Nightmares of dolphins and sea turtles choking on oil loomed over our collective sleep this summer as the BP oil spill bled endlessly into the crystal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of us were dependent on the media for images instead of seeing it for ourselves. The experience was rather surreal. Linda Armstrong’s “re-installation” of Beach at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) uses a moiré patterning that abstracts and mutes the artist’s hard-hitting message about water pollution. Though the artwork originally was created in 1992, its warning is contemporary.
18 years ago artist Linda Armstrong had a startling experience that forever changed the focus of her art. While walking peacefully on a remote beach of Cumberland Island—an unspoiled wilderness on Georgia’s coast—the carcass of a dolphin washed ashore. Armstrong accompanied Carol Ruckdeschel, the resident naturalist at the Cumberland Island Museum, to the lab to ascertain the cause of death. Lesions were present in the mouth that indicated an immune deficiency; man-made pollution was the likely cause. This was no surprise to the naturalist, as the birds and mammals she found on the beach always had a thin coating of oil.
Armstrong’s re-installation uses a clever spatial trick. The high contrast “stripped markers” cause an optical effect, making the small space of MOCA’s project ramp seem more voluminous. (An artist that uses this effect well is Esther Stocker.) The adjoining prints—most of which are ambient black textures on metal—seem to float in space. The overall feeling is watery and chaotic: a choppy checkerboard.
The viewer must look at all of the prints, however, to fully appreciate the artwork’s significance. At first they seem to be identical, employing a prominent horizon line and stains that look like continents and islands on a foggy map.
But two of the images, though tastefully unclear, are rather horrific. In one, the severed head of a dolphin lay on the ground at the feet of a booted man, whose head is cropped out of the picture.
Armstrong, a professor at Emory University’s Visual Arts Department, consistently makes work about environmental issues. Her installation, provided as a gift of David S. Golden and the artist, presents an interesting background story.
These days we see a lot of greenwashing in art and advertising that appeal to our guilt about how we treat the earth. Car advertisements with kelly-green backgrounds, nostalgic paintings of flowery landscapes, clean coal, and nuclear power campaigns cajole us to consume without changing the way we think or act.
For Armstrong protecting nature is clearly not just an act of popularity. She means it through and through.
Linda Armstrong’s Beach continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through September 18. The artist will give a talk Wednesday, September 8, during a reception beginning at 6:30PM.