CULTURE FRONT: When art meets illness meets land
JACKSON, WYO – How does the metaphoric landscape of personal life inform our experience of a geographic landscape?
This is a central question in a recent installation by Suzanne Morlock on display at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper through April 27. The work is part of “The Nature of Things,” a three-person show for which the artists were asked to interpret the Western landscape. Morlock’s installation includes some of her most overtly personal work to date.
The installation includes giant wooden industrial spools. Morlock has affixed constellations of medication capsules to the flat end of the spools. Her partner, Glenn Messersmith, has been living with Lyme disease for several years, which has changed the couple’s life dramatically, including their relationship to their surroundings.
“We made a conscious choice to be in this setting in Jackson Hole,” Morlock told me. “But then Glenn got ill. His illness has changed the way we interact with the environment.”
The gallery walls display prints of Morlock’s iconic yellow hay rolls, which suggest that the illness – and the landscape – continue beyond the walls. Dozens of sparkling glass devices hang from the ceiling. Upon closer inspection, the glass tubes are revealed to be IV delivery devices. “They are the same kind we use during Glenn’s treatment,” Morlock said.
At first glance, a viewer might mistake the orderly rows of weathered wooden spools and delicate glass ornaments as a hip, decorative celebration of New West design. But a walk among the spools reveals the medications, the tangles of fencing wire, the monotony, and slowly, the deeper implications of unspooling.
On April 25, Contemporary Dance Wyoming will perform a complementary dance in the gallery among the spools that is collaboration between Morlock and CDW director Babs Case. Suddenly, the landscape is human, achingly so. The dancers flow and spiral, tangle and release. An audio recording plays in the background, with Morlock reading text from an insurance claim form and Messersmith yelling back at the claim form.
One of the dancers, Meleta Buckstaff, described her experience performing in the gallery. “Instead of being on an open stage like we usually are, we’re in the spaces between the spools, which are so huge that we often can’t see each other when we’re dancing.”
Unintentionally, the very materials used to keep the spools stationary create hazards for the dancers that mirror the precariousness of traversing chronic illness. “The movement is meant to be big and kind of wild and not always in control, but the spools are only held in place by small stoppers,” Buckstaff said. “So if you run into one or push it too hard, it will move.”
Morlock said the dance extends the installation. “It’s a live human experience,” she said. “The lines in space made by bodies.”
Like illness, the dance comes from the body, not from the mind. The somatic experience in the environment changes the feel of the environment. The bodies must adjust to all the elements of a landscape, moving deftly around obstacles, avoiding threat, and finding a way.
For more information, go to www.thenic.org.