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Gorillas, cloth and words... or are they? New installations at Aspen Art Museum

Patrick Fort
Aspen Public Radio

The Aspen Art Museum will be opening some of its new exhibits this week. The contemporary art space is opening multiple installations through the course of this month, including painting, sculpture and video works at various places.

The first stop was the Elk Camp restaurant in Snowmass, where commissioned art has been placed in partnership between the museum and the Aspen Skiing Company.

Shinique Smith, a New York-based painter is up in the restaurant by herself. There are definitely some vibes of The Shining. Solitary work? Check. Big, quiet building on a mountain? Check. Snow? Late-October-snow-amounts-check.

Smith is painting on a large wall. It’s about 30 feet long and 10 feet high She says that she enjoys working on bigger scales like this one.

“I like to use my whole arm span, my whole body,” says Smith. “When you work large on a wall like this, it gives you that freedom to work big and small, to make large gestures and more intimate moments in it.”

Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Public Radio
Shinique Smith's painting inside Elk Camp in Snowmass.

There are long, broad brush strokes coming from a central point in the piece. Gestures of pink and black paint that looks to be an interpretation of the wind, but it is still obscure enough to make the viewer question what they’re actually looking at.

“I have associations that come with each element and each gesture, but that’s not why I made it that way,” she says. “I’m not illustrating it one way or another. People can bring to it their own meaning.”

Her works are swirling paintings with collage elements thrown in. There are things inserted into this work that seem pretty straightforward. There are bits of cloth and paper, and even words… scrawled in a graceful, nondescript manner. But upon further investigation, it’s impossible to decipher their meaning.

“I use the gesture as text,” says Smith. “It’s abstracted text and I’m using these bits of poetry that are inspiring the marks.”

Just clear enough to be noticed, but vague enough to remain anonymous.

Gorillas in the museum?

Diana Thater’s installation 'gorillagorillagorilla' is allowing viewers to experience two worlds at once.

In a dark room in the Aspen Art Museum, projectors stream videos of gorilla onto the wall. There is also one animal whose image is being produced on nine televisions stacked on top of each other. The gorillas all live in a refuge in Cameroon, but the way she films the animals gives you the impression that some are wild. They sit behind fences. They sit in trees or fields, or with scientists like they might in a National Geographic documentary.

Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Public Radio
Green gels cover the windows in the installation, changing the feel of the room.

The images are arranged in a circular shape. Five are projected onto the wall, and others appear on the floor. They are stretched and compressed as they wrap around the different angles of the room. You are drawn to the middle, where nothing is being projected, but once you’re there, your shadow blocks the way. Diana says that’s intentional.

“You can never see everything at once, so you’re forced to move, which is another address to the body,” says Thater. “You need to move around the work in order to see the entire piece. You can’t see it from one vantage point. The point is to engage the viewer physically as well as mentally.”

Being mentally engaged in your surroundings is something Diana focused on heavily. The glass doors and windows in the room have been covered in green gels, so that the entire space has an emerald hue. But one other striking part of the exhibit is the lack of sound. It’s another conscious choice.

"I want you to be in the present, knowing that you’re in a gallery,” Thater says. “I don’t want to have the sounds of the rainforest or the jungle piped in over speakers because I don’t want to transport the viewer.”

Sometimes people leave the installation thinking that there was sound in the room, Thater says. There is a strong emphasis on placing people in a specific environment, and a specific mindset. She wants you to know that your existence is in two spaces simultaneously.

“There’s a space that you recognize, and a space which you’re familiar - that’s architecture,” she says, “and there’s a space with which you’re not familiar, that’s wild and unstructured. That’s the rainforest where the gorillas live.

Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Public Radio
A stack of televisions allow one gorilla to observe the room.

Her subjects over her career have ranged from dolphins and tigers, to the abandoned Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. “gorillagorillagorilla” was a commissioned work by the Natural History Museum in London to make a piece in celebration of the anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

She’s been using film as her medium for years, because of the way that she believes animals perceive time differently than we do.

“Film and video; they’re time-base media,” Thater says. “They make meaning in time. I’m interested in watching and observing animals in time, and seeing how they live their lives.”

She is intrigued by seeing how people are able to interact with technology as they experience her art. The projectors and cables are scattered around the room.

“I believe we have the ability to experience the sublime, the beautiful, the transcendent, in the presence of technology. I leave it all exposed obviously. The cords hang from the ceilings, they snake across the floor. I make no attempt to hide it at all.”

gorillagorillagorilla will be on display at the Aspen Art Museum until February 21, 2016