Elsewhere in the room was a rich accumulation of stuff: colorful T-shirts hanging down from the ceiling, heaps of shredded paper surrounding an armchair, junk mail and Snapple lids (Fact: Snails have no teeth) fastened on the wall. Old CDs swayed on string like mid-air shish kabobs. A dancing cactus gyrated on a pedestal. A web of yarn festooned the ceiling, connecting-the-dots between piles like a hyper toddler with a crayon.
This seeming chaos in the Mills Gallery was the final collaborative project for the women of Installation and Environmental Art, taught last fall by Treva Reimer, professor of art. The exhibit, titled “What Do You Think About Stuff?” was meant to nudge visitors into reflecting on the clutter infesting their lives.
The class was small—just three students—but they quickly filled the large gallery space. Senior Sarah Shimon brought the T-shirts, collected in dresser drawers from years of sporting events. The Snapple lids were donated by junior Alicia Borton, who had stashed away hundreds of factoids over the years. A doll in a pale blue dress—set neatly on a pedestal—was a gift from sophomore Amanda Deerr’s grandfather.
“The exhibit is about our relationship with stuff in our lives,” says Shimon. “It’s supposed to feel overwhelming. You walk in and you’re surrounded by stuff, which you are every day of your life.”
The art students aren’t anti-stuff on principle. Some of the items, like Deerr’s doll, are precious. And some—like Reimer’s dancing cactus, bought on a trip for her by husband—have sentimental meaning despite their kitsch. “People might think it’s clutter,” says Shimon, “but it shows the importance we attach to the stuff in our lives.”
From the beginning, this small class has taken on big projects. They started outside—with environmental art, or land art—exploring their relationship to the earth with their bodies. For one project, Borton lay on the ground in Big Rock Park, outlined her silhouette and then pulled up the grass—creating a negative space where her body had been. Shimon trekked through the landscape barefoot and took photos of her feet in the mud, on the rocks, under water.
Installation art and environmental art are two prominent contemporary art forms. Both are difficult to define, but roughly, environmental art is transformation of the landscape and installation art is 3-D work often created from unconventional materials that surround the viewer. Up until last semester, the students didn’t have much experience with these forms, which was one reason Reimer decided to teach the course.
“I wanted to get them to explore, to expand their ideas a little about what art is,” says Reimer. “In installation and environmental art, you need to consider what the art is about as opposed to what the technique is.”
Reimer was pleasantly surprised by how her students leaped into the nontraditional projects she assigned. They interpreted words (comfort, curiosity, safety) through the mediums of light and sound. They brought a poem to life in the physical world. They used stones, leaves, pine cones, palms and feet to build their art. “They were able to think outside the box,” says Reimer. “They interpreted things in different ways than I expected.”
All three students agreed that their favorite project was the one they didn’t actually do—the Big Idea. They channeled the spirits of Robert Smithson, who created a huge Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who wrapped buildings in fabric. Through descriptions and illustrations, they designed the biggest and most outlandish art they could image. “You weren’t contained to the amount of materials or the space you had,” says Shimon. “You could do anything.”
That’s one lesson the students learned by studying installation and environmental art. If you can dream it, then it’s art. It doesn’t matter if the shading is right or if the colors complement each other. The art is about meaning—and taking risks.
“You define it yourself. But not having rules can sometimes be more difficult than having rules,” says Reimer with a laugh. At least they had a lot of stuff to work with.