In dark corners of our existence, behind the cheery façade of civilization, creaturesare on the prowl while plants sprout roots, all of them seeking nourishment and participating in the routine fight for survival. In his exhibit Cannibals, Survivalists and the Plus Ultra Habitat, artist Nathan Coté shines a light on kitchen-cupboard cannibalism and other forms of survival, while artist Alisha Kerlin dramatizes her survival as an artist with a constructed nocturnal habitat featuring the artist as a new zoological entry in Marking Territory.
“I found a few left over yams in our kitchen,” says Coté of his exibition at the Contemporary Arts Center. “I said to myself out loud, ‘Negligence always leads to cannibalism.’”
Endeavoring to survive, potatoes, yams and other roots send out roots, “the energy for their growth [coming] from their food stores, thereby cannibalizing themselves.”
Fascinated by the extreme measures taken as they attempt to survive, Coté encouraged the ravenous vegetables, relocating them to his garage and providing lights of various “colors I thought they might enjoy” amid a habitat of silver foil. Nature was allowed to take its course; the root growth was documented with photographs at perceived critical moments, such as when a yam turned to liquid through putrefaction. The normally shy, hidden act of vegetal cannibalism suddenly has a spotlight on it, turning it into a macabre vegetable disco playing out on a glitzy silver backdrop.
The survival spectacle continues with Kerlin’s Marking Territory installation. During a five-week period she, with the help of visitors, will construct a mixed habitat of desert and jungle. The P3 Studio “puts artists in there on display like a gorilla,” says Kerlin of her decision to turn the space into a habitat. But rather than wearing costumes showing our primate roots, Kerlin and visitors adorn themselves with cat-ear headbands and aprons with cat tails. Faux rock sculptures were constructed with a modified papier-mâché technique using cardboard, cement and chicken wire. Participants along with the artist mark, dent, mold, glitter and paint the rocks, negotiating the push and pull between the artist’s environment and the viewer’s influence upon that environment. Shapes and colors often are pounded out or painted over immediately after they are made.
Embarking upon the project, Kerlin gave herself three rules. “I have to have an assistant, I have to act natural and I have to eat.” The soft pink and blue ambient lighting flips to red - the color seeming to connote a fresh kill - food obtained, the artist lives another day - as Kerlin sits upon a rock with a plate of that evening’s supper procured from a nearby eatery.
Recently it was bone marrow and oxtail jam from Comme Ça. “I think (people) expect me to catch a wild herring in my mouth,” laughs Kerlin. The nightly 8 p.m. “artist feeding” ritual dramatizes the stereotype of “starving artist” and the very real struggle for artists to survive and make ends meet.
Back at CAC, another habitat by Coté puts survival on display with one-way mirrored Mylar; the survival of air plants is observed by visitors like so many alien suspects in an investigation. The air plants, dubbed “survivalists” by Coté, reside in a huge inflated pod made out of silver emergency blankets and Mylar, with various tubes piping in air to maintain the space.
Peering through the mirrored Mylar sides reveals a silver-coated gloppy foam structure, rising to a point, the organic crevices providing nooks for plants to deposit seeds and grow. Water from a bed of crystal watering beads is gradually absorbed along with light from a bulb dangling like an alien sun from a metal armature. The light rebounds throughout the metallic space, maximizing efficiency during the four to six hours of “daylight” the air plants receive. The flashy habitat bubble is ideal for plant survival now, but the question hangs in the warmish air: what happens when the water runs out? Another cannibalistic survival feast?
“They, most likely, won’t react the same way,” says Coté. “They retract to survive, to take in less UV rays from the light. Another trait of the survivalist they embody.”
Kerlin’s red light turns on, revealing a grim practicality behind cute cat ears. Silver surfaces are practical for their light efficiency and functionality but they also turn vegetable survival into a garish illuminated performance. Through performance and light, these exhibits work to locate and tease out the peculiar beauty that resides within the practical and instinctive act of survival.
Cannibals, Survivalists and the Plus Ultra Habitat through Feb. 2, Contemporary Arts Center, at ALIOS, 1217 S. Main St. www.lasvegascac.org. Marking Territory through Jan. 19, at P3 Studio at the Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino, 3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd.