Ear to the Ground

Earth and Element in Contemporary Art

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Katie Pfohl, curator

Ear to the Ground Installation ShotNew Orleans Museum of Art

Drawn predominantly from NOMA’s permanent collection, Ear to the Ground explores how nature can spur artistic innovation and spark new thinking about culture and community. Working with natural elements like soil, water, wind, and fire, these artists treat nature as a generative force with its own sentient power.

Ear to the Ground (installation view) (2018)New Orleans Museum of Art

Together, they imagine new forms of community, reciprocity, and connection to the natural world, proposing new ways of relating to the earth, as well as to one another.

The hinged view (2017) by Olafur EliasonNew Orleans Museum of Art

As one moves around this sculpture, six colorful glass spheres interact with light and shadow to reveal the entire spectrum of visible color

.... from brilliant blue ...

... to bright red ...

If you remain stationary, you see only a fraction of these widely varied hues. This shows us how our knowledge about the world is often limited by our individual perspective and point of view.

The artist created this sculpture during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. By celebrating the great diversity and variability of nature, it seeks to make us more accepting of difference in human culture and society.

Children of Unquiet, video still (2015) by Mikhail KarikisNew Orleans Museum of Art

Greek artist Mikail Karikis shot this film in a small town outside Tuscany, Italy. To create the film, he worked with a group of forty-five children from the ages of five to twelve years old over the course of six months.

Famous as the place that inspired the hellish descriptions of Dante’s inferno, this town is an active geothermal area where the hiss of steam and heat of magma constantly emanate from the earth’s core.

Children of Unquiet, video still (2015) by Mikhail KarikisNew Orleans Museum of Art

In their performance, the children sing alongside the earth, their voices tuned to the landscape’s rhythms and sounds, revealing the earth as a vital source of energy, strength and hope for the future.

Persian Waterfall (1990) by Pat SteirNew Orleans Museum of Art

New York based painter Pat Steir makes elemental forces like gravity active participants in her work.

Here, white and gold paint flow like water down the surface of the canvas, following the path of gravity.

As Steir has said, “I realized that I didn’t have to use the brush, that I could simply pour the paint, that I could use nature to paint a picture of itself…that gravity would paint my painting with me.”

Something Lost (2015) by Sara MadandarNew Orleans Museum of Art

Iranian artist Sara Madandar created these two ripped and shredded canvases shortly after immigrating to the United States from Iran.

First, she spray painted them with patterns from silk scarves from Iran. Then, she meticulously pulled them apart thread by thread

The piece reflects on the layers of self and experience that come from moving from place to place, as well as Madandar’s own experience with the headscarf and the act of veiling.

Documentation of Bosco Sodi’s performance in Washington Square Park (2017-09-17) by Bosco SodiNew Orleans Museum of Art

On September 17, 2017, Mexican artist Bosco Sodi built a large wall through the middle of Washington Square Park in New York City, inviting passersby to slowly dismantle the wall brick by brick by taking a brick home with them. Within a day, all 1,600 hand-fired clay timbers had vanished. 

Documentation of Bosco Sodi’s performance in Washington Square Park (2017-09-17) by Bosco SodiNew Orleans Museum of Art

Sodi created this performance to speak directly to current debates surrounding the erection of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. As Sodi said, “I did it to encourage people that with civic and social action, we’re able to dismantle any kind of wall, whether physical or mental, and remind them that it’s the people who make these kind of decisions— it’s the people, not the government, who rule.”

Muro (2017) by Bosco ModiNew Orleans Museum of Art

The performance now endures as a co-owned work of art, with various museums and individuals collectively owning different pieces of the  wall. 

Stampede (2014) by Jorge Otero EscobarNew Orleans Museum of Art

For his 2014 performance in New York City’s Times Square, Cuban artist Jorge Otero Escobar dressed as a guarjiro—a rural Cuban farmer who listens to the earth.

Created just as Cuba began opening its borders to the United States, Escobar’s guarjiro listens for the rush of American culture towards an island that had been isolated for more than fifty years

Bulbancha (Green Silence) (2019) by Athena LaTochaNew Orleans Museum of Art

Athena LaTocha creates her drawings as if from within the landscape itself.

Unfurling large rolls of paper on the floor, she pushes pools of ink, soil, and water across paper to create dense layers of pigment.

She then manipulates these earthen elements with industrial solvents and aggressive tools such as wire brushes, scrap metal, and reclaimed shreds of tire, capturing both the landscape’s innate power, as well as the pervasive effects of environmental degradation.

"Bulbancha" refers to the original place name for New Orleans before European colonization, and comes from a Choctaw word meaning “the place of many tongues.”

Oil Bunkering #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria (2016) by Edward BurtynskyNew Orleans Museum of Art

Edward Burtynsky’s photographs capture what he calls “residual landscapes”: vast swathes of land that show the impact of human industry on the natural environment in places across the globe—Nigeria, Detroit, Bangladesh, Spain, among others.

This photograph explores the impact of oil theft along Nigeria’s southern coast, showing us a ground etched with charred lines from explosives used in oil exploration and a river streaked with industrial waste in order to, as Burtynsky says, “spark a second look at what we call progress.”

Wading Still (Bend, Bow, Pull) (2018) by Diedrick BrackensNew Orleans Museum of Art

Diedrick Brackens is a weaver who creates tapestries that explore gender, sexuality and race.

He is inspired by sources ranging from West African textiles, European tapestries, Southern quilt-making, the double helix shape of DNA, and the bright yellow and blue lines that demarcate freeways and rivers in contemporary Google maps

Brackens created this weaving with water sourced from the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico during several visits to New Orleans during 2018.

Earth Mounds (installation view) (2006) by Jennifer OdemNew Orleans Museum of Art

These sculptures by New Orleans based artist Jennifer Odem resemble geological formations. Combining materials found in both our natural and our domestic environments—earth, textiles, clothing, furniture—Odem shows the relationship between the human interiority and the earth’s hidden depths.

Earth Mound (2006) by Jennifer OdemNew Orleans Museum of Art

Many of these sculptures include references to forms of human adornment, such as zippers or faceted crystals, in order to show that the earth is akin to a person in its capacity for feeling and sentience.

Ear to the Ground Installation ShotNew Orleans Museum of Art

Sigils (2010) by Courtney EganNew Orleans Museum of Art

New Orleans based artist Courtney Egan replicates the natural movement of wind through digital means, projecting video images of swaying moss onto swatches of intricate wire mesh.

This sculpture was inspired by the sensory experience of wind moving through Spanish moss.

Demonstrating how technology can help enhance our appreciation of nature, the piece also questions how it can distract us and counter our ability to perceive its subtleties and magic.

Under Three Things (2018/2019) by Cristina MolinaNew Orleans Museum of Art

Over the course of the exhibition, New Orleans based artist Cristina Molina hosted a series of intimate guided tours of the exhibition.

Molina guided museum visitors through a whispered exploration of the artworks in the exhibition in which she assumed the perspective of the earth, personified.

Under Three Things (2019) by Cristina MolinaNew Orleans Museum of Art

Drawing upon cultural mythologies of the underworld, her performance reimagined the mythological figure of Persephone as an empowered goddess who embodies the voice and perspective of mother earth, herself. 

Looking through the Doomsday Fog (1990) by Clyde ConnellNew Orleans Museum of Art

Louisiana based sculptor Clyde Connell encourages us to return to nature in times of social strife. Her sculptures layer materials like cedar, cypress, red clay, and mud with newsprint filled with headlines about war and violence.

Connell sought to transcend current events to create sculptures and paintings that offered her viewers "a ritual, protected place of the kind that animals and people always make for themselves in nature.”

The Vanquished, Study # 2 (2017) by Dawn DeDeauxNew Orleans Museum of Art

This digital drawing by New Orleans based artist Dawn DeDeaux looks into a future of environmental apocalypse. It pictures human figures clad in space or hazmat suits who seem at once to be buried in earth and hopelessly lost in space.

Based on photographs of real life rescue workers from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, these figures are a dark prophesy of earth’s demise that yet still hold on to the possibility of hope.

For My Fathers (2016) by Bechet, RonNew Orleans Museum of Art

Ron Bechet’s large-scale charcoal drawings of the dense, tangled roots systems of trees are based on the live oak trees found throughout City Park.

Influenced by African artistic traditions in which trees are symbols for crossroads, Bechet's trees offer points of connection to hidden or forgotten pasts.

“There are questions I can’t answer,” Bechet says. “This is why I [make art].”

Ear to the Ground (Installation view0 (2018)New Orleans Museum of Art

Delta (2014) by Dan AlleyNew Orleans Museum of Art

New Orleans based sculptor Dan Alley uses the earth as a mold. He created this sculpture by pouring molten aluminum directly on the ground so that the metal was cast in the shape of the ground beneath.

Created at the site of a major levee breach during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927—the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States—the sculpture takes the form of water spilling over the land.

Delta, Performance documentation from Crevasse 22: Surge (2014) by Dan AlleyNew Orleans Museum of Art

Subsequent efforts to tame the river resulted in the creation of the elaborate levee system that New Orleans still grapples with today, showing how earth often escapes our efforts to contain its raw energy and force.

Credits: Story

COVER IMAGE: Pat Steir (American, b. 1940), Persian Waterfall, 1990, Oil on canvas, 88 x 107 inches, New Orleans Museum of Art, Promised and partial gift of H. Russell Albright MD in memory of Michael P. Meyers, 92.817, Photography by Roman Alokhin © Pat Steir

1. Olafur Eliasson (Icelandic, b. 1967), The Hinged View, 2017, Steel, glass and paint, 59 x 106 3/8 x 29 ½ inches, New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Sydney and Walda Besthoff, 2017.23 © Courtesy of the Artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

2. Mikhail Karikis (Greek, b. 1975), Children of Unquiet, 2015, Single channel video with directional speakers, Collection of the Artist © 2014
Mikhail Karikis

3. Pat Steir (American, b. 1940), Persian Waterfall, 1990, Oil on canvas, 88 x 107 inches, New Orleans Museum of Art, Promised and partial gift of H. Russell Albright MD in memory of Michael P. Meyers, 92.817, Photography by Roman Alokhin © Pat Steir

4. Sara Madandar (Iranian, b. 1985), Something Lost, 2015
Canvas and spray paint, 64 x 46 inches, Collection of the Artist © Sara Madandar

5. Bosco Sodi (Mexican, b. 1970), Muro, 2017, Fired clay, 25 clay timbers, 4 z 19 ½ x 4 inches (each), New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, 2017.226.1-25 © Studio Bosco Sodi, Donation courtesy the Artist and Kasmin Gallery

6. Jorge Otero Escobar (Cuban, b. 1982), Stampede, 2014, Digital print, 53 ¼ x 35 ½ inches, Collection of David Borde ©Jorge Otero Escobar

7. Athena LaTocha (American/Standing Rock Lakota/Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe, b. 1969), Bulbancha (Green Silence) (detail), 2019, Ink, Spanish moss, and Mississippi River mud on paper, 132 x 206 inches, Collection of the artist, Image courtesy of the artist, Photography by Eric Waters © Athena LaTocha 2019


9. Diedrick Brackens (American, b. 1989), Wading Still (Bend, Bow, Pull), 2018 (detail), Cotton dyed with Mississippi River water, 100 x 90 inches, New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum purchase, Carmen Donaldson Fund, 2018.82, Photography by Don Lewis © Diedrick Brackens

9. Jennifer Odem (American, b. 1962), Earth Mound, 2006, Plaster, soil and brass pressure valve, 60 x 36 x 36 inches, Collection of the artist, © Jennifer Odem

10. Courtney Egan (American, b. 1966), Sigils, 2010 (left), Single channel HD video, ironwork, wire mesh, 48 x 64 x 8 1⁄2 inches, Promised Gift of Arthur Roger, EL.2016.132.30, Installation photography by Roman Alokhin © 2010 Courtney Egan

11. Cristina Molina (American, b. 1983), Under Three Things, 2018-19, Performance and digital print, Collection of the Artist © Cristina Molina 2019

12. Clyde Connell (American, 1901–1998), Looking through the Doomsday Fog, 1990 Papier-mâché on wood with ink notations, Dimensions variable, New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Jack Sullivan in loving memory of Christopher Karnes, 2000.5.1, Installation photography by Roman Alokhin

13. Dawn DeDeaux (American, b. 1950), The Vanquished, Study # 2, 2017, Digital print on aluminum, 88 x 160 inches, Collection of the artist © Dawn DeDeaux

14. Ron Bechet (American, b. 1956), For My Fathers, 2013, Charcoal on joined paper, 103 x 84 inches, Gift of Donna Perret and Benjamin M. Rosen © Ron Bechet

15. Dan Alley (American, b. 1980), Delta, 2014, Poured aluminum, 50 x 156 in., Museum purchase, P. Roussel Norman Fund, 2019.31 © Dan Alley Studio

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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