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Kimberly Nichols, NewArtLab

NewArtLab: Karen Lofgren’s Trajectory Object at High Desert Test Sites

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sculptureIt’s a warm Southern California Saturday and my boyfriend and I are immersed in a canyon wedged into a mountain near our home for our annual weekend hike when I bring up Karen Lofgren’s Trajectory Object.

As he walks ahead of me, navigating our way up a steep hill lined with beige brush and crinkling weeds where we saw a deer a few months back, I explain:

“There’s this artist who was interested in exploring the way humanity is seen from the future from the perspective of civilizations who encounter prior civilizations when they dig up ancient remains. You know, like when an archeologist finds a piece of stone from hundreds of years ago and tries to figure out what it means, what its purpose was, and how it fit into the society which made it. In cases where the finder (usually academically educated) can’t conjure a logical, cultural or contextual function for the object as in a tool or utilitarian object, oftentimes it will be coined a ritual object. This artist was interested in creating a piece of art that would act as a ritual object that she could then bury for future societies to uncover.”

“Very cool,” my boyfriend says as we come to the end of the crevice that continues up the hillside towards a deep ridge sprinkled with lemonade-colored crystals from the early afternoon sun. We begin to veer off the known path looking for ways to go deeper up into the crack, stepping over scratchy patches of bramble and rock into softer mounds of arid grasses. We’ve never been in this part before and are in an adventurous mood.

“Anyway, “ I continue, “she decided to make a sculpture that would represent a set of known constellations that we can clearly see today, but that she discovered through her research will no longer be visible to the human eye in the future due to the earth’s shift. This will challenge the finder even moreso because the object will allude to something that is no longer in that civilization’s contemporary lexicon. She then buried the sculpture up in Joshua Tree as part of the High Desert Test Sites installations that sprawl out over the landscape.”

“Interesting,” my boyfriend says as we come to the farthest spot we can traverse on our current trajectory and then he laughs. As he moves aside to let me see the source of his laughter, I see a massive and rusting hand of a plow lying alone and stark naked in the dirt, overgrown with a few straggly twigs from a nearby tree. Familiar to me yet completely out of place in the wild—an abandoned piece of machinery by some old construction endeavor left to iodize and die beneath the stark climate.

I wonder aloud what a future archeologist might surmise about this metal claw alone on the hillside and realize that this is what intrigues me most about Karen Lofgren’s Trajectory Object—that it brings up so many questions for me about what we think we know about our history and our timeframes and how those things that we think we know formulate our current experiences as a society. In reality, we don’t know if we are right about anything and we don’t know if we are wrong about anything but we continue to morph and shift our viewpoints around a body of legacy lore compiled over centuries in ways that inform our present day.bookIn efforts to explore these ideas more, I spoke directly with Karen Lofgren about her experience making this piece.

What originally inspired you to create Trajectory Object? What ideas or questions were burning in your mind that this exploration answered?

I was thinking about how future civilizations might unearth and view contemporary art objects and the tragi-comic ephemerality of human culture when contrasted with larger earth and space systems and cycles.  I wanted to think about contemporary art practice in astronomical time, in geological time, and find some comfort in their comparative vastness. I wanted to use the work as a lens through which I could deconstruct my perspective on the nature of the time that we live in, which I had found I was taking for granted as relatively concrete.

I was thinking about the nature of objects of art and ritualistic/presentation functions as distinguishable from objects with practical use value. I thought about this for a very long time and came around to thinking that an object of no use value is naturally a ritual object. What we make in our studios are also ritual objects and we are participating in an ancient tradition. The project brought up a lot of questions, but then those questions were about how to make the project, whether it could really be done, which were then answered by doing it.

The larger questions it just brings up as a matter of fact, I am not sure they are answerable.

SiteStudy

How long did you keep your sketchbook and explore the various tangents of what this piece had simmering within you?

Drawings for this work appear in three or four sketchbooks from 2010 through 2013 in which I drew and took notes so the project took shape and direction. A number of the drawings are redundant, with three-five for each scenario and a lot of imaginary site studies (picturing what I was looking for in the real world).

More serious scholarly type of research was done at University libraries and museum libraries in the summer 2013, although I’d researched a lot of it online in open sources too. The academic research phase determined the form of the work, then I had to decide which cultures and time periods to draw from for inspiration. I chose a decisively contemporary aesthetic for the structure of the work because cultural objects that are unearthed are generally “unattributable” to any one person, so I wanted the work to reflect the aesthetics of the “parent culture”.

I was really interested in the anonymity of historical object making, and in dreaming about how such a symbolic burial might be interpreted in another thousand or so years when one, language is changed completely and the words inscribed are illegible except to top scholars and two, the work’s function and meaning become hypothetical, just like objects we dig up today.

I also started looking at the language versions of English and letterforms I wanted to use over the past number of years, getting into ancient texts and medievalism to a small degree. Once you get into looking into language and shifts over time, it’s a Pandora’s Box of information. In summary the piece was probably researched for about four years in all, although arguably more, and I’m still thinking about it, that it’s finally completed, figuring out where next is related.

constellationDid you always know a sculpture would be created and if so, was it always constellation based?

My earliest drawings for the work were from a few years ago, and they were open-frame, constellation based. In the years between, the form for the work was very much up in the air as so to speak “a big bronze sculpture”, and I returned to the precise constellation forms it would take on through research into ancient burials and their orientations, then decided to use the orientation and visible constellation forms as a geographic marker of time.

Why Orion as opposed to others?

The structure of the object is a representation of some of the constellations that will no longer be visible from our latitude in some thousands of years as Earth rotates on its axis and our pole star shifts to Vega from Polaris. Orion, as well as Lepus and Canis Major are included in this group, moving southwards over thousands of years. The three are mythologically linked as well across cultures. Orion holds significance across multiple cultures and many ancient structures are said to mimic Orion in their orientation. Also many monuments are oriented to the 16 very brightest stars, Orion has two of the sixteen, containing both Rigel and Betelgeuse. Canis Major has the very brightest star in the northern night sky, Sirius.

Cairn Where exactly is the piece buried and is there documentation on site for viewers?

The piece is buried in a semi-secret location near Pioneertown. There are directions on High Desert Test Sites’ webpage for the project. If you were very crafty, you could find the site by using the publication as a guide. There are enough photos to get you there. Also the drawing on the last page is actually helpful to me in finding the site.

There is a sun-rising cairn of approx 5’x5’x4′ tall that marks the site. It is nestled between standing stones that are also incidentally sun-rising. (Sun-rising means that it is oriented to the sun on the day that work began–like all medieval churches and a huge percentage of all megalithic structures).

In an anthropological regard, what intrigues you about the idea of the future finder of your piece? You seem to have put a lot of thought into the idea of finding mysterious objects that are obscured from their prior meaning by time and I am curious what feelings this provokes in you in regards to your piece.

I wanted to know more about how uses of objects are determined in archaeology, and wanted to make something relatively opulent, human sized, and then try to find a location for it that it might be found one day, but not any day soon. By mimicking a grave, the work would be more likely to be found in the far future. I was thinking that there would be some type of geo-scanner that would sense the excavated pit shapes and materials included (such as the grave goods/materials indicated below), and thereby locate ancient burials for excavation. This way, objects in remote places might be easily identified, some day a long time, or short time, in the future.

The finder might not know what the object means or how it was used, and this is my intent and interest. Likely the language will have changed significantly, if not entirely (the West Saxon writing in the publication is also English!). They’ll try to figure out what it is. If the constellation forms are still being used, they will recognize them, perhaps. They could carbon-date, if they are human and that is how they determine age. This will be a very rough estimate (c. 2000-2050?).

They would know it’s a burial because they would be looking for burial sites if they were to find it. Burial sites are often sought out in what are called Ritual Landscapes. The site the work is on could be considered a Ritual Landscape of sorts, because it sites a number of art works, away from human settlement. If these works grow in scale and monumentality (which they are likely to do), the ritual nature of that landscape will be more pronounced. Archaeologists seek out these types of landscapes to find buried treasure, tombs.

The finder would know it is a symbolic burial rather than a human burial, although they are likely to dig around it and under it to be sure. They would know that the object is a cultural/ritual object, as it has no discernible wear markings and is inscribed with decorative (?) text, cast in bronze.

They might research and locate aesthetic compatibility with our age (the plastic age?), and be able to connect the work with a parent culture and possibly with the aesthetics of contemporary art, which will have some other name. I like that it will have some other name, the piece for me was looking at meaning of objects and cultures and their transformation over time. I mean over the long, long haul, or maybe just a few feet of topsoil (300-1000 years per inch!).

In my research I found that a number of tombs were robbed within just a couple of HOURS. A more likely scenario is that it is grave-robbed within the next 20 years, but I like the feel of the bigger picture.

What were the items you added with the sculpture in burial?

Many cultures inter grave goods along with bodies to give the body, or in this case form, nourishment for its symbolic journey through the next world. I included historically significant items like goat horns (it was common for animals to be sacrificed, with the choice parts buried and the offcuts eaten by mourners–goats are also the 2nd most often sacrificed animal and the etymology of “Tragedy” comes somehow from “goat song”).

A strand of cowrie shells is buried too, these were used for money in many places, and ocean objects in the desert are very special.

Beer–a six-pack, various types, also traditional.

Powder pigments: red and yellow iron oxide are the oldest colors, used to paint on cave walls, for example, and revered by humans the world over. Still used today in paint pigments.

Muslin cloth: shrouds the form to protect it from the elements and from interruption to its slumber. It is essentially “tucked in”.

Anything else you would like to add?

At various points in manifesting this project, the whole thing became completely ridiculous, and comically so. The absurdity reflected nicely on the concept.

Article written by Kimberly Nichols

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Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy and as a conceptual artist has exhibited throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.

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