Arizona's Best

A technological masterpiece showing death in the desert stars in TMA's 'Biennial'

You're stumbling through the desert. Cicadas are buzzing in the brush; birds are chirping overhead.

You're lost, and you don't know which direction to turn--toward the low mountains to the left, or toward the mesquite bosque to the right? Either way, there's no water in sight, and the relentless sun is draining the life right out of you. And white grave crosses are flying toward your face. Death, it seems, is at hand.

But you're lucky, you remind yourself. You're not an impoverished worker struggling across the dangerous border in order to pick Americans' lettuce and clean their motel rooms. You're an art lover, looking at the single most compelling piece in the Tucson Museum of Art's Arizona Biennial '05.

Lucy Petrovich's "Desert Views, Desert Deaths" is a terrifying video installation that simulates the experience of a migrant lost in the desert. Tucked into a small room all by itself, "Desert Views" has a giant video screen set up in front of black curtains. You have to put on some goofy cardboard 3-D glasses to see properly--the screen images are like the hyper-3-D pictures in a kid's toy stereoscope--and you push a button to fire up the video.

It begins with the horrifying image of about 12 corpses laid out in a row in the desert, their stiff feet sticking up, announcing that rigor mortis has long since set in. At first, the bodies are as still as death, but once you press the control button, they surge toward you, aimed in horror-movie fashion right for your head. After the corpses fly by, pink funeral flowers and white crosses rush forward. Cross after cross come straight at you, getting bigger the closer they come.

One cross grows larger until it obliterates the screen in a blanket of white; you feel you've been buried, or at least crushed by a toppled grave marker. Other times, the flowers or graves turn sideways, and, flattened into a sharp-edged plane, rush past you. You feel like you've been narrowly sideswiped.

You don't know this at first, but you go in a different direction--and see different things--depending on where you aim the control mechanism. The first time I traveled through the video, the real names of the desert's dead and their ages came hurtling at me in stark white letters. Victor Galindo Torres, 21. Salvador de la Paz Macededo, 21. Arturo Gomez Castro, 27. Newspaper headlines announcing their deaths followed, sailing through the air.

My next time through, I tried to find these dead again, but I got lost. I crashed video-electronically through the mesquite, through the flying tombstones, underneath a dark, forbidding ramada, but I couldn't find them anywhere. I was totally lost, turned around, confused, the way a migrant must feel after days of dehydration.

Not until some other museum goers came along and took control of the button did the screen once again yield up the names of the dead. This time, too, there was a scene of a capture--or rescue--by the Border Patrol, with a couple of migrants standing next to an officer, in front of a whirring helicopter.

Petrovich is a name new to me, but if this is her debut, it's a stunning one. I don't begin to understand the electronic wizardry she used to create this ever-changing surround-sound sensation, but she's deployed it brilliantly. It was an inspired choice to force her viewers to get lost in her layers of crosses, bodies and graves and ominous computer imagery. By the time you emerge safely, you're trembling.

The artist doesn't address the political fallout of immigration, the questions about unpaid medical bills or environmental degradation, or the issues of depressed wages and a permanent underclass. But that's not a failing. Petrovich is looking at the stark terror of the desert trek. Her installation records the catastrophic fallout of a global economy that allows capital to freely cross borders while condemning workers to risk death to do the same thing. And that fallout, too often, is death.

"Desert Views" is just one of 52 works by 45 Arizona artists in the Biennial, an every-other-year exhibition meant to be a snapshot of the state's current art trends. This year's judge, Siri Engberg, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, culled the winning artists from 481 who entered. Tucson can be proud that Engberg, oblivious to local rivalries, selected more artists from the Old Pueblo than anyplace else. She picked 31 from Tucson, 12 from Phoenix and neighboring towns, and one each from Flagstaff and Prescott.

And Tucson's galleries can boast that they've already shown some of this fine work. John Davis exhibited his "San Bernardino Ranch Drag" at Davis Dominguez earlier this year (see "Nature Fights Back," March 31); it pairs a marked-up map with a sculptural object of wood and leather that Davis hitched to his pickup and dragged down a dirt road. Amy Shapiro's delicate "The Beginning and Inevitable End," picturing female bodies in thread-on-canvas, made an earlier appearance at Platform.

After years of trying--and failing--to represent all stripes of Arizona artists from cowboy painters to furniture makers to young radicals, the Biennial in recent years has gone almost wholly contemporary. Video and assorted new media are popular this year, and so are the perennials of painting and photography, though the photos are likely to be manipulated and the paints part of a media mix.

Among the photogs, Tucsonan Ken Rosenthal, who shows at Etherton and formerly at the now-defunct Metroform, has a trio of the fine, shadowy works that suggest childhood. Printed in dreamy sepia, "A Dream Half Remembered" is a gelatin silver print of a kid in devil horns. William Lesch, best known for his desert landscapes drenched in neon, here shows intriguing new work. He's made a pair of large close-ups of young people, but he's allowed the chemicals to stain and eat away at the image.

Rosanna Salonia, included in the summer photo show at Platform, also manipulates her photography, using toxic chemicals as a counterpoint to the ecological message of her landscapes and beachscapes. Like Lesch, she's here showing figurative work, picturing a man in sepia, in "Universi: Man." Blake Hines, another Metroform veteran, checks in with a straightforward, luminously colored photograph of a "Tucson Warehouse."

Unexpected media include seed beads and contact paper. Katy Emig, another Tucsonan, has wittily combined the congenial aesthetics of Indian tourist goods with the jazzy motel signs of old Arizona highways. "Four East Mesa Trailheads" renders the fine old signs in beads. Jessica James Lansdon also delves into old-timey imagery in her "Superstition Mountain/The War Between the States" This three-dimensional work has scores of saguaros cut out of old-fashioned contact paper glued to the walls in a corner of the museum, along with dead Civil War soldiers. Dozens of strands of red thread stretch out the dismembered bodies of little felt horses lying on the ground.

Lansdon's soldiers may have been lifted from the photographs of Timothy O'Sullivan, Civil War photog extraordinaire, but they're as fresh as each day's newspapers, announcing the new Iraqi war dead. But lying as they do in Arizona's deserts, they have a poignant link to the migrant corpses in Petrovich's "Desert Views, Desert Deaths."

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