled moor.

My favorite work was a wall of millions of clear plastic drinking straws, stacked like tiny logs, wall to wall, ten feet high, held in place by gravity and the side walls of the gallery, illuminated from behind, the outward-facing surface contoured by the artist in gently heaving hills and hollows, like a fog bank rolling in the from sea.

Again and again, in room after room, Donovan achieves breathtaking effects by discovering the innate potentialities of her elements. The painstaking effort put into these arrangements must be prodigious, but there is a sense in which the elements, by their sheer numbers, arrange themselves, like atoms adapting to their valencies.

Banality into beauty. Inanimate simplicity into forms reminiscent of organic nature. Industrial artifacts into soul-stirring art.