As told to Allese Thomson Baker for Artforum.
Katie Holten is an Irish-born, New York–based multimedia artist whose work explores the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. She represented Ireland at the 2003 Venice Biennale and in 2009 created Tree Museum, a public artwork celebrating the centennial of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She was recently selected by the New Orleans Museum of Art to create a site-specific installation for the institution's Great Hall Project series. "Drawn to the Edge" opened June 15 and will be on view through September 9.
I LOVE MAPS. I'm drawn to the macro and micro view of things-self-similar patterns found on different scales, across the physical landscape as well as through time. The shape of river deltas is found to repeat at scales all the way down to cracks in the mud. We see this in man-made as well as organic structures-a simple underlying mathematics to it all.
When I was invited to create a work for New Orleans, I immediately began thinking of those "edges" where the man-made meets the organic; where today meets yesterday, ten thousand years ago, and tomorrow; and where solid meets liquid meets air. I met locals who work with land and water and I went on expeditions to places like Cocodrie and Venice, Louisiana. I saw the extent of the problems inherent in this landscape, which is literally disappearing. Much of this is due to oil and gas prospectors who cut channels through the wetlands, allowing salt water in. As the salt water spreads, the land dies. I kept finding myself standing at the edge of the land, looking at where the water and earth touch. Silence was all around and I felt a palpable sense of foreboding.
Because I couldn't place anything on the floor or walls of the Great Hall-as they often hold events there-I proposed suspending massive drawings from the ceiling that could be lowered to ground level, acting as walls within the space. The double-sided drawings, made on canvas, are twelve feet tall and range from sixteen to thirty-six feet long. They became sculptural in their scale. I used simple materials-graphite, charcoal, chalk, black oil stick, and sediment.
Getting up in the air to see everything from above was essential. I took hundreds of aerial photographs. Zooming in on New Orleans and flying south with Google Earth, it's easy to spot man-made channels-all the straight lines. I used this as an aesthetic strategy-hanging the drawings to form straight lines and channels that confront visitors as soon as they enter the museum. When you walk into the Great Hall, a thirty-six-foot canvas blocks your path. It changes how you enter and navigate the museum. In this sense it's also an architectural project.
It was important to give titles that could place the viewer within a narrative. For example, one drawing looks like a night sky, but the title is Constellations (maps of Louisiana oil and gas wells), so you realize that each of the many thousands of little dots is a well-the seemingly cosmic turns out to be a human-made manifestation of the underlying geology. I made the drawing using chalk from the Cretaceous era, which I collected from the former ocean floor in Kansas-a place intrinsically linked to southern Louisiana. Water from half of the US finds its way down the Mississippi River, carrying sediment from as far away as Pennsylvania and Montana-the same sediment that actually formed the land that is now New Orleans.
Time feeds the entire project, and in many ways the drawings are an attempt to capture it. The drawing Found Islands depicts, on one side, an island that existed 4,500 years ago where New Orleans is today, while the other side features a contemporary island formed by the combined processes of man-made events, sediment accumulation, and encroaching salt water. City (New Orleans) is an animated drawing that shows the city expanding and contracting back to its origins in an endless loop. The speed is synced to mimic the pace of a human breath-the course of several centuries is condensed to seven seconds.
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