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"The Wilderness" at MAM explores man's relationship with nature

Matthew Buckingham's Six

At the entrance to the Miami Art Museum's new show, Kiki Smith's Companions strikes a subtle chord about our uneasy relationship with nature.

The sly work, from the museum's permanent collection, depicts a peasant girl carrying a basket on one panel and a fierce wolf confronting her on the other.

The piece, however, is not part of "The Wilderness," a provocative group exhibit reminding us to show some humility before the awesome power of nature, but it cleverly drives the point home.

We might be constantly struggling to harness the planet's resources for the benefit of civilization, the exhibit seems to tell us, but when we threaten the Earth in the process, nature can be quick to expose our vain pretensions.

"The works included in 'The Wilderness' raise fundamental questions about humanity's relationship with nature," explains René Morales, MAM's associate curator, who organized the exhibition. "In different ways, each work dramatically underscores the intertwinement of nature and the human sphere, while evoking some of the psychological, political, ethical, and ecological ramifications of our historical tendency to conceive of them as separate entities."

The show includes a seamless grouping of film and sculptural installations by Darren Almond, David Brooks, Tacita Dean, Christy Gast, and Allan McCollum, each isolated in its own space. Rounding out the exhibit are pieces by Matthew Buckingham, Aramis Gutierrez, and Fernando Ortega.

The contrasting works on display range from a galloping, almost life-size herd of concrete elephants and horses, to a tiny hypnotized hummingbird.

Anchoring the exhibit is McCollum's sprawling installation, The Event: Petrified Lightning From Central Florida (With Supplemental Didactics) (1998), which takes over the center gallery.

To create his jaw-dropping opus, the New York-based artist teamed up with geologists and electrical engineers from the University of Florida's International Center for Lightning Research and Testing during several weeks in the summer of 1997.

At the facility — called Camp Blanding, located near the small town of Starke, considered the lightning capital of the world — McCollum and his collaborators used small rockets to trigger lightning strikes. Their missiles had copper wires attached, directing the lightning bolts to containers filled with sand. When lightning zapped the wires, the jolt vaporized the sand, creating a small glass object called a fulgurite.

McCollum then had a souvenir company make 10,000 replicas of a single fulgurite. They are arranged in a mammoth display not far from one of the red rockets the artist used to draw the lightning strikes. The mass-produced fulgurites are identical: beige, cigar-size, and crooked.

Next to them, the artist has placed a table covered in thousands of colorful booklets with titles such as "Origins and Composition of Rock Fulgurite Glass" and "Petrified Lightning: A Discussion of Sand Fulgurites," documenting the weird natural phenomena while raising questions about how we strive to understand the power of nature in a comprehensive fashion even when efforts escape us.

In a nearby space, New Times Mastermind Award-winner Christy Gast's Batty Cave (2010) is a room-engulfing three-channel video installation that conjures the tale of two Western crackpots who build an ark in a desert cave to escape the apocalypse.

While visiting Utah, Gast discovered a ramshackle vessel that, according to local legend, was built during the '50s by hobos fearing that the construction of a dam on the Colorado River would disturb the natural order and provoke a flood of biblical proportions.

Gast's film captures the decrepit remnants of the would-be ark, the rusted hulks of abandoned cars found in the cave, and the artist's hands assembling found artifacts such as glass shards, rusted metal, and other objects in ritualistic patterns evocative of pictographs. As one watches the artist's rhythmically shuffling hands creating strange totemic story lines, Gast's altered voice pierces the room in a haunting echo, heightening the mysterious nature of the projection.

Equally uncanny is Darren Almond's creepy video installation, Arctic Pull (2003), which features the solitary figure of a man pulling a sled in the pitch darkness of a driving Siberian blizzard.

As the man laboriously battles the permafrost, struggling with his burden under a gloomy night sky as the freezing elements whip his body, the sniveling wind howls in the tarry black projection space, transporting the viewer to shivering, foreign climes.

The video is part of Almond's ongoing series created around the town of Norilsk, a former Soviet gulag and one of the most inaccessible, northernmost villages on the globe.

It brings to mind the explorers who sought to conquer the Arctic's terra incognita in the 19th Century and paid with their lives.

Perhaps the most unusual work on display is Fernando Ortega's video, Hummingbird Induced to a Deep Sleep (2006), a deceptively simple work that effectively conveys the exaggerated notion of man's desire to subjugate nature.

The Mexican artist employed an ornithologist to help him create the conditions to encourage a hummingbird to grab a siesta in his Mexico City studio on a busy urban street. Remarkably, the jewel-like creature, known for flying backward and hovering by beating its wings up to 90 times per second, sits motionless for more than an hour in Ortega's flick. Other than an occasional twitch, the bird appears to have surrendered to a deep slumber and is oblivious to the car horns blaring and swelter of traffic outside the artist's digs. At times, Ortega's work seems more a painting than a video.

Another artist who collaborated with birds is David Brooks, whose bizarre installation occupies its own room. Still Life With Stampede and Wild Seabirds, which MAM commissioned for the exhibit, includes a parade of nearly life-size concrete pachyderms, galloping steeds, and foraging deer, all covered in bird droppings.

The faux beasts are the same type of outdoor statues that often adorn South Florida lawns. They were placed on the grounds of a wildlife and bird sanctuary in the Florida Keys for a lengthy period to earn their painterly patina of guano before making their MAM debut.

At the museum, they have been posed in the stampede formation made famous by Carl Akeley's herd of taxidermied elephants at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

They are a symbol of our constant struggle to tame nature to our needs and of nature's subversive reminder that those illusions can as quickly be shattered by an unexpected spray of bird shit.

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