Monday, November 12, 2007

Margaret Whiting :: Laws of the Land Tour Blueprint


Margaret Whiting: Laws of the Land consists of sixteen multimedia sculptures made from discarded law books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, natural history books, combined with natural objects such as shells, leaves, and bones. Whiting alters the books dramatically, tearing pages from their bindings, cutting the books into sections or strata, creating collages of legal texts, and highlighting keywords and phrases. Many of the book and paper pieces are then juxtaposed with natural objects or images from natural history texts. The works yield an interesting commentary on the relationship between American land use and laws, and bring to our attention the complex history of land use and the laws governing use of land in the U.S.

About the Artist
A native of northern Minnesota, Margaret Whiting now lives and works in Waterloo, Iowa. She graduated in Medical Technology from the University of Minnesota and received a BA with an emphasis in printmaking and papermaking from the University of Northern Iowa. Whiting worked as a medical technologist for ten years, and now dedicates most of her time to her art. In addition, she performs workshops and teaches classes in paper and bookmaking. Whiting has participated in regional, national and international shows, and her work is included in museum and private collections around the country. Recently, her work was included in two national traveling exhibitions, American River and Paper Cuts: The Art of Contemporary Paper.

Artist’s Statement
I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.
- Theodore Roosevelt, speech, Washington, D.C., 1900

The laws humans develop must instill respect for the land. Through my art, I reference our need to recognize the laws of nature and the interconnectedness of all living things on this earth. I collect old law books, science books, encyclopedia and dictionaries that have been discarded, utilizing them as raw materials in my art. I am particularly interested in law books that reference land use and property rights, because they contain decisions that have shaped our past and continue to impact our lives and the world around us. American society was founded upon the opposition between humans and nature. As Americans, we view ourselves separately from the environment. In reality, this conflict of man versus nature is an illusion. We live in, depend on and are part of an ecosystem.

While reading these old law books, I sometimes circle words in the text and create new statements regarding land use and the fundamental need to protect it for future generations. I incorporate found objects from nature, images of animals in old science books or drawings of the land in geological surveys with the law book pages. I juxtapose the written word with seeds, leaves, fossils, shells and other materials collected from nature to create a dialogue between human behavior and the environment. Incorporating texture, I tear, crumple, pierce, fold or bale the books into landscapes. These alterations often reveal landforms within the book itself.

The layers of pages simulate the sedimentary rock deep within the earth’s crust. My manipulation of books is not meant to destroy them or to refer to the destruction of our laws. Instead, I transform them into objects that propose new relationships.

All laws are dispositions for the future… protect the land… it is one estate of inheritance.

- Margaret Whiting, altered text taken from a law book

NMA Text Panel

Margaret Whiting combines natural objects such as leaves, seeds, fossils, and shells with discarded law books, science books, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Her artworks explore contemporary issues related to land use and encourage thoughtful consideration of the definitions and laws that regulate American society's impact on the land.

In her mixed media sculptures, Whiting does not intend to destroy legal documents and environmental laws, but instead aims to provide new contexts for the information they contain and the authority they possess. According to Whiting, law books, in particular, reveal society’s entrenched cultural priorities; the volumes with which she works often contain legal judgments that have significantly shaped history and that will continue to determine our collective future.

By interacting with and altering the language of the law, Whiting offers her perspective on the complicated relationship between humans and their environment. “American culture seems to have been formed upon opposition between humans and nature,” she has explained. “In reality, man versus nature is an illusion. We live in, depend on, and are part of an ecosystem.” Taken together, the sculptures in this exhibition remind us of the fragile balance that exists between human law and the laws of nature.

This exhibition is presented as part of the NMA’s Art + Environment exhibition series, an initiative that brings community, artists, and scholars together to explore the interaction between people and their environments.

You’ll find the exhibition installed in the Feature Gallery North on the third floor. The majority of the pieces are wall-mounted, but a few large pedestals and platforms stand in the middle of the space as well. With these, it is important to take every precaution to ensure that the pieces are neither bumped nor moved, as they are extraordinarily fragile.

Tour Framework
Explain to guests that Margaret Whiting was raised in northern Minnesota in a small, rural mining community not unlike many communities in Nevada.

Ask guests to consider why an artist from such a community might be interested in art that has to do with environmental and land use law.

Ask guests to look at any one of Whiting’s pieces. What do they notice about it? From what does it appear to have been made?

Explain that Whiting’s background is in papermaking and book arts, the mode of artistic expression that takes the traditions of bookmaking, papermaking, letterpress printing, and printmaking as central forms.

Ask guests why they think that the artist might be interested in the relationship between the natural objects she uses—the seeds, shells, leaves, and rocks—and the pages of law books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and natural history texts.

Ask guests what kinds of messages Whiting conveys by juxtaposing pages of law books and dictionaries with shells, seeds, and images from natural history texts.

Ask guests to look closely at the piece called There is Ground for Consideration but don’t convey to the group what the piece’s name is…yet.

Margaret Whiting, There is Ground for Consideration, law book pages, binder boards, objects from nature, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

Ask guests what they think are some of the notable characteristics of There is Ground for Consideration. What do they notice about the piece right away? What, if anything, do they notice differently or additionally after looking at the piece for a few moments?

Point guests’ attention to the fact that Whiting circles key words on each page of the book from which the piece is made. What words does she circle repeatedly in the pages of the book?

Ask guests why they think Whiting chooses these particular words as opposed to the many others she could have chosen to emphasize.

Ask guests what the words ground and grounds mean as legal terms. In contrast, what do the words mean in terms of place, space, or environment?

Listen to the responses offered to these questions, and offer encouragement to anyone who offers a response to your questions—this is difficult artwork with which to grapple.

Explain that Whiting’s artistic interests lie in book arts and papermaking, but also in the plays on words and double (or more) meanings inherent in the language used in “official” texts such as laws, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. For Whiting, there is a very interesting interplay between American history, land use, land law, and language.

Ask guests to look closely at Analysis.

Margaret Whiting, Analysis, 2006, rolled law book pages in test tube racks. Courtesy of the artist.

Ask guests what kinds of meanings or messages can be derived from a piece of art in which the artist wraps pages of law books up into “tubes” and places them into a chemistry test tube rack.

Ask guests if they can think of any ways in which science connects people to the natural world. Can they also think of ways in which science seems to separate people from the natural world?

Encourage guests to think about the privileged status categories of knowledge such as “Science” and “Law” inhabit in our culture. For example, within our culture, scientists, judges, lawyers, and politicians enjoy a certain cultural “status” because of their work. How do such categories of knowledge compare to, say, “Art” or “Literature,” “Education,” “Carpentry” or “Farming?”

Explain to guests that Whiting is interested in these different “strata” or “levels” of knowledge, and the ways in which science and law often enjoy a higher status than art and humanities, and that her artwork raises questions about what are the “highest” or “best” ways to develop knowledge.

Encourage guests to look at the Law of the Land pieces in the gallery.

Explain that Whiting’s art, in addition to being examples of book arts and conceptual artwork, are also examples of abstract landscape artwork. Whiting cuts the books she uses laterally, and places the cut pieces side-by-side. The effect is a sort of silhouette or profile representation of a landscape, and harkens back to her interest in the words she highlights in the pages of the law books she uses: ground.

Ask guests to consider the piece entitled By Putting in More Cattle than the Pasture Can Sustain Both the Land and the Right of Common are Injured.

Ask what the guests make of the artist’s meaning.

Explain that the work references the ancient idea of the “tragedy of the commons.” This theory—largely based on ideas about economics—deals with conflict over resources between individual interests and the common good.

Explain that this is an idea that has roots in Aristotelian philosophy, but also in much more contemporary science writing—though it is not without controversy.

Explain that Whiting’s By Putting More Cattle […] gets at the problem of the use of common space—in this example it might be a cattle pasture, or Yosemite National Park—that suffers overuse because of unregulated use of the pasture by cattle, or unregulated use by National Park visitors.