Art & Art History
400 South Peoria Street, Chicago, IL 60607
In June and July of 2006, John Arndt spent several weeks at Wendover Airfield, Utah, under the auspices of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The residency served as a base camp for excursions, some overnight, into a region that extended from the Nevada border to Salt Lake City, to Idaho in the north and the Dugway Proving Grounds in the south.
Empire, Gallery 400 ’s exhibition of Arndt ’s resulting work, presents sculpture, video, photography, and found items from Arndt ’s time in the Great Salt Lake Basin. A central element of the project is Gallery 400 ’s publication and distribution of Arndt ’s audio compilation Field Recordings from the Great Salt Lake Desert. The project, which shares a methodology with landscape painting, documentary film, and non-fictional travel writing, presents the desert as a series of sounds meaningful to Arndt in an admittedly subjective and idiosyncratic way: the sounds either connect to the history of the desert, reveal an interesting facet of its current state, or help to establish a sense of the uniqueness of place.
The Great Salt Lake Desert arouses curiosity most often because of the impression of complete emptiness it leaves on travelers, especially those driving the hundred-mile stretch through the center of northern Utah, along Interstate 80 where there exists nary a town. The desert provides a radically unique situation that few people have ever experienced — that is, an environment where silence can be approached. Typically, our brains, in order to maintain concentration and secure sanity, do a remarkable job of filtering out the majority of sounds in our modern surroundings, without our cognizance of its censorship. However, even in the desert, silence can often be difficult to come by. Usually some sound is present: the drone of a distant airplane, a migrating bird, or a tenacious insect, but the opportunity to focus on such sounds in isolation, unaccompanied by ambient noise, is a scarcity in urban areas. At the same time, however, it is one ’s sense of the Great Salt Lake Desert as a wasteland that allows for a great diversity of activity (and hence sound) to occur. Benefiting from the lack of public scrutiny, chemical and biological testing, storage and incineration, military training and weaponry experimentation, industrial material harvesting and processing, the Great Salt Lake Desert is able to provide us with a treasure trove of sounds.
Artner, Alan G. “Examining Strangeness of Utah Desert.” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 2006.
Camper, Fred. “Virtual Utah.” Chicago Reader, Dec. 2006.
“Best of Utah 2007: Best Utah-Themed Art Exhibit You Never Saw.” City Weekly Utah, June 11, 2007.
Bonneville Flat, 2006
Sodium chloride on tire
DVD, 7:20 min. loop
Field Recordings From The Great Salt Lake Desert, 2006
Listening station with sandbags and brine blocks, CD, 48:00 min.
Helmet and Goggles Worn by Ralph Belanger, 2006
Sodium chloride on typewriter
Primary Forms, 2006
Vintage missile fuel tank
Visitor Center, Kennecott ’s Bingham Pit Copper Mine
Arrow, Utah Test and Training Range
Industrial debris near Spiral Jetty
Industrial debris near Spiral Jetty
Crater, Utah Test and Training Range
Campers at Sun Tunnels
Cargill salt production facility
WWII era bomb crater, Pilot Peak Target Area
Cone on Bonneville Salt Flats
Swat Team Meth Lab, 2005
Training site used by law enforcement near the Utah/Nevada border
Various Landscapes, 2006
Pony Express historical site and rest stop
Convoy of the 109th Air National Guard
Utah Test and Training Range
Intrepid Potash production facilities
Abandoned swimming pool, Wendover Airbase
Projectile tracks, Utah Test and Training Range
Soviet made prefab housing for nuclear weapons treaty verification personnel
Historic armament bunkers, currently leased to casinos as storage units
Sodium chloride on cowboy hat
John Arndt has had solo exhibitions at Rowland Contemporary, Chicago; Beverly Arts Center, Chicago; Suitable, Chicago; Lake Forest College, Illinois; Warsaw Project Space, Cincinnati; and Ten in One Gallery, Chicago. John Arndt’s work contains a strong sense of place, and how we inhabit it. He brings to this interest both a sculptor ’s and a musician ’s sense of physical surroundings. Displacement, heaviness, emptiness, silence—Arndt ’s work is about the human as it lives, works, hits piano strings, makes missiles, tries to speak, and hears birds. An artist ’s talk and CD release for Field Recordings from the Great Salt Lake Desert accompanies the exhibit. John Arndt received an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1993.
You Had to Be There: Ten Days in Art
By now, our loved ones are tired of hearing about it, “…the most amazing trip.” But our light shall not be hidden. Something benign, beautiful, communal, American, and about art, happened to us out in the desert, and we are compelled to testify. The moment was short-lived but profound, our bliss wave has already begun to break on the shores of real life, bickering has occurred, finals approach, bills to pay, and art to make. But for one brief moment sometime on the dance floor, out somewhere in the Wild West, we all felt it. We were glad to be alive and we were glad to be artists, we were in the moment, we had no fear or insecurities, and we were glad art existed in all its forms.
It was a simple but ambitious plan, a graduate seminar built around a trip through the west visiting the earthworks Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, and Double Negative, Las Vegas, a visit to Chicago art collectors Donna and Howard Stone ’s winter home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and ending at minimalist master Donald Judd ’s art museum/compound in Marfa, Texas. Nineteen artists signed up.
Before the trip began, I only half-jokingly pronounced I was going on a vision quest. I was losing my faith in art and needed to be reminded of art ’s meaning.
It was Justin who recommended that everyone make art during the trip. And it was obvious that so many artists together would take a few photographs and shoot some video. How much art making would occur was a complete surprise to me.
Day one was uneventful: a late flight into Salt Lake City, pick up three mini vans, and off to Motel Eight. One foreshadowing moment did occur at the airport before we left Chicago. I was talking to Vince and he was bummed because he had forgotten his snakebite anti-venom kit. I casually commented, “be here now.” He then pulled his shirt down and revealed a tattoo on his chest with the same words.
Day two we drove about three hours to see Robert Smithson ’s iconic Spiral Jetty. The drive was remote but easy, well-marked. When we pulled up to the jetty, I laughed at my disappointment upon seeing several other cars of tourists ahead of us. When the jetty first came into view, it looked just like the countless photographs we ’ve all seen of it. But once we descended the hill and began to walk the jetty, the experience became new. The jetty was difficult to walk, you had to look down and watch your step. Being forced to focus your attention down revealed the gorgeous reds, grays, blacks, and salt crystal white. The jetty was in a perfect state of entropy, one less rock, one more inch of water, and we would not have been able to make it to the center. Walking to the center was oddly disorienting. With a group, people appeared to shift back and forth from being in front of or in back of me. The weather was misty, creating silvery light; the lake disappeared into low clouds and islands of white salt foam slowly floated by in the silence. Dana had created reversible, multifunctional headgear for all of us. The hats were our first step towards brain melding; the hats unified us and removed our individuality, much like the effect of shaving the heads of recruits in basic training. By the time we had all gathered at the center of the jetty, our first amazing moment had occurred. We dubbed ourselves “Children of the Spiral” that day. We walked back from the jetty in silence. By that time, the other tourists had all left. Walking back from the center of the spiral, I felt privileged to be there. I was happy that Smithson had created this. Some say that art appreciation is subjective, but I disagree, we all agreed that the jetty worked. As we drove away from the jetty, a group of horses ambled across the road just in front of our vans.
In the afternoon we drove forever to see Nancy Holt ’s Sun Tunnels. It was on the last stretch of the trip that we met our first challenge, the gas tanks were getting low, and Professor was obviously lost. It was on that day that we initiated what was for the rest of the trip to be named “The Daily U-Turn.” But all in all, we were only diverted for a little bit, and we felt stronger for our survival of the crises. Heather took over as co-pilot and remained so for the rest of the trip. Heather has a fetish for maps and remained infinitely patient telling me to turn in a clear but progressively louder tone three times before my response. We talked about music, art, love, antiques, nature, and money. Heather, I ’m sorry I missed the ghost town. When we finally arrived at Sun Tunnels, the landscape began to reveal itself as a vital element of the trip ’s experience. At Sun Tunnels, people began to walk several yards into the vast, flat desert. Out there you could look for miles and miles without seeing another sign of life. It was easy in the desert to be alone in a way that is not possible where we live. You can think out there. We watched the sun set at Sun Tunnels, we held hands in a circle, we were pretending to be postmodern and ironic, but really we were falling in love—amazing moment number two.
That night we drove to Wendover, Nevada. Wendover is a gambling town just outside the border of Mormon Utah. We stayed at the Rainbow Hotel and Casino. The décor of this joint was a seminar in itself: black on black carpet, hyper-deco furniture, Naugahyde padding in purple, robin egg blue and turquoise, gold and silver accents, smoked mirrors, no clocks, no windows, and no right angles. We were exhausted, we drank, and we ate bad food in a room with a fake sky above. The lighting on the ceiling designed to imitate dusk to dawn moved at such a rapid pace it made everyone nauseous. The true colors of the rainbow revealed themselves at breakfast when we recognized the same gamblers still drinking at 7:00 am who we watched on our way to bed at 1:00 am. It was sad to see the Native Americans working most of the jobs at the casino.
Day three brought us the long drive to Las Vegas—more bonding, more beautiful landscape. We stayed at The Flamingo—nice. That night we danced, everyone danced. Annmarie had never been on a plane and had never been west of Kansas. That night in Vegas, she went buck wild on the dance floor.
Day four we drove about an hour to Michael Heizer ’s Double Negative. It was here that the big country really revealed itself. On top of the mesa, Double Negative frames one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. Derek told me he saw colors there he had never seen before. I walked out alone and watched the sun set. Survivalist Vince made a fire out of nothing and we all sat around it in silence. Vince sang a sad song by Beck.
I can ’t remember what else we did that night.
Day five we were all happy to be leaving Vegas. We stopped at the Liberace Museum on the way out and honored his American vision. Vegas is a lesson in Pop. Next, we were off to Scottsdale, Arizona, and another long drive. We stopped at Hoover Dam along the way. The landscape continued to unfold in vivid beauty. When we finally pulled into our sleepy hotel, we were greeted by an unexplained show of fireworks just across the parking lot. It seemed our journey was being blessed. That night we ate a fantastic Korean meal. We were yelled at by the management for talking too loudly on the balcony at 2:00 in the morning. After I went to bed, one of the rooms stayed up all night making art. Harold in particular seemed to be drawing at a near manic state. It was a pleasure to see creativity being expressed for its own sake. Drawing was an act, not a product.
Day six we visited Taliesin West, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright ’s winter home, experimental living/working space and school. A growing theme of the trip was “out of control egos and the things they make.” Next came a visit to twenty-year friends of mine, Donna and Howard Stone at their winter home in Scottsdale. The Stones have one of the most important collections of contemporary art in Chicago and in the country, and they happen to have a James Turrell Skyspace in their backyard. The class was smitten by Donna and Howard ’s generosity. Donna immediately began pulling out hors d ’oeuvre and drinks for the crowd. Howard showed off the collection and lectured sweetly about the joy art has brought to his life. At 5:30, we all retired to their Turrell with our glasses of wine and had yet another magic moment. Renatta had an epiphany during this visit. She wants to collect art in the future. I ’m sure she has at least eighteen artists who can get her started. That night we had Indian food. It dawned on me that night that we were all eating together again, and at day seven, there were miraculously no problems. Everyone was getting along. No one was arguing over the bill. Everyone was behaving himself or herself and the art and life experiences we were having were downright life-changing.
Day seven was another long drive and we stayed in a little town called Silver City. Along the way everyone had been making art—in the vans, in the hotels, and in impromptu performances. We stopped at a place called City of Rocks and we all climbed atop giant boulders and felt alive. That night we had a campfire dinner along a moonlit lake in the middle of nowhere. The perfection of these moments was starting to really add up. Brandon led us in a primal scream. Nicole, my hero, drove my van home so I could have a couple of beers by the fire. Trevor told a terrifying story about an alien encounter. Shannon giggled and performed the healing work of Reiki on my back. I think I felt something. That night the cult became fully galvanized.
Day eight brought us to Marfa, Texas. Marfa was hilarious, a mix of real cowboys and trendy hipsters. Nowhere on earth could you see the same conflation of dusty vests and designer eyewear. The town is in the middle of nowhere, three hours from El Paso. It contains a great hotel, a good bookstore, a couple of upscale restaurants, a museum made from old army barracks, dedicated to exhibiting the work of Donald Judd and a handful of his cronies. The town also contains his unique living space, including a vast library, two enormous galleries dedicated to the display of his early work, and various studios not all accessible to the public. The town also boasts one bar called “Joe’s” but everybody calls it “Ray’s” or was it “Ray’s” but everyone calls it “Joe’s”? At any rate, that ’s where we spent our evening dancing to the live act Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses. I overheard, “…he was the real deal, his daddy just got out of prison.” After we closed the bar, the dancing continued in the boys’ suite. The police shut us down at 2:00 am. I ’m forty-six years old.
Day nine started at dawn with a performance by Kirsten. In improvised traditional Dutch costume, she proceeded to wash all three mini-vans. It took her three hours. We hadn ’t had a lot of sleep the night before, and some of us may have been a bit hungover, but we were there cheering her on as the sun rose. Next was the tour of Marfa. The first two buildings on the tour contain one hundred untitled works by Judd. The variations on a box containing a variety of inner planes are made of brushed aluminum. Judd radically redesigned the buildings containing the boxes. The two long walls of each building contain glass from floor to ceiling. As you glide through the ethereal rooms, reflections make the planes disappear and reappear in a surprisingly fluid visual dance. Inside and outside become one. I couldn ’t help but see this art as the apotheosis of modernism. I saw a direct lineage all the way back to the Impressionists attempting to capture light in dabs of color. These rooms gave me a genuine aesthetic experience. Here was the first time during the trip that the art was as impressive as the nature surrounding it. It dawned on me in Marfa that we were seeing a lot of work made by artists who came of age during Vietnam. The parallels between that war and the current one are inevitable, even the president has finally acknowledged the comparisons. It was good to see something positive about America—great art in a great land. There was something hopeful about the experience.
By this time, we all felt that the trip had meaning, that this experience was extraordinary. Derek acknowledged that this would affect our futures. Todd was sick the whole trip, but never slowed down or showed less than good humor. Quiet Marie, danced, smiled, shot invariably embarrassing video, and nonchalantly got a tattoo in Vegas. Selina and I talked and talked about art, music, the world, families, etc. She found the gaping gash of nature by Michael Heizer offensive. I liked her opinions. We danced. Dana had fun, her voice left her every night, and I ’ll never forget the terrified look on her face as I swooped her into a frenetic western dance. Michael compared the experience to summer camp. Although I never went to summer camp, I understood the joy my son has always experienced there. Phillip was always good-natured and appreciative. His heart and smile expanded throughout the trip.
The last evening was filled with hugs, toasts, and more dancing at the local bar. My balloon began to loose air when I heard “the harmonica player came in from L.A. to sit in with the band. He played the uncle in Napoleon Dynamite.” I also found out that Ryan Bingham and the boys were playing a Kiki Smith party at the Whitney in a couple of weeks.
That night my friend Justin gently scolded me for being too hard on myself. You see, I ’m a petty, insecure artist. I have big ambitions but I ’m full of disappointment. Unfortunately, I measure much of my worth as an artist on my career. It was during a sweet toast by Brandon that I felt a different worth I hadn ’t recognized before in myself. I was happy to be just the artist I was and I was happy to be a teacher. My vision quest had actually yielded results.
Our final day was a quiet ride to El Paso and a sentimental flight home. Again perfection, one day more would have been too many, one day less would have been too few. Part of what made the trip so magical was the knowledge that this would never happen again, twenty people could never get along that well again and the experiences and the art would never again be new to our eyes.
Two days after returning home, Lorelei Stewart invited us to display our documentation of the trip at Gallery 400. The Art Gods’ gave us one more existential pat on the back. A few more days in the desert and I would have believed Bob himself must have been watching over us.
Empire is supported by the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.
Special thanks to the jury that selected the 2007 At the Edge
projects: Romi Crawford (Director, SAIC Visiting Artist Program), Lisa Dorin (Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago), Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle (artist), Sumakshi Singh (artist), and Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400).
Poster: Empire – Opening Reception