The Amon Carter Museum will present its first-ever video installation beginning November 15 — a single, 18-minute, five-channel work occupying an entire gallery. Originally commissioned by the North Dakota Museum of Art as part of its series on the “Emptying out of the Plains,” The Plains of Sweet Regret is pioneering video artist Mary Lucier’s meditation on the depopulation of America’s farms and small towns. Currently, there are fewer than 700,000 people in all of North Dakota — making it about as barren as parts of West Texas and the Panhandle.
Vast expanses of landscape, of course, have been a key physical, environmental and visual element in the American West. But ours is perhaps the first time that substantial parts of that rural landscape are not simply empty but abandoned — to the cities, to agribusiness, to other parts of the country. Forlorn and beautiful, Lucier’s images of the barns and grain elevators and the people who remain are accompanied by electronic music from her longtime collaborator, Earl Howard, virtuoso saxophonist and taped-sound composer.
Except in the case of “Arabesque,” that is, which is basically the last six minutes, 30 seconds, of Plains and which is the video clip here. It’s set to the song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” sung by George Strait and composed by Aaron Barker and Erv Woolsey (from the Strait album, 50 Number Ones). It’s an instance of country-western heartache perfectly suiting the content of the project. The song is about a woman losing a man to the rodeo circuit; meanwhile, we watch bull riders and calf ropers compete in slow motion at the Roughrider Rodeo Association’s Year-End Finals in Devils Lake, North Dakota — a series of matches that move from the bruisingly brutal to a quiet, personal moment of victory. By overlapping, reversing and mirror-imaging the visuals, Lucier creates a hypnotic ballet and music video that echoes the multi-layered vocal tracks of the song. In their own way, these six-and-a-half minutes are as poignant and wistful, as filled with a sense of loss and the sheer physicality of ranch life, as Brokeback Mountain.
The Plains of Sweet Regret will run at the Amon Carter through February 15. Admission is free. And on Saturday, Nov. 15, Mary Lucier will give a lecture on her video work (1975-2008) at the Amon Carter, followed by a book signing of the exhibition catalog. Call to register for the lecture, 817-989-5057.