|Grain Elevator, Store. Video still from “Mary Lucier: The Plains of Sweet Regret,” five-channel video and sound installation|
Friday, December 26, 2014
Mary Lucier’s Plains of Sweet Regret at Tacoma Art Museum
Published in The Weekly Volcano, Dec. 24, 2014
Grab a seat in one of the vintage school desks scattered haphazardly about Tacoma Art Museum’s spacious Weyerhaeuser gallery and prepare to be immersed in desolate beauty as Mary Lucier’s five-channel video installation “The Plains of Sweet Regret” takes you to another time and place not so far away — the plains of North Dakota in the recent past.
Five videos are projected on large screens. Smoothly edited images of bleak landscapes and almost empty roads, abandoned churches and houses and commercial buildings, farmers and cowboys tell the tale of hard-scrabble people trying to hang on amid changes to their romanticized lives. Cameras pan desolate fields of grass and lonely roads. We feel as though we are running through the tall grasses until we come upon an empty church, an abandoned home, a grain elevator that’s seen better days. We witness a farmer at work, a calf being born and finally kaleidoscopic images of a rodeo, all set to music composed by Earl Howard and punctuated by the country song “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” by George Strait.
You have to turn your head to look from one screen to another and glimpse the similarities and differences as films that are identical in places and vastly different in others reflect one another. (As I read the sentence I just wrote I realize that it sounds hectic or frantic. It is not. The images move slowly, and the mood is quiet and introspective).
It might well be worth watching the 18-minute film multiple times, since it is impossible to see all at once. Noticing the differences and similarities is fascinating. In some places the differences may be no more than a slight adjustment in camera angle or closer or more distant view of identical images, while in other places there may be a house on one screen and a barn on another, both weather worn with peeling paint and an aching feel of abandonment. Four of the five screens are in the open part of the gallery while almost hidden behind two wall panels a totally different film is shown — a film obviously taken in some of the same settings but otherwise unrelated until it merges with the others and all five films become the same as rodeo cowboys ride bulls in kaleidoscopic movement.
The recently opened Haub Galleries present a romanticized vision of the American West. Lucier’s video is also romantic, but offers a refreshing change with elements of stark reality not to be seen in the Haub collection.
Wall text tucked away in a far corner explains that the area where the film was made has changed dramatically in the past few years with the boom and bust of oil riches. The way of life depicted in the film has disappeared. The rodeos are a last ditch effort to hold on to something already gone. Shale oil and fracking has both enriched and perhaps destroyed the region, and many of the inhabitants have moved to other parts of the country.
“The construct of home and the experience of leaving home are universal. Throughout time and place, people have developed cultures, values, and lifestyles related to place. We talk about sense of place — and place is deeply integrated with our identity,” says Lucier. “History reveals endless cycles of migration, of people moving onward seeking better opportunities. It is happening today in Africa, in Central America, in North Dakota, in your town, from regional to individual migration. These are experiences that resonate with each of us.”
“Mary Lucier: The Plains of Sweet Regret” was commissioned by the North Dakota Museum of Art as part of their Emptying Out of the Plains initiative.
Mary Lucier: The Plains of Sweet Regret, Wednesdays–Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 5–8 p.m. through Feb. 8, 2015, Tacoma Art Museum, adult $10, student/military/senior (65+) $8, family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18), 5 and younger free, Third Thursdays free from 5-8 pm., 253.272.4258, www.TacomaArtMuseum.org]