Friday, August 22, 2008

Chris Drury: Mushrooms | Clouds Tour Blueprint

August 9 – October 5, 2008


The exhibition Chris Drury: Mushrooms | Clouds consists of three major sculpture installations, five video works, three mixed media installation pieces, and several photographs. The exhibition is easily one of the most ambitious in the museum’s history—the majority of the works included in it are original commissions for the exhibition itself, never seen anywhere before. Additionally, as the first major museum exhibition of artist Chris Drury’s work, what people see in the gallery over the next two months represents a major commitment to a mid-career artist’s work, and a major investment in the ideas underlying the museum’s art and environment mission. The exhibition is presented as part of the NMA’s Art + Environment exhibition series, and will serve as the backdrop to the Art + Environment Conference in October.

The exhibition is supported by the Nevada Commission on Tourism and the FOR-SITE Foundation in Nevada City, California, directly, as well as by the founder of FOR-SITE, Cheryl Haines. A beautiful book documenting the exhibition and artwork will be co-published by the Nevada Museum of Art and the Center for American Places, with international distribution by the University of Chicago Press, in summer 2009.

Wall Texts

One of Great Britain’s most prolific and respected Conceptual artists, Chris Drury investigates themes related to the environment, emphasizing cycles of destruction and regeneration in nature—and the ways that humans affect these processes. In all of his creative pursuits, Drury embraces metaphor and analogy as tools for layering multiple meanings within the objects he creates. From mushroom spore prints to a sculpture in the form of a nuclear mushroom cloud, and videos that explore the cloud-like properties of water and smoke, Drury makes visible the subtle connections between the realms of science, culture, history, and politics.

For over four decades, the American West has been a destination for countless artists seeking direct interaction with the environment. Drury, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Great Britain, brings international perspective to topics ranging from land and water appropriation to nuclear testing in the American West. Devoted to a creative methodology that is driven by experimentation, communication, and physical interaction with place, Drury’s research into the unique geography and environments of our region offer significant insights into issues that also have global relevance.

Mushrooms | Clouds, Drury’s first major museum exhibition in the United States, includes artworks drawn from the artist’s ongoing Mushrooms and Clouds series, as well as multiple new artworks commissioned in collaboration with organizations based throughout Nevada and California—including the Desert Research Institute, the FOR-SITE Foundation, and the Pyramid Lake Museum/Visitors’ Center. The development of this burgeoning interdisciplinary network—an ongoing initiative of the Nevada Museum of Art—provides resources and tools to artists for the development of new works that engage audiences in contemporary discourse on issues related to the environment that are both timely and timeless.

Cloud Pool Chamber

Humans have relied upon natural materials and environmental resources to sustain and shelter themselves for millennia. With this in mind, Chris Drury began construction of Cloud Pool Chamber in the Sierra Nevada foothills in May 2008—a project supported by the Nevada Museum of Art and the FOR-SITE Foundation, an artist residency program based in Nevada City, California. Drury designed the structure, giving special attention to the historical and cultural significance of the site where it would be placed, as well as the materials from which it would be built.

Made from diseased logs felled at Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee, Cloud Pool Chamber was first installed in a wooded ravine adjacent to granite boulders and towering oak trees in Nevada City, California. Located nearby were numerous Native American mortar stones used by indigenous Maidu peoples to grind acorns into flour. Recognizing that humans have long made marks on the Earth in an ongoing effort to survive—whether in the form of grinding stones used for daily sustenance or nuclear craters resultant from military defense testing—Drury hand-carved a crater in a large granite stone and placed it beneath the opening of the Cloud Pool Chamber. He then filled it daily with a tea made from acorns that reflected passing clouds overhead. Drury’s videos, based on the cratered granite stone and the indigenous mortar stones, are on view in the nearby video gallery.

In June 2008, Cloud Pool Chamber was transported to its current site on the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art, where a hand-carved granite stone is filled daily with ink-colored water that reflects the dramatic cloud formations passing over the Museum.

Winnemucca Whirlwind

In May 2008, Chris Drury began the labor-intensive process of etching a large-scale whirlwind drawing onto the alkali surface of Winnemucca Dry Lake, near the border of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, 35 miles northeast of Reno. Drury worked for over fifteen hours by the light of a full moon to complete the drawing, whose spiraling whirlwind form—a symbol used for centuries by cultures to denote vital energy—is nearly 300 feet in diameter. Winnemucca Whirlwind refers to the complex history of land and water appropriation in the American West, as well as to the historical and enduring impulse of human cultures to use symbolic markings to convey meaning.

Archaeological evidence reveals that Native Americans inhabited the Winnemucca Lake region as far back as 8-10,000 years ago. Once a lush, marshy wetlands area and an important ecological and recreational resource (see image below), Winnemucca Lake became less accessible when the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation were enforced by the U.S. Government in 1858—exactly 150 years ago. Further drastic impacts to Winnemucca Lake began in 1903, when it dried up due to the Newlands Reclamation Project that diverted Truckee River waters away for agricultural uses. In essence, these actions destroyed the lake’s natural function, and transformed a thriving ecosystem into a vast and seemingly-empty expanse. Given the possibility that cultural or human remains might be unearthed near the surface of the “empty” lake during Drury’s art-making process, an archaeological observer representing the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe was present for the duration of the project.

Although Drury had obtained permission to create Winnemucca Whirlwind within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, he chose instead to undertake the installation on restricted BLM land in an effort to “symbolically re-claim” the land for Native Americans and to metaphorically convey the political and cultural whirlwind Native Americans have been embroiled in over the past century. Drury purposely designed the piece so that it is best viewed from land located on the Reservation, while it is nearly invisible from the nearby public highway. Winnemucca Whirlwind was never intended to be a permanent sculpture, and due to recent rains, the cycle of nature has again re-claimed the surface of the alkali lakebed.

This artwork was commissioned in collaboration with the Pyramid Lake Museum/Visitors Center, Nixon, NV.

Destroying Angel

Chris Drury’s Destroying Angel sculpture encourages viewers to thoughtfully consider the similarities and differences between natural flow processes in plants, animals, and other scientific phenomena. As the shape of Drury’s sculpture suggests, the form of a three-dimensional living mushroom echoes the flow patterns of liquids and gasses as they might appear in streams, clouds, ocean currents, and smoke. Similar vortex-like flow patterns are present in biological structures such as the heart, the fibers of the eye’s retina, fingerprints, and the bony structure of the nose. All of these forms are echoed in Drury’s Destroying Angel mushroom sculpture that slowly unfurls into the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud.

Drury created this large-sale sculpture using sagebrush collected from the Great Basin. The hardy ubiquitous plant—found throughout the American West—has long been associated with cleansing and purification rituals of many Native American cultures. When burned, the plant releases a distinct and intense odor that travels through the air as smoke. All columns of rising smoke—whether produced during a sage burning ritual or a nuclear explosion—exhibit similar patterns of flow. Drury’s video titled Shattered Peace, Broken Promises, on view in a nearby gallery, reveals the violent impact of an explosion on a peaceful stream of smoke that rises from a burning sage bundle.

By titling this sculpture Destroying Angel, which refers to a deadly mushroom Amanita virosa, Drury suggests that beauty and death are intimately connected.

Touching the Eye of the Storm

This interactive community artwork is presented in conjunction with British artist Chris Drury’s feature exhibition Mushrooms|Clouds, now on view in the third floor Feature Gallery. Touching the Eye of the Storm was inspired by a large-scale drawing, called Winnemucca Whirlwind, that Drury recently completed on the alkali surface of Winnemucca Dry Lake, 35 miles northeast of Reno. It is also closely related to many of the other artworks on view in the exhibition upstairs.

Using soil pigments collected from the Great Basin, Nevada Museum of Art guests are invited to add their thumbprints to this large community artwork designed by Drury in the shape of a spiraling whirlwind. The symbolic spiral marking—often associated with a flow of vital energy—has been re-interpreted for centuries by various cultures. The spiral also appears in the natural flow of liquids and gasses in streams, clouds, ocean currents, and smoke, as well as in biological structures such as the heart, the eye’s retina, and fingerprints.

In all of his creative pursuits, Drury embraces metaphor and analogy as tools for layering interpreting multiple meanings layered within the plants, animals, and objects he encounters—and the artworks that he makes. By leaving your mark on the wall of the Museum, you are now an integral part of this creative process.

Life in the Field of Death II and 559 Shelter Stones

These two major artworks relate directly to the legacy of nuclear testing in the American West and its impact on the desert landscape and ecosystems of the Nevada Test Site, located just one hour north of Las Vegas. With cooperation from scientists at the Desert Research Institute, Drury translated the genetic code of a living organism known as Microcoleus Vaginata that was found living in the irradiated soil of the Nevada Test Site—one of the most abused nuclear landscapes in the world. In the artwork titled Life in the Field of Death, Drury stenciled 559 letters from the organism’s partial DNA gene sequence onto the gallery wall using soil pigments gathered at the Test Site. The rectangular letter-block forms are intended to mimic the shapes of gravestones, reminding viewers that life continues to subsist in places that are often considered lifeless.

In a second large-scale sculpture, 559 Shelter Stones, Drury used stones gathered near Pyramid Lake, Nevada to create a shelter made from 559 pieces of shale—echoing the number of genes in the Microcoleus Vaginatus gene sequence found at the Test Site. Throughout his career, Drury has constructed hundreds of shelters, suggesting the ongoing human impulse to seek safety and protection using natural resources and materials. An image below depicts a rarely-seen indigenous Paiute log structure that still exists within the boundaries of the Test Site, even though indigenous peoples are no longer permitted on the land.

In each of these large-scale artworks, Drury reminds viewers that life persists, even in unlikely or seemingly impossible environments.

Life in the Field of Death was commissioned in collaboration with the Desert Research Institute.


You’ll find most of the exhibition in the third floor feature gallery, where two of the three major sculpture installations can be found, along with all of the video and installation works, save for Cloud Pool Chamber (Rooftop) and Touching the Eye of the Storm (Admission Desk).

Relevant Vocabulary

Land Art beginning in the 1960s, any of a number of movements away from “establishment” art in the gallery world and toward a radical revision of how and where art gets made, exhibited, and viewed; landscape and the art object are inextricably linked in most land artists’ work.

Zen a distinct school of Buddhist practice marked by meditative focus on dharma practice and experiential wisdom rather than religious texts or theoretical knowledge.

Amanita virosa (Destroying Angel) one of several species of poisonous mushrooms in a family of mushrooms called Amanita, frequently occurring in Europe, and which resembles a variety of edible mushrooms. Can be deadly.

Microcoleus vaginatus an organism found in irradiated soil on the Nevada Test Site—basically a terrestrial algae.

Trinity (nuclear test) the first nuclear test, July 16, 1945, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The test preceded the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, respectively, in August 1945.

Mushroom Spore Print mushrooms reproduce by means of spores, an evolutionarily ancient strategy for survival. Every species of mushroom yields a unique pattern of its spores. Scientists collect the “print” of the spores on glass slides for study.

Gene sequence the sequence of genes containing the genetic material for an organism.

Big Ideas Central to
Chris Drury: Mushrooms | Clouds

Metaphors lie at the heart of every one of Chris Drury’s works, based on the idea that an implied or direct comparison of one thing to another yields multiple new meanings. So, for example, metaphors help us understand Destroying Angel Trinity in multiple ways: 1) as a representational object, Destroying Angel is a specific kind of poisonous mushroom; the name Destroying Angel offers a religious connotation; the word Trinity in the title yields another religious connotation; the shape of a mushroom spore print suggests traditional Hindu, Buddhist, and Mesoamerican mandalas; mushrooms connote nuclear imagery; the word Trinity also refers directly to the name of the first nuclear test ever.

Life | Death | Regeneration | Recycling

the cycles of life and death, destruction and regeneration are central to natural processes, one of the main areas of Drury’s interests; mushrooms, a subject that he has focused on for thirty years, are among the world’s best recyclers

Nuclear | Mushrooms | Clouds | Life

Drury’s fascination with natural processes also yields his interest in the relationship of mushrooms to death and to life—they can be poisonous agents of death, as well as life sustaining food sources for people; clouds, likewise, are lifegiving sources of water, except in the case of nuclear mushroom clouds.

Life in a Lifeless Place | Microcosm <--> Macrocosm Drury began wondering about this when he worked in the British Antarctic Survey’s Artists and Writers program, but the interest continued when the opportunity to work in a nuclear landscape presented itself. Can life exist in a lifeless place?, Drury wonders.

Local Issues | Places | History as Drury’s works are made of local materials, they are also references to local issues: 559 Shelter Stones, for example, refers to the issues tied up in Nevada’s nuclear legacy; Winnemucca Whirlwind references more directly land and water use in Nevada, and the effects this history has had on members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Open Installation | Community Involvement because of his interest in natural processes, Drury wanted to reveal the process of installation of the exhibition to make the exhibition’s inner workings visible in much the same way that he attempts to “reveal” the nature of nature, the nature of community and collaboration.

Tour Framework

Invite guests to the museum and to the exhibition, being sure to thank them for coming.

Explain that artist Chris Drury is British, and that he comes from Sussex, in southeastern England.

Ask guests whether they think art might be able to help them better understand the histories of the places in which they live or those they visit. What kinds of responses do you get? Be sure to acknowledge the response by repeating it back to the person offering it, and so others can hear.

Ask guests whether they have previously seen Cloud Pool Chamber on the NMA rooftop.

Explain that if time permits, the tour will include a visit to see it, but if time is short, that people should be sure to see the sculpture on the rooftop.

Explain that Chris Drury is considered a Conceptual artist and a Land or Earth artist, and that this means, first, that Drury’s artwork is as much about the many ideas that the objects represent as the objects themselves. For example, Cloud Pool Chamber, depicted in the large photo mural near the gallery’s entrance, is as much about the place in which it was built near Nevada City and the history of the Maidu people who inhabited the area there as it is about the sculpture itself. This is a hard point to understand, but for Drury, the “art” is not in the final object that we see installed on the rooftop, but that the “art” lies in the process through which the object was produced, the idea that lead to the project, and the collaboration that was required of a number of people to produce the object. His works are also considered to be a type of Land Art, because of the their site-specific nature and their use of natural materials. For example, Cloud Pool Chamber is made from diseased Lodgepole logs at Donner Memorial State Park and a granite boulder from the northern Sierra Nevada range near there, and it was originally conceived for a specific site on the grounds of the FOR-SITE Foundation, near Nevada City, California, which he chose specifically because of its proximity to water and to several ancient grinding rocks created by Maidu people for crushing acorns into flour.

Explain that Drury sees his works as art on multiple levels. Take Cloud Pool Chamber as an example. First, there is the object itself. In the case of Cloud Pool Chamber, the object was a site-specific sculptural installation at the FOR-SITE Foundation near Nevada City, California. There is then a photograph documenting the site-specific installation of it there. For Cloud Pool Chamber, then, there is another layer, because it is a site-specific sculptural installation on the NMA rooftop, where it is very different from what it had been at FOR-SITE. Lastly, as an installation piece that can be physically entered, each individual person’s experience is different, and the experience of each individual is its own artwork in Drury’s view.

Explain that Drury is very interested in local issues and places, which is partly why he created the landscape-sized drawing called Winnemucca Whirlwind on the Winnemucca Dry Lake bed.

Explain that before 1858, and more generally before the Gold Rush, Indian people in Nevada lived very differently. After 1858, reservation boundaries were enforced, effectively reducing the lands available to Indian people. After the turn of the twentieth century, the Newlands Project redirected waters bound for Pyramid and Winnemucca Lakes to Fallon and Fernley agricultural uses. Within 20 years, Winnemucca Lake dried up to the basin we know today.
Explain that the whirlwind pattern of Winnemucca Whirlwind is an ancient pattern representing life, energy, power, and positive energy, and that it is also similar to the mandalas of Hindu, Buddhist, and Mesoamerican cultural traditions.

Explain that Drury is interested in the history of the Paiutes’ use of Winnemucca Lake: prior to 1905, it was a rich fishing and hunting area. Drury’s drawing references the appropriation of Native American lands, the human destruction of ecosystems such as Winnemucca Lake, and the rich history of the whirlwind pattern.

Ask guests about what a metaphor is.

Explain that a metaphor is often a tool shared by artists of all kinds, writers, painters, and so on, to make direct or implied comparisons between to unrelated objects or ideas. Whereas a simile usually contains the words like or as, as in “My love is like a red, red rose,” metaphors often rely on direct comparisons, as in Pablo Picasso’s statement that “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” When he says this, he doesn’t mean that art literally washes dust away, does he? No. But he means it metaphorically. In Drury’s works, some of the pieces do represent literal objects: Destroying Angel Trinity and Destroying Angel both represent real, recognizable things, for example. But the works also convey meaning metaphorically: at one and the same time, Destroying Angel conveys metaphorical meanings about death and life, nuclear mushroom clouds, religious traditions, Native American cultural traditions, and much more. So at the same time, the sculpture is “about” nuclear mushroom clouds (because it resembles them) and the cleansing spiritual power of sage burning during a Native American smudge ceremony (because it is made from sage bundles).

Ask guests what other kinds of metaphors they perceive in Destroying Angel.

Ask guests to look at the grid of spore prints near the entrance wall.

Explain that Drury has been working with mushrooms as a subject for more than thirty years.

Explain that a spore print is a scientific tool used to identify different species of mushrooms. When you remove the stem from a mushroom cap, and leave the cap to sit overnight on a sheet of paper or a glass slide, the cap will drop its spores onto the paper or slide in a unique pattern. Each spore print is unique to a specific species of mushroom. Drury has worked with spore prints for a long time because they are capable of representing multiple levels of information. For example, not only do the spore prints directly represent a specific species of mushroom recognizable to trained eyes (that is, they are representational), but they also connote many other kinds of ideas through metaphor: the spore prints suggest ideas about mushrooms as recyclers of soil, ideas about mushrooms as both food and poison, about mushrooms as the image that comes to mind when people think of nuclear, etc. They also resemble the subsidence craters on the Nevada Test Site, and, specifically, spores are reproductive structures designed for dispersal and extended survival in unfavorable conditions, a lá the Nevada Test Site.

Ask guests to consider Life in a Field of Death I and II.

Explain that these works connect Drury’s interest in the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, and are related to Drury’s question regarding the possibility of life in a lifeless place.

Explain that, with the assistance of the Desert Research Institute, Drury learned of an organism called Microcoleus vaginatus—one of the few organisms known to survive in the irradiated soils of the Nevada Test Site. The organism’s DNA has been partially gene sequenced—a list of letters representing this sequence is stenciled on the west wall of the feature gallery using decontaminated soil-based pigment—Life in a Field of Death II.

Explain that another piece, 559 Shelter Stones, is an additional reference to the Nevada Test Site. The piece references this place and ideas about it through metaphors of shelter. In an ironic reference the piece recalls the significance of nuclear fallout shelters in the mid-twentieth century. Yet it also references life, in the sense that shelter is one of the universal human necessities for survival.

Explain that Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes refers to the same kinds of metaphors that the other spore prints reference. Additionally, however, its form is directly related to the mushroom metaphors of recycling and regeneration.

Explain that the pigment used in the coloration of D2D, A2A is two-layered. The first layer consists of dust recycled from the NMA’s ventilation ducts, which is essentially lint, skin cells, and the other detritus of the community of visitors who visit the museum. The next layer of color is made from charcoal made from the burned off-cuts of the Lodgepole logs used to construct Cloud Pool Chamber. Thus, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes is both metaphorically and actually about the idea that mushrooms are agents of recycling and regeneration.

Explain that Drury also makes video works that pertain to the same metaphorical ideas, many of which are directly connected to the physical objects in the gallery.

Explain that Shattered Peace, Broken Promises, for example, is a video capturing the image of a rising wisp of smoke. The video captures the smoke rising from a burning bundle of sage (suggesting the spiritual, cleansing properties of the Native American smudge ceremony). Suddenly, a violent sound (caused by a sledge hammer hitting the outside of the metal container in which the filming took place), disrupts the gently rising wisp of smoke. The reference is to the history of treaties being broken between Anglos and Indians in the nineteenth century in particular.