Brent Witters: This Too Shall Pass - Thoughts on Human, Water and Place
J. Fatima Martins
February 8, 2018
“This Too Shall Pass - Thoughts On Humans, Water and Place” is an installation in a state of waiting. Artist Brent Witters admits that it is an evolving and imperfect experiment. The main theme is the cycle of impermanence. Witters uses the water element to open the dialogue about existence as both evanescent and solid. These leads to considerations about the haunted space, and how objects carry essence, and their own agency.
The installation is divided into two components: the first room at Project/ Projects holds a group of photographs in documentary style of the abandoned property and house from which the objects on display were taken. Also in this space is are ‘photographic light boxes’ featuring circular glass ‘fisheye’ peep holes. It is in the boxes where the idea of the enchanted and fractured environment is introduced. The glass eye distorts the photograph giving the image a wobbly condition. The feeling of befuddlement continues into the main installation room that is separated by a door. Passing through the threshold we enter an eerie immersive space containing dried vegetation, old objects, and paintings. These are fragments grouped together into units of similarity. Witters added intriguing elements to the installation: scent, sound, and dripping water. [ There’s also a film that was not functioning during the exhibition opening.]
Human ego is the over-current, on display in the form of actual things, some electrical, once necessary and useful, left behind as junk, and then reconsidered as valuable by the artist. Witters suggests questions: what happens when objects are placed in and then removed from a location? What do they absorb from the place, what do they leave behind, and what do they carry when relocated? Witters also makes a point about the process of making art itself. He is saying that even in the absence of a human artist the beautiful is created. To demonstrate the point that humans engage in a complicated and symbiotic relationship with the world, Witters displays a group of paintings made by naturally occurring mold on dry wall. He salvaged the dry wall and then cut it down to emphasize the best designs made by the mold creators. He also removed a bird nest attached to a light bulb from the house, and then reframed its identity as a sculpture, erasing its function as an avian home. The animals created the stuff, he as artist, transformed it into art.
As you read Witter’s statement published here, the Q & A, and look at the installation images, keep in mind the idea of the hypnagogic condition, notions of dream journeys, and this quote by Italo Calvino - “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
Brent Witters: Statement
This installation grew out of a series of installations I started in 1999 while living in a mason lodge/ druid temple in the small coastal California town of Guadalupe. My aim with installations is to create a work that could be as impactful as film and digital media. The logic was to use senses that other media where unable to access, which caused me to evolve into multi-sensory works. These works attempted to engage the four major senses - sight (visual), hearing (auditory), touch or feel (somatosensation), and smell (olfactory). The work in Project/ Project has a more conceptual basis that takes a specific place and transposes the objects from that space into another environment. This editing of objects leads towards a narrative. In this case it lead toward the relationship of humans, water, and place, since this building had been abandoned after the Missouri River flood of 2011. This timely narrative was an outgrown of the specific place not the initial concept.I plan to work with this specific concept of abandoned spaces and objects in the future and look forward to the narratives that are derived. The title was borrowed from a friend and past collaborator’s sculpture: Elizabeth Dorbad’s “Thoughts on Death, the Little Death and Just General Walks in the Wilderness.”
Q & A Brent Witters: “This Too Shall Pass - Thoughts on Humans, Water and Place”
JFM: In your artist statement you open with telling us that "This Too Shall Pass" is part of a series of installations started in 1999. What are the themes of some of the previous installations, and do they all connect to each other? What do the pervious installations look like?
BW: This is my fifth large scale installation and the only recurring theme would be engaging the four main senses. This is the first building block of what I'm doing with installation. The prior works were more interested in inducing a mind state or complex emotion. The other installations where mainly done bedroom size but one was in the corner of a 3000sq foot room with 20ft high ceilings. All had projections from slide projectors. All my artist friends would chide me to document the work and I would say, “p’shaw, I'll make more.” The materials varied but here are a few things that stick out in my head: large plastic, orange fishing buoys I found on the beach, a punch bowl of jello with a speaker in the bottom, headphones for the sound pieces you would wear while looking at the piece, an old chair with dried weeds that had grown out of the cushions three feet tall with a projecting of stained glass projected onto the high white backrest of the chair - all found objects.
JFM: For this installation you salvaged material from an abandoned house and property damaged by a flood. What came first in your mind: the idea for an installation or the materials which then initiated the idea?
BW: I've always been intrigued by abandon spaces and the decay patina that ensues within them so I had the idea to remove the contents of a space and reinstall them as an installation. This is now the second building block of my installation making. Initially I had identified a building within Omaha, but was unable to gain access to it. Then I found this old farm house while on a bike ride. The first trick is to find a gallery/ space that will allow you to bring in decaying object and add odor to a building. I was rejected by two galleries here in Omaha before I discovered Project/Project. Joel and Josh are a godsend to people like me doing experimental work that is hard to explain. The second trick is to get a landowner that will allow you to access the building and remove the objects and spend some time on site. Luckily I've had all my facial tattoos removed, so this part is easier now. The fun/creative part for me is to apply a ‘Duchampian’ eye to the place and cull together interesting objects from the dilapidation. This building was challenging in that it was very sparse with interesting materials. The bird nest build on the light build was the jewel for sure. A few people ask if I had made it.
The photographing and video [the video had technical difficulties and was not working the night of the show] are new aspects of what I'm doing with installations. Something interesting happens in the mind when you observe the object [ in photograph or video format] first then see the actual object. I'm not sure what that is, but it relates to our current culture in regards
to advertising and celebrity.
JFM: At Project/ Project, smell is an important element. You've installed a scent machine in the installation. What's the smell, does it have a specific name? It's a pleasant scent which contrasts with the theme of decay but also evokes growth. Tell us about the process of determining the precise scent.
BW: I started a small company years ago making natural products, so I have experience blending essential oils. I made a blend a month before the show then started tweaking it till I got something I liked. Smell has a strong memory inducing quality so I did not want it to be recognizable. I think it ended up being around 16 various essential oils, hyssop maybe being the most interesting since its use goes back pre-biblical. Someone at the show did want the formula but I did not keep track of the ratios.
JFM: The installation also includes a beautiful and haunting 45-minute soundtrack. Tell us about the process of creating the piece, who is the musician playing the cello, and is this your first musical construction, and do you have others?
BW: The sound for this was mostly field recordings, trains, highway, cicadas, and geese. I realized when I finished that it was uniquely Nebraskan which pleased me. I had the cops called on me twice while recording the train tracks. I had to use the ‘I'm an artist’ get out of jail free card. The standup bass was done by my friend and neighbor Jeremy Haupt. He is a trained musician and teaches music at a high school. I gave him an idea of what sound I was going for and he went to town. The melody was still playing in my head the next morning, so I would consider that a success. I have been doing sound records for years and started pre-digital with tape. I'm not a musician by any means but for a while I was producing full albums solo and with real musicians. I have an ongoing recording project called Sugarfactory with artist William Loveless who lives in the California desert. I've sold over five albums in my career. I liked the process of recording, mixing then doing the cover art kinda like the local musician Dereck Higgins does. A lot of what I've done would fall under the definition of art rock and is barely listenable.
JFM: I'm fascinated by this idea, that you wrote in your statement - "This editing of objects leads towards a narrative." Are you attempting to tell a
story? Have you always been interested in storytelling, or is this an evolution or change from your previous work?
BW: No I would not consider myself a story teller. I have basic ether that I work from and I would call it environmental/anti-consumerism art, but its not preachy hit you in the face or even obvious that that's what I'm doing. The second part I would consider mystical or zen. I don't think this is obvious either, but you catch a glimpse of it when you look at the bird nest over the light bulb. The story just kinda falls out of the building. I use and the objects that I choose. Every person looking at the objects might come up with a different story, and I like that.