Preserves and Corrodes:
William Lamson's Mineralogy and Hydrologies Projects
What happens when a space filled with things is irrigated with such intensely salinated water, that when the water evaporates, the once seemingly precious objects—the crisp clear see-through glass, the pictures on the wall, the books—are then covered in a corrosive coding of remnant minerals and transformed into forgotten snowy objects?
Water—central to all life—is often used in artwork symbolically as something that cleans, refreshes, feeds, sustains. But here, this water—and its accompanying minerals—causes destruction, disruption, and through the ever-persistent cycle of evaporation, the space becomes not moldy, but arid and petrified, bathed in salt.
A staging ground for the steady promise of entropy, and of the inevitability of collapse , is Brooklyn-based artist William Lamson’s multi-year, site-specific installation, Mineralogy. Located in Wendover, Utah, inside a World War II armament building, Minerology is a viewing space that looks upon a one-room cabin, set in a vitrine. Like exhibits from a natural history museum, the self-contained room is filled with things that, in this setting, have turned into artifacts—a coat hanging on a hook, a fish jawbone, an old watercolor, books about Plato, books about the future, and a small bed, a broken wicker chair. Shoes and glasses of water that signify what once was. They act like remnants, haunting the space, with their silence. The persistent memory of a person, that was, that does not (or can no longer) enter. There is no human disruption to the mineral growth. Memory is what is both preserved and completely covered in the salt; the objects are enclosed in a sealed environment, transformed, taken-over, like a virus, not frozen in amber.
Salt both preserves and corrodes, but here it feels predatory.
On October 7th, the space officially opened and for a singular moment, suspending the magic, Lamson allowed people inside. One at a time, viewers could look close at the salt-covered objects. Like entering a crypt, there was a reverence about the space. But opening didn’t disrupt viewing. The person moving about the space was simultaneously on view. Appearing stuck in time, capsuled, and like the room itself, the viewer became an object on display, consumed by our gaze. Art historian Svetlana Alpers called it the “museum effect” when things are encased, they become objects of curiosity. But rather than being protected and pristine in their conservator-approved encasement, salt crystals that covered the room drip down the wall, overtake everything, forming stalactites that weep, like the white lined stains from watery tears.
The room, said Lamson, is “undergoing a long-term geologic irrigation,” and is watered daily, through vessels and drip lines that are placed discretely (nearly invisibly) throughout the room. But rather than creating a damp feeling—a watery feeling—the irrigated water, with its high salinity, quickly evaporates, and encrusts everything with its briney snow-white mineral deposit.
The effect is caused by a specific mineral-rich water provided by US-based company Intrepid. Siphoned from the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, Intrepid Postash water contains large amounts of potassium chloride (also known as muriate of potash), a mineral typically used in fertilizers, animal feed, and oil and gas industries, which is mined through solar ponds. Minerals are exposed only by the water turning into vapor and the delicate crust of mineral deposits are, therefore, only a byproduct, a ghost.
The boundaries of interior and exterior, of natural and man-made, breakdown in the armament building that houses the exhibition. Itself a relic, a ruin, full trees grow out of the building’s foundation, and the roof hangs on only in fragments. Piles of debris cover the floor, camouflaging the near pristine viewing space, which was created over a period of two weeks.
Scholar Hikmet Loe said, “That the building and installation are in a constant state of flux is an elegant reminder of our own state of being.” Yes…but perhaps that too Zen, too utopic, too neat. There is something haunting about the space, about the corrosive water, about the Wendover airfield itself. Built in 1941, the airfield housed many structures, including the hangar for the infamous Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This site-- a fraught militarized desert—is political.
The unique location of the work is, in part, a result of a residency with The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). While officially based in Culver City, California, CLUI has locations all over the United States, often in obscure, off-the-beaten-path places and is an organization engaged not only in art residencies and exhibitions, but in research, and public programs. Landscapes aren’t neutral or apolitical spaces, but are continually altered by commerce, by industry, by government, and others, and CLUI projects typically examine a variety of loaded vistas—power plants, waste-water treatment centers, bomb shelters, water pipelines, landfills, and urban waterfalls.
Wendover may feel (may look) like an abject and discarded landscape, but it is land—manmade, desert, or otherwise—nonetheless. And as a site, it also offers a rare opportunity to realize a project with an extended, and indefinite, run—a space where a geological process can happen indefinitely, could unfold over years, not beholden to a curatorial schedule. So, the work is made with not only artifacts, architecture, water—evaporation—salt, but also memory and time.
Minerology is similar to Lamson’s trademark approach to artmaking—All that’s Solid Melts to Air (2016), Between Now and Forever (2013), A Line Describing the Sun (2010), Action for the Delaware (2011), Hydrologies (2014), Hydrologies Atacama (2014), Untitled (Walden) (2014), to name a few—in that it uses a geological process as an active participant in the creation. Nature creates materiality and in that creation, makes meaning. But here, that process feels more personal than in other works. It’s less about land and mark-making, and more about loss, and the inevitability of it. The persistence of water turning to vapor—an interment for entropic memory.
And yet, the Hydrologies projects offers an interesting point of comparison with Minerology in that they center on creating artworks through processes uniquely tied to water, where Lamson functioned like a painter using water as his pigment. In all three works, the act of adding or removing water through performative or ritualistic acts alter or capture distinct landscapes which then yield generative works.
For Hydrologies Atacama (2014), Lamson went to Chile’s Atacama Desert, a large plateau in South America—one of the driest places in the world. Naturally occurring flower bloom happens in the arid Atacama only every two to twelve years (the result of the atypical rains caused by El Niño). Yet (playing god), Lamson tried to simulate the bloom by irrigating linear sections of the desert, hoping to create a line of flowers. For months, he and a Chilean team, walked across the fifty meter strips for eight hours a day carrying a 100 meter hose that connected it to a water truck.
“The slow procession back and forth to awaken dormant seeds felt like a ritual, preparing the earth for a resurrection—a funeral in reverse.” Yet in a Sisyphean madness, his laborious call to the body of Lazarus to arise yielded only scant seedlings, hardly noticeable to the eye. The flowers remained stubbornly buried, the seeds dormant.
Hydrologies Archaea (2014) acts as an inversion of Hydrologies Atacama and a precursor to Minerology. For it, Lamson, removed gallons of water from the Great Salt Lake, and like Minerology, filled glassware with displaced water that were then shown like geological artifacts at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in a solo exhibition together with Hydrologies Atacama in 2015.
The source water is again specific, this time drawn from the area surrounding Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The color is disturbingly pink, caused by tiny halophilic organisms from the animal kingdom Archaea—namely, red algae and halo bacterium—that can thrive in the intense saline waters of the Great Salt Lake (nearly ten times the salt content of oceans) and are thought to originate from the earliest forms of life of earth given their ability to survive harsh conditions. Like the saline waters from Interpid, evaporation leaves deposits of salt crystals that encrust and cover the glass displayed in gallery. Lamson says the projects coupled together suggest “a concept of geologic time that is not slow, but elastic, encompassing events on both a short and a long horizon of time [and]…engage the material agency of an ecological system and its geologic and cultural history.”
Perhaps that is what the collective body of work does through inventions into natural processes—they conflate time, collapse memory, resurrect, preserve, corrode, by putting a mirror up to the viewer of the span of geological time, in which they see their own beautiful insignificance in the face of that vastness.
In all three cases, Lamson’s work problematize water and recodes it. In Hydrologies Atacama, water fails to yield life in the persistent stubborn desert, and in both Minerology and Hydrologies Archaea the salty deposits left from water’s evaporation causes a predatory overtaking.
This is not water to wade in, to bathe in, to swim in. Nor is it a water of floods, of shipwrecks, of melting glaciers. It’s an entropic water, a polluted water, a corrosive, and therefore, a political water.
Visit Minerology: See http://www.williamlamson.com/Mineralogy_Access.pdf for the most accurate instructions, a project made possible by the support of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, The Wendover Airport, and Intrepid Potash, with special thanks to CLUI director Matt Coolidge.
See images of the Hydrologies projects at http://www.williamlamson.com/Hydrologies.pdf
Laura Allred Hurtado is the Global Acquisitions Art Curator for the Church History Museum. She has published broadly including two books Immediate Present and Saints at Devil?s Gate released in 2017, and 2016 respectively. She has worked and/or curated exhibitions in New York City, San Francisco, and throughout Utah, at such places as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Riverside Church, Nox Contemporary, Granary Art Center, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, CUAC Contemporary, Rio Gallery, Columbia University, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.