ST. GEORGE — An echo of Southern Utah is ringing through European art galleries, where a replica of a geological wonder that mirrors both the appearance and scientific foundation of a Utah national monument is displayed.
What looks like a random scattering of rocks on the floor of a gallery in France is actually far from random – it’s a painstakingly – crafted replica of an area inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created with the collaboration of a geologist from the University of Utah.
In an email to St. George News from Paul Gabrielsen, a research and communication specialist at the University of Utah, said the exhibit, called “Here and Elsewhere,” used fired clay rocks to represent dark spherical concretions, also called Moqui marbles, which are formed as iron-rich water percolates through sandstone. With color and texture like avocado, they erode out of the sandstone, collecting like pebbles in naturally-sculpted patterns.
“If it seems unusual to draw a connection between a European contemporary art museum with the wilderness of Utah, that’s part of the point of the exhibit,” Gabrielsen said in the email.
Gabrielsen said the artist Irene Kopelman was inspired by the connection between geological features found by both robotic explorers on Mars and those studied by The University of Utah professor, Marjorie Chan, on Earth. And this opportunity allowed Chan to learn about a far distant place by studying something close to home.
He said that similarly, Kopelman hopes that visitors to the installation will be transported to the deserts of Utah and see the natural desert processes at work reflected in the patterns created for the art piece.
In an interview with St. George News, Chan, a distinguished professor of geology, said she has spent the majority of her career studying sedimentary rocks in Southern Utah. She has received several awards, including the 2018 Utah Geological Association award for outstanding contributions to Utah geology and said she is dedicated to both geological heritage and geological conservation and has been a long advocate for encouraging women and diversity in the field of geological science.
Kopelman first reached out to her about sandstone colors in early 2018. She said Kopelman was interested in going out in the field and decided to join her on a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Kopelman was able to listen to a number of interactions over the course of several days and get a close-up view of the scientific controversies. Together, they took a hike to a special location within Grand Staircase-Escalante specifically for concretions, a compact mass of mineral matter, usually spherical or disk-shaped, embedded in a host rock of a different composition.
Chan said Kopelman was focused and hardworking, asking a lot of questions and taking notes about everything around her. She said they had some great conversations stretching both their imaginations. Chan also gained a wonderful friendship in the process and even had the opportunity to visit Kopelman at her studio in Amsterdam in October 2018.
“Art is an expression of what we feel and experience,” Chan said. “I love collaborating on art projects because it helps me see things from a different perspective and it creates an opportunity for others to be exposed to geology that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”
At the opening of her show in Europe, Chan said she had the opportunity to appear on Zoom to speak to a gathering of people about the science behind the art piece and help answer questions that the audience had.
“Although I knew what Irene was planning, I was really astounded at how meticulous and patient she was,” she said. “Her field assistant, Cory Dinter, a former student, made a time-consuming map with a precision that I had never attempted.”
Chan said she was amazed that Kopelman handmade replicas of roughly 500 concretions, with many iterations to get the coloring, texture and firing right. She said that while the piece does look like nature, it’s unique enough to make viewers ponder, which she believes is the intent. Chan said it’s important for scientists to take outreach opportunities to share knowledge with the public, adding that Geoscience is an integrative science from planetary scales to microscopic scales, which relates to everyday life.
One of the lingering fears of the piece is that drawing more attention and awareness to the Grand Staircase-Escalante area could result in crowds trampling or stealing resources, she said, yet the counterbalance is that science-art interactions can help educate, enrich and even deepen the outdoor experience.
“My hope is that the more people understand, the more active they will be in protecting and conserving these treasures of nature,” Chan said.
In an Interview with artist Kopelman by Gabrielsen on April 14, Kopelman, an Argentinian who resides in the Netherlands, said that as a visual artist and painter she has worked with many geologists and biologists. Kopelman said when she first reached out to Chan, she was initially interested in studying The Wave.
Through multiple discussions, Chan introduced her to the Grand Staircase-Escalante area instead, speaking about her current studies on the Moqui marbles. Chan invited Kopelman on a short field trip to see the area and she accepted. She said they walked through the park while Chan explained the history, adding that the area is often studied because it represents the geology of mars. Kopelman said she fell in love with the whole process and decided to re-channel her energy into creating art from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“It’s not only the physical beauty of it but also the geological history is so powerful and so long and so special that it just draws me into working with it,” Kopelman said in the interview.
Kopelman said collectively, the project took about 3 1/2 years to complete, with the initial field trip in 2018 and another visit to the Grand Staircase area in 2019, in which she brought her field assistant, Cory Dinter, who was also a photographer and paleontologist, to assist in collecting materials and making drawings.
Kopelman said the ceramic process of creating the concretions also required a significant amount of time and labor, including finding the right clay, temperature and shrinkage. They took the measurements of every little ball and fragment of the landscape in person, including the space between the balls, in order to replicate the art piece.
“What’s interesting for me is the patterns, how those shapes are,” Kopelman said. “So they look random, but they’re not. It took a million years to create those shapes and to put them in the position in which we see them.”
The original art piece was first shown in Amsterdam at a park called Zone2Source. At this location, Kopelman said she enjoyed seeing the clash between two completely different landscapes. She said the full art exhibit, located at the Institut d’art contemporain, features the ceramic reconstruction of the concretions, along with drawings, maps, field notes and even some of the processes it took to create the art materials. Kopelman has also done a small publication connected to the project, which can be seen here.
When asked what she hopes visitors will take away from the exhibit, Kopelman said she hopes viewers will see the comparison between the art created and the Southern Utah landscape, which both share uniqueness and beauty. Referring to the fragility of both the art piece and the landscape, Kopelman also said she hopes others realize that if each individual took one ball home, all of them would disappear in a very short amount of time.
The “Here and Elsewhere” exhibition is located at the Institut d’art contemporain (IAC) in Villeurbanne, France, where it will remain on exhibit until April 30, 2022. For more information on the art project and the full installation, click here. For more information on artist Irene Kopelman, along with past art projects and publications, click here.
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