Seattle artist Britta Johnson created her latest animated videos at the massive seacoast fortification of Fort Worden in Port Townsend. The big concrete batteries, built to house cannons to defend against ships that never arrived—the way war was waged changed, meaning the fort never did become the site of battle—are now part-cave, with stalactites growing in them, and part curious history.
What can one artist do faced with forces as massive as landscape and war? How can any person do something, finding nothing to do?*
Johnson chose the moody, ritualistic material of wax to bridge a connection between her hands, the concrete, and the light all around her.
On one channel of her two-sided video Finding Nothing to Do, Doing Something #1 and #2 (at Lawrimore Project through June 30), the camera is embedded inside a concrete battery as its door seals over with a skin of glowing wax. Tomblike conditions arise and then are dispersed again, the wax disappearing as the motion plays in reverse. Repeat, forever. On the other channel, the same scene is viewed from the outside, several yards away, as daylight streams across a lawn and tall trees, then retracts.
It is a little like a funeral, experienced both by the dead and the living.
Johnson is an ascendant artist in Seattle, meaning her work just keeps getting brighter (both more interesting and more visible).
Two years ago, I wrote about her touching (literally) public art project at the mouth of the fiery dump. In April, she had one of the most memorable solo shows at Gallery4Culture in recent years: It was called Hover, and it included Finding Nothing to Do, Doing Something #1 and #2, along with several other animated videos, installed handsomely in the darkened gallery.
Finding Nothing to Do resonates with a great Seattle fixture: the wax wall at Stephen Holl's St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University. The wall is pure white but utterly otherwise unsmooth; its surface is jagged and wax the pearly color of a Seattle cloud has been arrested mid-drip down its surface. You cannot but stick out your hand and touch. This is Holl's way of uniting the body with the building, the person with the religion, you and god. Johnson uses her wax for the same connective purposes.
But wax is also uncanny—alive or dead? It is like skin, snot, and honey. It is the stuff of eerily close-to-life, and therefore totally deathly, figurines. At a military installation like Fort Worden, wax might be used to stuff the barrels of guns. Its muting properties in human ears might muffle the sounds of war. In art history, Joseph Beuys famously used wax-like fat and felt as muting, protective materials throughout his career, which was essentially a way of transforming his way in the world after his time in the Luftwaffe as a young man during World War II.
About ten years ago, the German artist Wolfgang Laib's tomblike wax installation, The Passageway, visited the Henry Art Gallery at UW. Upon entering it, I, like many others, instinctively laid down, prone, inside it.
Finding Nothing to Do, Doing Something #1 and #2 presents a double perspective, close and far. Neither view penetrates the mystery at the center of this video, and in fact together they present something rather like a vanishing point at the location of the force that is putting the wax there and/or taking it away. (Is she adding or subtracting? In bits or in sheets? How long did it take? A camera person was inside that tomb the entire time, as the daylight streaked across the sky/video.) The animating force is there and not there. It seems a natural way for a contemporary American to consider war, god, and land—within it but outside it, embedded and never getting close.
*Given the question of why someone wants to do anything at all, I'm reminded of two lines from Charles Mudede's review of Rodrigo Valenzuela's composite photographs in this week's paper: "Landscapes always do this to us. They make us want to do something to them: to connect with them, to lose ourselves in them, to change them."