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‘Project Atrium’ artist seeks treasure in Sanibel

September 13, 2016 // by Jaime DeSimone

Lauren Fensterstock is on a quest.

In preparation for her Project Atrium exhibition opening in March 2017, Fensterstock visited MOCA Jacksonville in August to understand the monumental dimensions of the Atrium Gallery. Then she headed to Sanibel Island to research and collect materials to create her sculptural work Holophusicon. She was walking in the footsteps of Robert Smithson, whose work has inspired Fensterstock's installation.

She shared some thoughts about the trip with us.

Lauren Fensterstock Project Atrium Mirrors Sanibel a
Lauren Fensterstock places mirrors on the beach at Sanibel Island during a trip in August 2016. Image courtesy of Joe Karably.

Describe your first impressions of the Atrium Gallery. 

The Atrium Gallery is a beautiful but daunting space. My recent work is inspired by landscapes like gardens and fields, so I tend to think in horizontal planes. The monumental verticality of the Atrium was unlike any space I have shown in before. As a result, I couldn't resort to any of my familiar strategies and had to completely reinvent my work for the height of the Atrium. It was an exciting challenge and resulted in a piece I never would have conceived without this opportunity.

How did visiting it and moving throughout the three floors impact your vision for your upcoming exhibition?

Walking through the Atrium, I was inspired by its many vantage points: a long view from the front doors, a more intimate view up close, and then the discovery of new details as you see the space from different heights. I decided to make something that would reveal itself in layers, and play off the sequencing of experiences provided by the architecture.

Lauren Fensterstock Project Atrium Shell Sanibel b
Lauren Fensterstock picks up a shell on Sanibel Island. Image courtesy of Joe Karably.

Share your interest in Robert Smithson, particularly his shell and mirror pieces on or inspired by Sanibel Island.

Smithson is a fascinating artist. He is probably best known for his massive earthwork Spiral Jetty, but he also made photographs, sculptures, and published essays on a wide variety of topics. He had a major impact on contemporary art, particularly concerning notions of time and place. Smithson sought to transcend the particulars of historical human time to attempt a more universal geological time.

Lauren Festernstock: Sanibel Island from Joe Karably on Vimeo.

He made a photowork in Sanibel titled Mirror Shore (1969) in which he uses mirrors to break up the landscape with reflections of the sky. In my homage to this piece, I replace his clear mirrors with black ones, inspired by the Claude Glass, a black mirror dating back to the seventeenth century used for viewing the landscape. Smithson took pains to capture an undifferentiated landscape, but in response, I attempt something seeped in many layers of specific history. Chasing his ephemeral work, I realize that I am also historicizing it. I like that there is a bit of a contradiction in that. The mirrors in Smithson's Mirror Shore reflect light back into the landscape, whereas mine seem to absorb all the light that surrounds them. I think his works have an optimistic manner in their attempt to transcend human culture, where mine have a slightly more insidious tone as they are cast in the shade of history.

Lauren Fensterstock Project Atrium Trees Sanibel c
Lauren Fensterstock walks a trail through the trees on Sanibel Island. Image courtesy of Joe Karably.

What does Sanibel represent to you? How did this research trip inform and further your Project Atrium piece?

Although my subject is nature, you might be surprised to know that most of my ideas come from books. I would say I have been more interested in reading ideas about nature--how nature is used as a metaphor, how nature shapes cultural identity--than actually spending time in nature. This trip allowed me to walk in Smithson's footsteps and experience this beautiful place firsthand. I had a lot of discoveries! One of the photoworks I was studying, The Hypothetical Continent in Shells (Lemuria) (1969), appears to be a pile of shells arranged on the beach. I assumed that Smithson collected these shells and then placed them in this composition. When I got to Sanibel, I realized that there are just tons and tons of shells everywhere. Because the beach is filled with piles like this, I am guessing that Smithson “found” this hypothetical continent and perhaps adjusted it, rather than completely gathering and arranging it from scratch. Conceptually, I think it makes a big difference and I never would have understood that without visiting the site.

One of the inspirations for my trip was a letter that Smithson wrote to Andy Warhol in 1969. He marked a map to show where he collected shells for the sculpture Mirror With Crushed Shells (1969). Smithson writes specific instructions regarding remaking the piece if damaged and expressly forbids anyone to make a copy. I used his map to find the shells I will use in my Project Atrium installation. With this action, I am doing a bit of following instructions and also a bit of rule-breaking. Mirror With Crushed Shells was what Smithson called a “non-site,” where he would take materials from a natural place and bring them to the gallery, creating an invisible connection between a museum space and a distant location in the nature. I could have made my work with any shells, but gathering the shells in Sanibel makes the connection more tangible. With these materials, my non-site directly connects back to Sanibel and to Smithson.

Lauren Fensterstock Project Atrium Shells Beach Sanibel d
The sun peeks over the horizon on Sanibel Island. Image courtesy of Joe Karably.

What else has inspired your piece?

Although my work is largely inspired by Smithson's artwork, it is also informed by the history of collecting. Though rarely discussed in this context, Smithson's non-sites can be understood as a kind of souvenir gathering. Sanibel is a famous destination for shell hunters and the source of souvenirs sent all over the world. The final design of my installation for Project Atrium is partly derived from this kind of collecting and particularly inspired by eighteenth century cabinets of curiosity. Drawing a correlation between Smithson and cabinets of curiosities may seem like a stretch, but I think they actually have many similarities. I am hoping my piece will help illuminate their connections and contradictions.

Lauren Fensterstock Project Atrium Crab Sanibel e
A crab craws across the beach on Sanibel Island. Image courtesy of Joe Karably.

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