“I’m a drawer, I draw… But everything is connected to place.” This statement by Irish artist Katie Holten provides one of the keys to understanding her practice and overall body of work which could, in her own words, be thought of as environmental in approach. Holten revealed all of this to us in her current solo exhibition at LMAK projects called The Golden Bough II. These comments prove very helpful when faced with the task of positioning this show within the context of the multiple projects that she is currently involved in. Without even looking at the artist’s past work we can’t ignore the fact that her LMAK show briefly overlapped with her epic environmental audio project Tree Museum, a large scale public art work in the Bronx, as well as being involved in a concurrent group show, Landscapes of Quarantine, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Not that we should overlook Holten's companion solo show at The Hugh Lane in Dublin City Gallery, titled The Golden Bough.
Incidentally, The Golden Bough itself is the title of a book by the late Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer who references what is described as a golden branch of a tree that classical poet Virgil had his protagonist Aeneas use as key passage into Hades. Frazer’s book, subtitled A Study in Magic and Religion, makes double use of the bough reference by using a segment of an actual myth to signify a key to the understanding of myths themselves and how they can be compared to religion. In Katie Holten’s work, the key to understanding her environmental approach lies in her obsessive connection to place, which adds additional meaning to an artist whose work is consistently concerned with either the form or actual objects of flora and therefore thought of as environmental. In this context, The Golden Bough II proves very revealing in that it contains examples of living, dead and completely fabricated plants, thus operating almost as a catalogue of the varieties of the sort of work that she produces. As the artist explains, The Golden Bough was originally presented as the title of a series of exhibitions that the organizers of The Hugh Lane show had asked Holten to take part in and that they chose this title in reference to Frazer’s book as a way to address the “institution." Holten found herself more fascinated by the physical book itself, a copy of which she dismantled and incorporated into various pieces throughout her exhibition at LMAK Projects. Holten also focuses on Frazer’s latent agnostic and evolutionary approach to understanding, cataloguing and controlling nature. Her reaction to this approach is what is truly at the center, although not the whole, of this show. Therefore, although her statement on the importance of place remains true to most of her projects in general, it is not as revealing for the work in The Golden Bough II, which actually serves as a quiet and restful collection of thoughts, or even a museum of curiosities made up of fragments from the other shows that Holten is currently involved in. For instance, besides the fact the entire show begins with its first installment across the Atlantic at The Hugh Lane, there are also several references to Landscapes of Quarantine including one of the highlights of The Golden Bough II, which is called Postcard from Quarantine (2009-2010), a postcard that was finally readdressed and sent perhaps a century after its initial posting, but that somehow maintains a timeless and cheeky original message on the back.
“I’m scientifically not inclined,” the artist clearly states in her exhibition at LMAK Projects, video taped earlier this month and accessible through the gallery website. Her statement on science resonates in various works such as the creation of a lopsided globe that displays the earth’s land mass based on Hecataeus’ ancient map of the world, as well as a three-dimensional model of Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life. Both of these references to antiquated scientific models carry a mocking attitude towards the failure of the original work as they have both been largely updated in contemporary practice, not unlike the way that Frazer’s book is now far more important to the history of Modern literature and the development of anthropology than it is to contemporary anthropologists. The fact that Darwin, Hecataeus and Frazer are dead and easy targets only seems to inspire Holten to take on contemporary astronomy by painting the majority of the gallery walls Cosmic Turquoise, a color she calls the “incorrect average color of the known universe.” Cosmic Turquoise is based on the findings of a Johns Hopkins University research project, which released their results as the average color of the universe, only to retract and then release a corrected color called Cosmic Latte. Holten compares the two colors by painting the corrected color on the wall above the incorrect one and serves to underline the ridiculousness of the research project, as the corrected color appears to be so close to white that it hardly seems worth the effort to find the average color of the known universe in the first place.
In Jane Harris’ recent Art in America review of Katie Holten’s Tree Museum, Harris is critical of what she perceived as a general looseness to the project, as well as, an anti-climactic conclusion to the audio tour. One can imagine this may have been the result of the critic making a hundred calls on her cell phone, listening to a hundred audio messages, walking over four miles on the Bronx’s Grand Concourse and then possibly expecting a grand prize at the end of it all. Whatever the reasons for Harris’ criticisms, Holten has clearly made no effort to respond to them in her show at LMAK Projects. In fact, for an artist who is primarily known for producing work with plants, this show still displays the sort of rootless quality that we have all come to expect from an exhibition in a commercial gallery. That said, the strength of The Golden Bough II is that it rests so firmly on a large body of convincing work and does much to explain the practice and direction of the artist who produced it.
(Images: Installation view of Golden Bough II (2010); Darwin’s Tree (white) (2010). Courtesy LMAKprojects.)