Michele Guieu “Our House” – Site-specific art installation in the Mojave Desert, 2021 – Photo courtesy Michele Guieu © 2021
Video by Ted Meyer
During my second art residency at Desert Dairy in the Mojave desert, I created “Our House”, a site-specific temporary installation about fragility and resources, made only of materials and objects I found on the property. I spent two weeks in a place where I feel at home and entirely free to experiment and create. Desert Dairy is a property in Twentynine Palms situated near Joshua National Park’s East Entrance and accessible through a short unpaved road. The landscape is arid. Nature is harsh there. Life in this ecosystem is fragile.
A year ago, on the same property, I created “Exponential”, a site-specific installation that addresses the infernal circle of “Extraction-fabrication-pollution” on which our civilization is based. The exponential factor is recent in human history. It is due to the intensification of a consumption-based economy. Many human activities took-off and sharply accelerated towards the end of the 20th century. The last 60 years have, without a doubt, seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.
Between my art residencies, the covid19 pandemic happened, showing the world how a tiny virus can jeopardize the balance of our very complex society on a planetary scale. Everywhere there is an intense desire for meaning. People are stressed and disenchanted. Extracting ourselves from the craziness of the consumerist world around us is extremely difficult. We need to recognize what makes us happy, what brings us joy. For me, it is spending time doing what I love, with people I care for, surrounded by nature.
Staying at a place where things are simple is an excellent reminder that we do not need much to be happy. An art residency is much more than making art on site. It is the way your hosts make you feel at home away from home. And artists and friends Anna Stump and Ted Meyer know how to do that very well. Little things made the stay memorable, like the freshly cooked spiced butternut squash Anna offered for dinner, the book about desert plants she left at my door, a hike she invited my son and me to go on. The night we were invited to make our pizzas in a unique earth oven.
I was grateful to have that time for myself and happy that my 18-year-old son decided to come with me during this time of online schooling. He is a desert lover too and thrives in simple settings. My son walked in the surrounding desert, looking for arthropods, his favorite animal. We had a wonderful time in the evening together. During these two weeks, we had some time to enjoy the surroundings together, like the day we went to Joshua Tree National Park to see the snow freshly fallen. It was quite magical.
Before returning to Desert Dairy, I knew I wanted to work on a site-specific installation about fragility and resilience. When I arrived, I walked on the property’s grounds, looking at the views of the mountains. I finally decided on a spot for my installation: a narrow cement slab, a remnant of a long-gone construction, with a perspective on the mountains in the background.
I wanted to build a large “transparent” and fragile structure through which nature would be visible. The year before, the inside of the installation I had made represented a complex system – complex therefore fragile. I was still very much fascinated by this idea, especially after 2020, where the concept of fragility and resilience came to the forefront.
To create the installation, I only used what I found on the property, which is an exciting challenge. I found a large number of thin branches in the “oasis”, an ensemble of large tamarisks growing in a circle on the property and shedding lots of deadwood. I found other objects very close to where I created the installation. Some of the items were lying on the ground. Some were slightly buried in the sandy soil. Desert Dairy was once used as a dump. The property has since been cleaned up, but there are still objects scattered on the land.
I cut lots of 30” branches and started to create triangles with them. To assemble them, I used a strong cotton thread, easy to knot. Then, assembling the triangles, I made one self-sustaining structure. Then I created another one, thinking about creating some sort of passage between the two, with the view of the mountains between them. I began to assemble both structures by creating a corridor between them, using a ladder. Every day while I was working, I was fascinated by the expanse of the desert view.
In the final, two days, I attached a series of objects inside the structure with thin metallic wire. I chose them from the ensemble of items I found: a broken ceramic American eagle, a ceramic gorilla, a piece of thick rope, a light switch plate, an empty discolored coca-cola can, a videotape box, a bit of metallic chain, a screwdriver, a shiny Christmas decoration, a small pale teddy bear, etc. I hung them from the structure, attached at two points so that they could gently move. Some, like the videotape box, and the tape floating around, made subtle sounds.
Working outdoors is an essential aspect of connecting with nature. Taking in the scale and the changes around me, remembering that we constructed a decor around us that separates us from nature. During the residency, the weather was cold and windy. It varied a lot. I worked in the open. I was in contact with the elements, and I experienced changes in light and temperature. Some days it got close to freezing. At the end of the day, the desert colors in the background were intense and contrasted.
I am grateful to have spent time in the simple beauty of the Mojave desert to make a second temporary art installation at Desert Dairy, reflecting on fragility and resilience. As an artist who is very conscious of the challenges we face due to the climate emergency, I want to emphasize the necessity to understand the importance of the resources we use and to decrease that use. Every single thing we make, we buy, we create, we discard, is made with materials that come from somewhere on Earth and most likely in a limited amount. I want to insist on the importance of reconnecting to nature as much as we all can — to accept our vulnerability so that we can see and accept the reality as it is and not be over-optimistic. Miraculous solutions are not going to save us. Drastic changes in our lifestyle eventually will. “Our House” is an installation that embodies this philosophy — with a light footprint, a reuse of the materials we have as opposed to the consumption of new materials, and a realization that it is only temporary.
Michele Guieu is an eco-artist and a teaching artist. Her practice focuses on sustainability and resilience. Michele’s large-scale installations, often participatory, engage the public to reflect on the climate emergency. Her work has been exhibited at many venues, including the Santa Cruz Museum of Art, Tech Interactive, De Saisset Museum of Art, San Diego Art Institute, San Diego City College. Michele is the Arts Coordinator at the MAHB. She created What’s Next for Earth, an art project on Instagram to reflect on the poly-crises we are in and envision a livable and desirable future. Originally from Marseille, France, Michele lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Michele’s Instagram page.
What’s Next For Earth on Instagram.
Photo Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group
This article is part of the MAHB Arts Community‘s “More About the Arts and the Anthropocene”. If you are an artist interested in sharing your thoughts and artwork, as it relates to the topic, please send a message to email@example.com. Thank you.