The life and death of art
Arts Center hosts annual Edible Book Exhibit and Tea

by Judith Reynolds

Every tombstone has life and death dates. Why not works of art? Thanks to Jules Masterjohn, I’m guest writing her column this week. It gives me a chance to look into an olive and see an 800-pound gorilla. The gorilla in this case is the idea of permanence in art. It’s the subtext of a new show opening and closing Friday afternoon, April 7, at the Durango Arts Center. “Edible Book Exhibit and Tea” has to be the most provocative show in town.

Curator Mary Ellen Long, one of the few nationally known artists to live in Durango, has organized the exhibit, her third annual. It’s a hands-on affair, and as wacky as it seems, the DAC show doesn’t stand alone. It’s part of an international festival that takes place every April. From its inception six years ago, “Books2Eat” has been designed to bring together bibliophiles, book artists and food lovers the world over. The purpose is simple: to ingest culture. So come prepared to make (or watch) an artist’s book created from edible materials. When done, the finished products will be photographed, and then everyone’s invited to munch and have a cup of tea.

As well as being fun, the show has a serious side worthy of consideration. “Edible Art” puts a finger in the eye of the old notion: Art should be made to last. It’s one of those assumptions that persist without anyone questioning its origin or validity. Older than “art is beauty” and akin to “art should ennoble,” the idea that “art should be made for eternity” has the cachet of a commandment. It deserves a little skepticism.

Why should art last? OK, for centuries pyramids, palaces and official portraits have tried to buy eternal life for pharaohs, kings and patrons. But the idea of art-as-ephemera has also been around – especially in the modern era.

Dada, that naughty nihilistic art movement in the early 20th century, proclaimed art was dead. After the travesties of World War I, Dada questioned the idea of beauty, permanence and meaning in art – the lot. Many challenges later to the ivory towers of art, “Books2Eat” comes along on a small scale. On the gigantic – Earth Art, artists who move rocks, shape canyons and weave trees into huge structures. These guys embrace the idea of time and its dark twin, decay.

Mary Ellen Long ought to know. She’s a book artist and a long-term practitioner of earthworks. She’s created art out of ephemera – leaves, bones and branches – and buried books.

Another favorite of mine is Patrick Dougherty; his work is illustrated to the right. Dougherty travels the world creating large-scale structures out of branches. Inspired by childhood memories exploring the woods in North Carolina, Dougherty creates giant nests, cocoons or hives in site-specific locations. He’s been commissioned by colleges, museums and governments throughout America, Europe and Asia to collect indigenous materials for his startling, walk-through, organic structures that amaze and puzzle.

“Twigonometry” is a five-room outdoor structure on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. The college commissioned Dougherty to create a work for the Bald Spot on the campus green. With the help of a few dozen college students, Dougherty collected tree cuttings, vines and loose branches from around campus and built five “rooms.” Tightly intertwined branches create curving walls, doorways, rooms and a beautiful, linear texture.

In time, Dougherty’s structures begin to collapse – pulled by gravity and pushed by wind, rain and snow. He knows they won’t last, so he makes public a birth and death date – date of installation and expected demise. For branch sculptures, he anticipates a two-year life span. If they don’t self destruct by the published date, they’re fed into a chipper and returned to the earth. And why not?

Edible Book artists understand celebrating time and letting art go. See you Friday. Bon appétit. •