Beauty in destruction: Discovering Petrochemical America at the McGuffey Art Center

From the Earth to the Sky, from Petrochemical America. Image courtesy of the LOOK3 Communications Office. From the Earth to the Sky, from Petrochemical America. Image courtesy of the LOOK3 Communications Office.

Everyone has his or her own way of processing information. Some of us think visually; the neurological place where seeing is believing and photographic memories are born. Others have an astounding knack for audio perception, memorizing information primarily with their psychoacoustic faculties. There are those who rely heavily upon numerical data and others who do best when offered a literary source of information.

No matter how we perceive the world, we all have strengths and weaknesses in terms of what holds our interest. All of us enjoy thinking about some things but not others. That’s why some of us chose to practice law, while others study rat brains, or cook French cuisine for a living.

These inevitable truths can leave those of us in the visual arts with a difficult dilemma to overcome. That is to say, even if there is a very important message we wish to convey through our creations, there is no guarantee that viewers will take that information away from those visual representations alone.

Photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff attempt to overcome this obstacle by combining their respective efforts in a large scale research collaboration that touches both on the power of the photographic image and the weight of infographics. The resulting exhibit is titled “Petrochemical America: Project Room,” and offers a multifaceted approach to discovering the issues surrounding the proliferation of petroleum products in American culture.

Some of the images are primarily visual. Viewers are given the opportunity to bask in the hauntingly surreal and beautiful photographs captured by Richard Misrach. These large-scale images depict the industrialized landscape of the Mississippi River Corridor also known as “Cancer Alley.” One of them shows a field of green, a sky of blue, and in between, a small ranch style home with decorative plants on the front porch. The house is dwarfed by the expansive chemical plant towering behind it. Another photograph shows a misty morning landscape. In it, several over-sized spherical factory tanks are faintly visible through the mist, while the hollow grave-like slabs in the foreground rise up like memories; an indication of where homes once stood and people once lived.

Other images primarily function to showcase information. Viewers are presented with a combination of graphs, topographical maps, posters, leaflets, interesting emails, linear doodles, and scribbled notes. Each of these pieces of information was obtained through extensive research. Taken individually, they seem meaningless, but put on display side-by-side, they form narratives pertaining to complex economic and ecological forces that have shaped this landscape.

Somewhere in between, viewers will find several large infographic artworks: aesthetically pleasing representations of information gathered and then combined through graphic design. Various subjects were chosen with obvious specificity to convey very precise meanings. One such piece mashes together aesthetic elements with at least five distinct infographic systems. Superimposed are an image of bluish-black oil floating on water, an illustrated depiction of evolutionary history and the rise of man, a graph of carbon monoxide levels in our atmosphere through history, a cutaway view of the geological changes through time (from the appearance of fossil fuel to its complete depletion) and a map of the Mississippi River. Another such piece shows cutaway views of a human’s internal organs combined with extensive information regarding the astounding number of cancers that are caused by petroleum products that proliferate in our daily lives.

With such a broad spectrum, some of the infographics have lost their clarity and meaning. Even if the viewer will walk away with an idea, or a general concept, certain types of data are hard to glean from the visual representations alone. One such piece as mentioned above, depicts the evolution of man and the depletion of fossil fuels over time. The piece hypothesizes that when fossil fuel is all used up and carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere make the earth uninhabitable, the evolutionary chain will end. Concrete data in this graphic is essentially unattainable or unreadable. This leads us to ask whether is it more important to lay out actual facts or to give just a general idea in an exhibit like this.

There are several other pieces in the show that present factual information very concretely with less focus on aesthetics. These pieces successfully function as a call to social action through an artistic representation of statistics and scientific evidence.

This show attempts to balance the vivid emotional photographs with the stark graphical overlays. Misrach and Orff have created a body of work which functions very well as a whole, though each individual work is executed with varying degrees of success. Some are bulky or over-worked, some beautiful and terrifying, while others are haunting but obscure. Perhaps this is meant to mimic the noisy proliferation of information we experience and analyze on a daily basis.

These photographs will fill viewers with an undeniable sense of horror and helplessness. It successfully presents us with information ranging from the things we use daily that are made of petroleum, to the types of cancers that are caused by those products. On a larger scale, it reminds us how the production of these products affects our environment and how it will change our future. It even gives us a window into the lives that were destroyed by various illnesses caused by petroleum products and the very plants that produce them all over the world. The show is painful to look at and yet the compelling information and poetic imagery is hard to look away from.

Unlike some other exhibits that display various inconvenient truths, “Petrochemical America” leaves us with a small glimmer of hope. Rather than leaving viewers with nothing more than an empty feeling in the pit of their stomach as a starting point for change, the exhibit offers up a small handbook full of potential solutions. Entitled, “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post Petrochemical Culture,” the leaflet covers a whole range of options available to us as a means for coping with the consequences of our collective actions. Somehow, it is relieving to be reminded that despite the fact that the giant scale of social, political and environmental factors that led us to this point are much bigger than any of us imagine, even smalls actions like carpooling are a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, “Petrochemical America” as one complete entity achieves many things that a standard body of artwork does not. It functions to successfully present research and analysis in the form of an aesthetic visual art display. It is a scary, but also hopeful. And above all, it provides information via more than just one medium, which should allow people from all walks of life to appreciate and understand it.

~Rose Guterbock and Aaron Miller

 “Petrochemical America: Project Room” is on display at the McGuffey Art Center through June 30, 2013.


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