The Amon Carter Museum in Fort worth has opened its very first video installation. It takes up an entire gallery with four projection screens, two plasma TVs and four surround-sound speakers. The equipment is high-tech, but the story is a basic one of the American heartland.
LUCIER: “I’m Mary Lucier, video artist, and I made this piece, The Plains of Sweet Regret, this five-channel video installation. At bottom, this is a journey through the northern and western parts of North Dakota, representing the Great Plains, and it’s more or less about the exodus from the plains.”
In video-art circles, Mary Lucier is a pioneer. She began more than 30 years ago — having first been a sculptor and photographer. Eight years ago, the North Dakota Museum of Art commissioned a work in its series called The Emptying Out of the Plains. It addresses the population shift away from rural areas — because of the sputtering economics of small towns, because of agribusiness giants taking over farms, because of the draw of big cities. Lucier spent a year on the back roads, videotaping.
LUCIER: “I was just looking to see what was there, looking to see what everyday life was, not only what was there, but what was missing, what was leaving. What is no longer productive in this part of the world — but what still is?”
The images of long roads headed past empty farmsteads are familiar to anyone who knows the Texas Panhandle. North Dakota may be wetter, more fertile, but currently, there are fewer than 700,000 people in the entire state. In population terms, that means all of North Dakota is a little larger than Austin, Texas.
Of course, a vast, empty landscape has been a central visual and environmental fact of life in the American West. But only 150 years after European pioneers first settled these lands, we are adding a new element. Substantial areas are not empty; they’re abandoned.
LUCIER: “This is an abandoned town, way out in the western part of North Dakota, which is called Corinth. … On the plasma screen — I was in a sunflower field. Sunflower seeds are one of the major crops in the West. And now we’re in a completely abandoned field, where the camera is just plowing its way through.”
Lucier says it was often hard to record natural sounds on the Plains. Birds or crickets would be drowned out. All that the microphones would pick up was the wind.
But Lucier’s camera also captured signs of new life: a calf being born, young actors warming up backstage at a community theater. She took several years to edit the material, working with her collaborator Earl Howard. He’s a saxophonist, an electronic music composer. And he’s blind.
LUCIER: “He and I sit and talk. You know, we’ve been working together for 30 years. I bring in a certain amount of pre-recorded sound. I brought him this George Strait song, for example. [song in background] And he extrapolated a lot of the motifs that you hear at the very beginning of the piece that are electronic. So by the time you get to this song, you’ve actually heard it before, whether you realize it or not.”
The George Strait song is called “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” It’s about a rodeo rider phoning his wife who’s decided to leave him. Rodeo life is too uncertain, too painful. Lucier has layered the tune into a soaring fugue of melancholy and longing – and moving on. Onscreen we see rodeo footage of bull riders and bulldoggers. In a stunning sequence, Lucier has layered and slowed down these images into a ballet of violence and grace. A work that has been forlorn concludes on a surprising note of triumph – and moving on.
The Plains of Sweet Regret is only 18 minutes long.
There’s a lot in it – for a piece about emptiness.
Click on the image to watch the finale from The Plains of Sweet Regret, the video “Arabesque”: