Gurgle, Weep, Flow

An Installation at the
Robert A. Fullerton Art Museum
California State University San Bernardino

Essay by Kathleen Whitney

For the past twenty years, Pat Warner has been making artworks that metaphorically explore the relationship of humans with the natural environment. Her work combines a reverence for the natural with a consciousness of the great gulf between nature and mechanized culture. As a consequence of a highly sophisticated and careful crafting process, she creates hybrid forms that are simultaneously 'natural' and highly artificial. Her use of natural materials underscores their beauty and employs a fact from which they are generally separated: that they are unique and irreplaceable resources. Her work is typified by this combination of aesthetics and hard environmental fact; natural resources are beautiful, vulnerable and diminishing in availability. Because of the way in which she manipulates her materials, she reconnects these materials with their sources. It is common to forget this association; the wood used to make a chair or a sculpture is known to be wood but is so totally transformed from its origins that it seems to have only the slightest relationship with trees.

One of the most striking characteristics of Pat Warner's body of work, and this particular installation, is its lack of reliance on a romanticized view of nature. Warner's love of nature is palpable, but pragmatic, she treats her subject with wit and humor; a good way of seducing her viewer into listening and looking. Her work is bridge building; it is not meant to show the 'right way' to a crowd that needs to be seduced back to the straight and narrow. Indeed, Warner's work is characterized by clear talk; if images could be said to speak, this installation speaks to its viewers plainly and directly, inviting discussion, collaboration and interaction.

This discussion is facilitated by Warner's humorously dark vision of a potential future; one in which the natural has been so eliminated that all that exists are odd, altered, fossilized remains. In fact, in terms of use of materials, this exhibition is a considerable departure for Warner. The work is fabricated mainly from 'artificial materials;' metal, concrete, and astro-turf. The installation consists of six large tree-like objects, six stump-like objects, and a wheeled cart bearing artificial grass in a shadowed room. The trees are 'growing' out of oddly bulbous vessels, and instead of a crown of leaves, each tree bears a crown of cascading coils of galvanized wire. A circulating pump is hidden in the bases of some of the trees and stumps; the background sound is that of running water. Water gurgles within some, and it flows freely and weeps out of others: hence the title: "Gurgle, Weep, Flow." Water is the issue here, water as a fact, as a metaphor: water represents a major issue in the dry states. Southern California, Warner's home, is basically as dry as any of the southwestern states. California is still spectacularly beautiful, a haven for tourists. Yet its population has also been expanding and it has become increasingly industrial. California has been in deep denial for the past three decades as far as its diminishing resources are concerned, especially where water is involved.

Warner is well aware that the California sky is still fairly blue, grass and trees green, that food still comes out of its ground. California's reputation as a 'garden state' and tourist haven, huge size, and dramatic beauty masks the dangers that threaten. It doesn't 'seem' polluted, doesn't seem 'endangered'; but there are those power blackouts, the enormous demands for water.

Naturally the perception of a danger point having been reached and surpassed can be dismissed as merely a matter of perception. Warner is not a didactic artist; she does not gives us statistics, frighten viewers with images of catastrophe. What she does in effect is create an imaginary visual narrative, a fairy tale that speaks of a possible future, a ludicrous, comical future where trees grow in museums and grass can be moved around on carts. These trees are new and improved; they have no need for pesticides, don't require water except symbolically. Warner's museum trees are the pure idea of a tree without the fuss and bother of irrigation and maintenance. Warner's work calls attention to this absolute moment in the present and the possibilities inherent in it. As absurd as it may seem, with genetic engineering and increasing demands on water supplies, Warner's eco-future is not an entirely unlikely possibility. In this future, the absolutely natural and the totally artificial are co-joined, genetically altered. Warner's fake trees are the products of the nostalgic view of nature; we want to keep those pretty things around decorating the landscape even if we have to kill them to keep them.

"Gurgle, Weep, Flow" is made even more effective because of its indoor location. Warner has done site-specific outdoor pieces in the past; the works she has situated inside are a consequence of a deliberate decision to utilize distinctions between the 'natural' spaces of the out of doors, and the 'artificiality' of indoor spaces. With a great deal of dexterous wit, Warner succeeds in confusing the distinctions between exterior and interior, real and fantastic, possible and probable.

On its super-artificial surface, "Gurgle, Weep, Flow" is about the long-pending water crisis in California and the rest of the U.S. More importantly, this installation is about perception and the nearly comical lengths to which people will go to avoid dealing with unpleasant truths and the consequences of their own actions.

Warner's installation has universal application; it creates a space that stands in for and symbolizes any number of 'real' spaces. Her piece is derived from a desire to restore the relationship between the physical ground and the humans who inhabit it. Her work is not motivated by sentimentality, but by the simple desire to create discussion, provoke thought, and expand the potential of reality.

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