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This week we speak to collaborating artists Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and learn about their approach to learning about and working with landscapes.
1. Choose a location you find intriguing.
2. Research the historical uses of the place. Talk to people to find what the contemporary uses are.
3. Spend time being in the space.
4. Make something based on what you've learned. Share it with us using #theartassignment.

Learn more about Mariam and Erin:

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:

 (00:00) to (02:00)

This episode of The Art Assignment is supported by Prudential.

(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Sarah: Today we're at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which over the past year, has exhibited three video works by the Brooklyn-based artists Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly.  Mariam Gani works across disciplines and along with generating a diverse body of work involving installation, photography, text, and video, she is also an activist, archivist, and lecturer.  For over ten years, she's worked with Erin Ellen Kelly, who is a dancer, performer, and choreographer, and together, they've made a series of videos that examine specific sites through a process of research and collaboration.  Their areas of focus have included New Mexico landscapes, the rocky terrain and sea of Southwestern Norway, and explorations of the cities of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates as well as St. Louis.  

We're going to be talking with Mariam and Erin about the process they've evolved for approaching and learning about a site and how they then go about creating new narratives through interacting with the place in inventive ways.  

Mariam: I'm Mariam Ghani.

Erin: And I'm Erin Ellen Kelly, and this is your Art Assignment.


Mariam: Well, Erin and I had known each other for several years already and we had been talking together about our individual work and our individual practices and sensing that there was an overlap and a kind of interest in collaborating, but we never had the space or time or resources to do so, and then in 2006, I had a residency at the Academy (?~1:30) Solitude in (?~1:32) in Germany.  I was able to invite Erin to come and stay at the (?~1:36) for a month and we began to figure out a way to work together to make something, basically using these two spaces, one being the (?~1:49) itself, which is a rococo-era (?~1:54) or pleasure palace, which is the entire interior is (?~1:58) and then the other being the forest which was landscaped at the same time that the (?~2:05) was built.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

And we would go around and imagine, ohh, could you see the rose garden here and kind of imagine what it was and look at how the grounds had kind of grown over and taken over like, reclaimed themselves,

M: But then when you really look at it, when you look at it in the way that we were looking at it, which is walking in it every single day for several hours, you start to understand that it actually is still pretty artificial.  There's a lot of traces of the construction left in it.  We were looking for places where those traces of construction kind of revealed themselves.

E: And then, I like being in a place and seeing the way in which the body responds to it and responds to the people in which you're interacting with and taking it from there and then maybe seeing that and then also informing it with a lot of other reading and text-based research and every site has a history, so if it's historically significant, like, what is, also what does that mean and if you start kind of exhuming those histories, then it talks about who and what has come before.

So the assignment that we've come up with today is to choose a location that you find intriguing.

M: And then you have to research the historical uses of the place.  You can do that with documents, books, poetry, fiction, however you're interested in doing that, and then talk to some people to find out what the contemporary understanding of that place is.

E: And then spend time being in the space and find your relationship of the body to that location.

M: And finally, make something in any medium based on what you've learned about that place.

John: So Sarah, it's important to note that their approach here is based on a particular school of landscape archaeology called the contextual school, which has you investigate like, the historical uses of a place, contemporary understandings of the place, and the way that your physical body interacts with that space.  Basically, it asks you to contextualize.

 (04:00) to (06:00)

Sarah: And I really like bringing that level of research and thoroughness into art practice, because if you think about the history of artists working in the landscape, like say, in the 1970s with earth art or land art, a lot of it is really wonderful, but to me can lack a kind of questioning or criticality about the space.

John: Yeah, I mean, there's a place, of course, for a beautiful stack of rocks in the woods, but what happened in those woods, you know?

Sarah: Exactly.  I think the work of someone like Agnes Denes shows a kind of engagement with a site that's closer to what Mariam and Erin are asking us to do.  Like her piece in New York in 1982 where she planted and harvested two acres of wheat on the Battery Park Landfill, extremely valuable property that, of course, has a history to contend with.

John: Yeah, but you can also think about this Assignment outside of a fine art context, as I often do.  In the context of literature and writings about the relationship between man and nature in American history, I was thinking especially of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  

In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his essay "Nature" elaborating his not-insignificant love of wilderness.  "In the wood," he says, "standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by (?~5:06) air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.  I am nothing.  I see all."  His seductive words were foundational for the transcendentalist movement, but critique emerged soon after.

In its reverie, the eyeball might miss, say, the history of its environments, of Emerson's own Concord, Massachusetts, which was home to Algonquin Native Americans for over 10,000 years, was the site of the initial conflict at the American Revolutionary War, and whose natural landscape in 1836 no doubt bore signs of intervention and life.  For this assignment, we might imagine that eyeball in more modern times, merging the presentness it symbolizes with the landscape archaeologist approach . Doing so, we might discover how we are eyeballs but not just eyeballs, not mere observers, but fully embodied actors within and upon the landscape.

Erin: I would say the White Sands location is a really good example of that in the sense that it has many historical uses from being a missile test site and then it still, tests are still occurring at this location and in between test days, people are sliding on sleds down these sand dunes and it has this kind of very surreal like, moon landscape in which families are having family day and there's lots of laughter and, 'cause of the nature of the space.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

It's like sound echoing through.  

Mariam: The framing choices for White Sands is basically, um, I think what ended up in the film is just this very wide shot, because it's looking at like, the distance that Erin is traveling to just cross, like, from one dune to another and there's also this particular choice of costume, which is it's almost blending into the landscape but not quite.  There's just these little details on the costume that kind of stand out from the landscape.  It's actually feathers, which I was sewing on, hand sewing on in the car as we were driving to the location.  

Erin: We were there just right before dusk.  What we noticed was the, just like, this vastness of the rolling dunes and my body really enjoyed the texture of the sand and moving through it and we wanted to work with the depth perception so how long it takes for you to go from one area to another and this kind of otherworldly quality, and so the body can slither in a way and I became very interested in how does it float on the surface of the sand?

For me, it's a way of connecting, connecting to the world we live in in like a macro, connecting into maybe community or social group.  A way of connecting to yourself by placing yourself in a location and exploring your personal relationship to all of this social and environmental information.  So for me, it's just an exercise in your perception of connection.

 (08:00) to (09:42)

Mariam: If you've been putting off exploring that intriguing place because you think, I can answer those questions next week or next month or next year, you actually may not be able to because that place might disappear.  Half the places we shot in in St. Louis are actually gone now and that was just last year that we shot that film.  The world is always changing.  Places are always shifting.  If there's something in the world that interests you, you need to go and explore it right now.

(Credits & Endscreen)

Sarah: Thanks to Prudential for sponsoring this episode.  We all want our future to be secure, but studies have shown that people have a tendency to place a higher value on immediate rewards than future rewards.  In terms of our finances, most Americans only focus on the financial needs of today.  Go to to learn about how you can better plan for tomorrow and maintain your current standard of living in retirement.