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Getting to An Unkindness— Curator Sarah Newman

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Mia Feuer: An Unkindness- Essay excerpt by Sarah Newman, Curator of Contemporary Art

Mia Feuer- Rink

Hanging directly above Feuer’s Rink is a sculpture entitled An Unkindness, a massive black and grey tangle of what appears to be tree trunks, metal bars, and bird wings. Made of tar paper, foam, feathers, and paint, the sculpture—and the exhibition as a whole—takes its name from a gathering of ravens. The birds are a central element in the work, and figure prominently in the story of the massive transformation of the Canadian ecosystem witnessed by Feuer during her trips to the tar sands in 2011 and 2012.

Mia Feuer- An Unkindness- Rink installation shot

Feuer had long been interested in the process of oil extraction in the tar sands (or alternately, oil sands), and for years had tried in vain to gain access to one of the region’s production plants. Unlike the more conventional method of drilling wells beneath the surface of the earth, oil in the tar sands is derived from the chemical separation of bitumen—a highly viscous form of petroleum—from the loose sandy soil in which it is found. Apart from its potential climatic consequences,1 the physical effects on the landscape of this relatively recent process (developed in 1967) have been profound. Old growth forests have been razed, creating vast and desolate plains that are then “surface mined” by injecting hot water and lye into the excavated earth. The process requires large amounts of raw material to achieve its end product; about two tons of the sands are used to produce each barrel of oil, the toxic results of which are returned to the original site. As a result, the contaminated region continues to grow, and its current footprint—larger than that of England—is spreading to the north, east, and south.

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Feuer’s interest in the tar sands was not born of environmental activism or a muckraking impulse. As an artist, her work depends almost wholly on the use of petroleum products to make her painted foam sculptures, and as a person living in modern-day North America, she is acutely aware of her reliance on conveniences and comforts made possible by oil. Fully recognizing her embeddedness in the culture of petroleum, Feuer was drawn to find out about the largely untold physical transformation of her native country’s landscape. She hoped to learn more about how her individual choices, or lack thereof, are connected to the reshaping of the earth on a grand scale.

Feuer’s attempts to gain access to the oil companies were

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rebuffed in some cases and ignored in most. Then, in early 2011, she made contact with an employee of one of Canada’s largest oil companies through an outdated flyer for a company barbeque she came across while searching the web. Won over by their mutual interest in art, the employee connected her with one of the company’s site managers, who invited her to tour their production facilities. During her two trips to the site, Feuer gained a rare, close-up view of the transformed landscape.

As she learned about the process of oil production and land use, Feuer turned her attention to the aftermath. She became fascinated by attempts to reclaim the land so that it might one day be returned to something resembling its natural state. But because the chemical-soaked earth is inhospitable to most life, such remediation took the form of a wholly new ecosystem, seemingly planned with the absurdist logic of a children’s fairy tale.

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The chain of remediation begins with wheat and ends with ravens. Since one of the only plants that will grow in the toxic, sandy plains is wheat (which has the long-term benefit of pulling the chemicals from the ground) the area was blanketed with the non-native crop. Attracted by the presence of thousands of acres of wheat, the land quickly became overrun with mice. In order to get rid of the mice (who were also now toxic and a danger to the surrounding areas), the company brought in ravens, a natural predator. But for the ravens to have someplace to nest, they needed trees, which could not grow in the toxic soil. The solution to this problem was birch trees, which were brought in already dead and inserted upside-down into the ground, with their branches used as anchors. The resulting tableau appeared to emerge from the depths of a nightmare: barren plains punctuated by spindly white trees with outstretched roots clawing the sky. Overhead, black ravens circle their prey.

Mia Feuer- An Unkindness- installation shot

An Unkindness, the sculpture that Feuer created in response to this landscape, tries to capture the sense of vertiginous imbalance she experienced at the scene. Trees float overhead, roots in the air and trunks teeter in precarious equilibrium with mangled industrial architecture. Black feathers and bird wings dart in and out of trees and metallic forms, creating a dark cloud of improbably massive objects. Constructed largely of petroleum products, An Unkindness is an oily swirl of inorganic nature and industry.

NOW at the Corcoran – Mia Feuer: An Unkindness is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from November 2, 2013-February 23, 2014. The skate rink is open to the public on Wednesdays 2:00pm-9:00pm, Thursdays/Fridays 2:00pm-5:00pm, and Saturdays/Sundays 10:00am-5:00pm.

Image Credits:

  • Design for Rink, 2013. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist and CONNERSMITH. © Mia Feuer.
  • Mia Feuer, An Unkindness, 2013. Foam, feathers, tar paper, tar, wire, black enamel, shredded rubber tires, and powdered glass. Dimensions variable, approximately 15 x 30 x 10 ft. Rink, 2013. High density polyethylene polymer, wood, MDF, assorted hardware, and hockey skates. 16 x 27 x 5 ft. Installation view, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Mia Feuer, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and CONNERSMITH. Photo by Paul Bothwell.
  • “Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom,” National Geographic, 2009. Photo by Peter Essick.
  • Mia Feuer, Design for An Unkindness, 2013. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist and CONNERSMITH. © Mia Feuer.
  • Mia Feuer, An Unkindness, 2013. Foam, feathers, tar paper, tar, wire, black enamel, shredded rubber tires, and powdered glass. Dimensions variable, approximately 15 x 30 x 10 ft. Installation view, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Mia Feuer, courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and CONNERSMITH. Photo by Paul Bothwell.

1 The production of liquid oil from the tar sands requires significant energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates approximately 12% more greenhouse gasses per barrel than conventional drilling techniques. See Barbara Lewis, David Ljunggren, and Jeffrey Jones, “Canada’s Tar Sands Battle with Europe,” (10 May 2012). Huffington Post, Reuters (May 10, 2012).