DOWN IN THE lower gallery of the Tucson Museum of Art, a pair of art lovers had a dilemma: Should they or shouldn't they step into the room housing Joyan Saunders' installation, Athlete Heart?
The couple can hardly be blamed for hesitating on the threshold. The piece is intimidating. If they had ventured in, they would have had to walk on the pure white rock salt, three inches deep, that covered the floor of the room like a blanket of snow. They would have had to tiptoe around the 13 wood-and-brass breakfast trays, each adorned with a rose in a bud vase, occupying the floor. They would have had to stay away from the piles of earthy soil in the center of the room and they might even have had to hold their noses to ward off the smell of the colony of 156 live snails on the big bed in the middle of the room.
It's shocking and different, no doubt about it, this work by Saunders, a professor in the "new genre" studies program at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Saunders in the past has contributed gender-bending videos to the UA faculty show, and she oversees studies in installation, performance and video art. The relatively new genre of room-size installation is confusing to people accustomed to seeing art safely confined to the gallery wall, or maybe even standing on a portion of the floor. As museum director Robert Yassin says, installation art is closer to theatre and performance art than it is to traditional visual arts media.
But for all its shock value, Saunders' new installation has a bit of the look of those historical period rooms in big museums, where velvety cords forbid all entry. The bed at the center is an attractive wooden four-poster, covered by a traditional white bedspread. The walls are painted a fashionable dark green, and a chain of knotted white sheets forms a trendy swag close to the ceiling. The breakfast trays are finely crafted of quality wood, and the brass plates on them have been carefully engraved. These materials suggest elegance and even, briefly, tranquillity.
But when you do venture in, that tranquillity is quickly ruptured. You crunch-crunch-crunch on the rock salt, and you smell the snails and all their attendant paraphernalia of food and water. In fancy restaurants, cooked snails, or escargots, are a sensuous delight, but as a living colony, the snails corrupt the bed, the would-be site of erotic bliss, into a place that's gross and rotten.
The brass inscriptions on the trays back up this sour vision of romantic relationships. It takes time to read all 13 of the signs, but they're the intellectual heart of the piece. Like plaques at a historic site, they chronicle the unhappy histories of a series of relationships, apparently between women, going from intense attraction to uninhibited sexual pleasure to obsession, violence, abandonment and rage.
Some of the statements are a model of compressed lyricism. Here's Saunders rejoicing in sensuality: "Your skin stayed raised under my fingers, everywhere I touched, a map for me, the blind, and for months afterwards I couldn't stand the feel of anything else in my hands."
And the evocative verse that gives the work its title: "I made it my job to listen to the pause between the beats of your athlete's heart."
More often than not, though, the words erupting out of the sedate trays are about emotional and physical violence.
"I watched you disintegrate, right before my eyes, all snot and saliva, blowing up cat hair and dust on the kitchen floor. And I thought, well I guess that's it, another pile of human wreckage."
"You got it in your head that you wanted to drink my blood and you got up out of bed to break open a Lady Bic razor with a Chinese meat cleaver. I waited, without flinching, knowing you had the purest of motives."
In an informative installation guide that she wrote, Saunders explains she's trying to bring the very private emotions generated by these relationships into the public sphere of art. There's no denying, as she argues, that personal preoccupations have the same or more weight in people's lives than public events do. If wars between nations are memorialized, why not the wars between lovers?
"Brass is chosen specifically for its association with the act of commemoration," Saunders writes, "and these particular plaques propose that matters in the private sphere are worthy of such recognition."
The salt, she explains, keeps the snails from creeping off the bed and on into parts unknown of the museum. So the salt has a metaphorical dimension, too, about life and death: it would kill the snails to go over it. And, Saunders says, the breakfast trays adrift in the salt all over the room suggest a Last Brunch for all the wrecked relationships. The trays represent the lovers described in the text, all by now "relegated to the salt mines" of the artist's emotional life.
I guess it's a good thing Saunders walks us through the piece in her guide, because it takes some getting used to, this new 3-D form of art. Installation, kind of like computer art, is an intriguing challenge to old notions of what art is. As Saunders conceives it, it's a medium mostly of found objects. It turns its back on craft, and abandons the idea that art arises from the touch of the artist's hand manipulating her materials into something entirely individual.
Interestingly, though Saunders' installation creates a stage-like environment, complete with sounds and smells, its objects generate a mostly intellectual response. I found myself searching for a narrative to connect them, and reading Saunders' guide to key myself into the meaning of this and that. And the writing showcased on the trays turned out to be more powerful than any of her objects. These searing words were more emotionally disturbing than either her snails or her salt.
Meantime, the hesitant museum visitors finally ventured out onto the rock salt. A guard periodically came by to sweep stray grains of salt back into the room, trying and failing to confine the installation to its designated space. But the salt, like an invader from the future, just kept insinuating itself into the neighboring gallery, whose walls were full of traditional easel paintings.
Joyan Saunders' Athlete Heart continues through May 7 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Avenue. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Monday. Admission is $2. Free to members, and free to all on Tuesdays. For more information call 624-2333.
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