The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Trong Gia Nguyen, Artists In Residence in Everglades (AIRE)
I thought I wasn’t going to have to post anything else, Mayan apocalypse and all, but now, post 12-21, the post must post. I had wanted to do a weekly write-up, but lacked any real desire to leave my sanctuary in the park just to find a wireless connection and boot up with the www. Thus I leave 2012 behind with a truncated and perhaps very unsatisfying travelogue for the reader. It’s certainly no closure to my amazing experience at the residency, which in all honesty, cannot be measured in words. At best it will be a fun read and maybe inspire others who have been thinking of peeking in or diving head first into the Everglades. As with anything worth doing, it hopefully leaves you wanting more. Dec 10-18
Becky is up in New York, so I had the week all to myself. It was a shift in work mode, from frantically trying to gauge and catch the best light each day to photograph to a directed form of formlessness. I began by shelving Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s River of Grass for Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Already immersed in feeling “one” (as much as a Brooklynite can) with the wetlands, I wanted to wander off somewhere else, in pages anyway.
I took a visit with Ranger John to the Nike Hercules Missile Site, neatly camouflaged in the national park. The base was built in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, guarding South Florida and keeping all sun tanners safe from those damn Soviets and evil Cubans. The base has been inactive since 1979, and remains mostly unchanged, though it might be a good idea to re-charge ‘em and point them at Governor Rick Scott’s house. If you thought the commies posed a threat to American freedoms… Alright, don’t get me started on politics.
Three barns, each surrounded by u-shaped mounds, open up into a platform where the missiles would launch. A canine-training facility on site made sure the hounds of hell would be unleashed against anyone daring to breach the base. The low 5-foot fence surrounding the area almost seemed to dare the intruders. On this pretty day, with emptiness and lone trees in the distance, it was a landscape out of a Wythe painting, only the barn housed missiles instead of hay, and a wandering Asian trained his eyes to it instead of Christina.
With effort, John pushed one of the giant barn doors open to reveal a Herculean projectile. Now, I know it was the 60s, but don’t you think the military would have devised a quicker way of opening a one-ton door other than putting some cheap wheels on it and dropping it on a track, slid back and forth by the sweat of soldiers? I can imagine a James Bond doomsday scenario in which a penny gets caught on the track and nobody understands why the door is stuck. As a last resort, to save the world and us from ourselves, the missiles are launched directly from inside the barn, with Ilya Kabakov as the launch operator.
Jokes aside, the old time technology – peering inside one of the missile caps – summoned some authentic feelings of awe inside of me. All that gadgetry to navigate the missile could now be placed inside a single computer chip. Still, our capabilities to eviscerate Nature to landfill rubble probably coincided inversely with the shrinking size of these chips, wonderful as they are.
My original project for the residency called for doing some paintings that focused on the unnatural elements of the Everglades. During those trips to the thrift stores with Becky, I also snagged a few amateur paintings that would suffice for my canvases. I’ve decided to incorporate my paintings of the unnatural into my Signature series, in which I paint over an existing painting with the same image genre but carefully preserve and leave untouched the original signature. A painting of golfers near a bunker is thus sheepishly replaced by a bunker at the Nike Missile site.
Later in the week, I was on my way to a slough slog when my attention was completely diverted by a prescribed fire just around the corner from the flat. Right by the road, people dressed in yellow suits from the US Geological Survey monitored the blaze, which is periodically done all over the park to control exotic pest vegetation that inhibit natural areas. Helicopters drop little firebombs in a circular perimeter that somehow converge toward the center. The results are dramatic, with large plumes of black smoke dragging against the sky and the sound of rotors piercing the peace and quiet of the park. On hand was also a National Geographic crew documenting these fires, and two chummy scientists who were also standing by the road, waiting with great patience to catch the site of a rare lizard that apparently comes running out of these fires for photo ops.
I missed slogging for the day, but got some fantastic images to use for my painting. ***
I’ve also been milling the grounds at various times chatting away with the volunteers who live in their recreational vehicles and campers. They’re all incredibly nice and friendly. In addition to painting, I’m toying around with the idea of making an accordion/perforated set of Everglades postcards spotlighting these individuals and their park abodes. Again, turning the gaze away from Mother Nature towards her interpreters and keepers.
I’m spontaneously shooting some pics to see what I get, and then injecting flowery Photoshop text to send them up with typical touristy humor. Problem is, the vehicles are placed in an east-west direction, making it ideal to insulate and minimalize the intensity of sunlight, but also rendering it a little tricky for my task of photographing. Their “front yards” are therefore usually in the shade, and I’m winging it because that’s what I do.
So far I’ve gotten a few really good ones. If they work out, I’ll propose to send some to the park gift shop. I can picture discerning cultural travelers eating this sh*t up! Art is for Travelers. Nature Is for Lovers.
In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the particulars and peculiarities of the many places of his travels. The two lose themselves in what is seen and unseen, and that which is ultimately constructed in the mind’s eye – of the emperor and the explorer. In their romanticizing, empires, cities and its peoples, lost and found, come into view under that memory scope which attempts to peel away all embellishments and veneers, to lay bare what is in front of our eyes. And then to bury again.
In the history of the Everglades currently being written, the Army corps of engineers is trying to reverse-engineer large portions of the swamps back to a more natural state from which they wrecked and imposed industrialization’s will. It’s not quite the same thing, but what I’m doing in the Everglades is ultimately enrapt in this same push and pull. Except with less heavy machinery. With Mother Nature, a light touch goes a long way.
*** UPDATE: We were able to go on a slough slog with Kathy, an experienced slogger and amazing woman of many experiences and talents – among many gifts, she’s a psychic and animal communicator. A slough slog (sounds gross, but believe me, it’s incredible) takes you hip-deep into the grassy waters as you hike into a “cypress dome,” mound–shaped clusters of cypress trees that need deeper waters to reach their heights in the center. Seeing them from the road cannot prepare you for the Tolkien experience inside… To be continued.