A story more than a decade in the piecing, Tate Shaw's artist book, "The Ground," is a beautiful meditation on time, the land, the many powers of water, and the efforts to make sense of our varied experiences in this world, and our place within it. Through August 2, Spectrum Gallery is hosting an exhibit of work from the book, copies of which are present in the gallery as well. Readers are left holding in their minds, and inspired by, two of the noblest human endeavors — clarity and connection.
Tate Shaw is an artist, writer, teacher, and the director of Visual Studies Workshop. The exhibit at Spectrum Gallery includes 23 digital inkjet images of different terrains, highlighting work from the book of the same title, plus a video that silently describes the process Shaw used to alter his images with water.
The images themselves depict woods, fields, and sky in heathered earth tones, the edges of which blend and bleed into one another. Some of these post-modern watercolor works for the digital age are washes of color blurring the landscape almost beyond recognition. In subject, they range from the wild terrain to evidence of human intrusion here and there. Amid watery stains, islands of crisp imagery reveal pipelines running through a lush green dreamscape, domed energy-collecting infrastructure, and a hydrofracturing wastewater evaporation pit.
Over the course of a few years, Shaw shot digital photographs at sites of geothermal power plants in Iceland, fracking sites in Western Pennsylvania, and at the site of the 60-year old coal mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania. He printed the images using a particularly "fugitive" ink on printmaking paper, a combination that would get a good lift when he exposed the images to water.
This process is illustrated in the rather Zen video looping at the front of the gallery, in which a series of submerged images gently undulate, and from which ink lifts and drifts darkly, like smoky wraiths altering the terrain as they pass. Shaw scanned these water-altered prints, then used those new images for the prints seen in the gallery and the book. Within these pages, an essay illuminates the story of the images and connects the pictures of places.
Shaw conceived of this book in 2010, inspired by an association he made with the geothermal energy-collecting infrastructure of the landscape in Iceland, and by an epiphany sparked by scientist and writer David Bohm's exploration of consciousness, which gave a physicist's perspective on thought and the connection of everything. Iceland's geodesic domes "looked like EEG sensor helmets for studying brain wave activity, and I had this abstract thought, 'What is the ground thinking?' and I carried that forward," Shaw says.
But Shaw really begins the story further back in time, with a particularly isolated segment of his life in Western Pennsylvania. Inspired by the landscape, an urge to shift his perspective "from figure to ground" led to the idea to create a book imprinted by the earth itself.
Though he ultimately succeeded, Shaw's early attempt at this book project was literal — he created a blank book of meager materials at hand, which he buried in the woods near the house where he was staying. Through wry and insightful storytelling, the artist relates how finding that his "indoor, bookish disposition" was at odds with the land discouraged him. Later, the resurrected tome, stained by the storied colors of the earth and rife with mold spores, planted a seed in Shaw's mind regarding the function of books. Unlike a solitary painting, he says, with books (and spores) you have many of the same thing, disseminated into the world, creating an almost indestructible legion.
Industry is introduced in the second half of the book, and water joins the ground fully as a second theme. Shaw discovers the geothermal steam energy in Iceland, the hydrofracturing industry in a revisited Western Pennsylvania, and Centralia's underground fire, defiantly burning despite unfathomable amounts of water that failed to quench it. As otherworldly a landscape as Iceland's, Shaw found Centralia filled with plumes of steam and bright hisses.
To Bohm, "thought is real, but our thinking is fragmented," says Shaw. For example, we can find solutions to our energy problems, but we keep creating other problems by failing to see the bigger picture, he says. "We need our thinking to change as much as we need the system to change."
"The Ground" was published in late 2013, when Shaw exhibited the work in Buffalo, and has since held a show in Owego, where fracking is being debated heatedly. Centralia's plight is also the result of our hunger for energy, and the area is a "total wasteland, it's very scary," Shaw says. "And fracking, at least in Tioga County, takes away all the beauty in the area, and the [promised] revitalization just isn't there."
Bohm's work "made me see this Iceland bit is connected to this Pennsylvania bit," Shaw says. "I was thinking in fragmented terms about the work and about my life, and this was a way to eradicate that fragmentation," and see the connectivity through everything, he says. So Shaw set forth to create a dialog that would unfold between Iceland and Pennsylvania.
The book closes on a blissful note in which Shaw and his girlfriend — now wife — visit Iceland's public hot baths, created from the runoff of a geothermal power plant. He describes the scene, shared with many others, as one of contentment, as a constellation of energies, bodies together drawing sips of energy from the earth. Finally, the searcher obliterates the "I," locates the ground, and then lets go of that, too.