Tara Donovan’s latest show ‘Fieldwork’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is announced as being “in many ways, about work.” Yet this description merely refers to questions around artist’s practice, labour and scale. Donovan’s work is more complex than that. On a physical and material level, but most crucially on a metaphysical and referential plane, Donovan’s works multiply, fold and expand beyond the sum of their parts. In many ways, it is the “peripheral vision” of the viewer in relation to materiality, space and concept that pushes the work beyond the everyday. Using ordinary objects such as plastic straws, mylar, paper and Slinkys, Donovan takes the commodified and repurposes it in unexpected ways. At times through drawings, but most notably in her large sculptural installations, Donovan’s pieces are meant to “shadow the movement of your body.” What looks like one thing from the left, changes with a step to the side, the time of day, or a mere angulation of the head.
Take, for example, ‘Haze’ (2003): a sculptural agglomeration of white plastic drinking straws. Built into a recess on the left-hand wall of the main exhibition space, the work references a cloud or mist through an uncanny glow and seemingly undulating shape. Up close, however, you can see the thousands of plastic drinking straws that make up a flat surface. The use of non-degradable materials in Donovan’s works carry an anthropocenic message, alluding to how our world is slowly but surely becoming clogged with plastic and other wastes. ‘Haze’ is a whispering mass, the ecopoetical twin to Bernaut Smilde’s elusive ‘Cloud’ (2013), but much more permanent in its effects.
Donovan’s works are expansive in the sense that they are designed to envelop the body, to hold it, and question the ways in which the body relates to the world, the future, and art. ‘Untitled (Mylar)’ (2011-2018) resembles a coral reef, something from the realm of molecular biology or the landscape of the moon, seen from up close. The work acts both on a micro and macro plane. When you walk past it, its appearance changes with every step. ‘Transplanted’ (2001-18) is maybe the most haunting of these constructions. A massive sculpture that stretches out to fill most of the gallery floor, the layers of black, tarred paper remind us of a post-apocalyptic world covered by volcanic magma. The unmoving, yet strangely alive fabric seems different from every angle, its surface both mesmerising and threatening. A landscape that is not a landscape, but a culmination of the ordinary into the unimaginable.
In this way, Donovan’s works are about our inability to imagine the future from within the present. Embracing the curiosity of adventurists such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who was trying to uncover the secrets of the earth, Donovan is practicing what you could call futuristic archaeology: the practice of conjuring up what will be unearthed a million years from now.