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Lita Albuquerque’s new installation, Red Earth (2020), lays nestled in an intimate bamboo grove within the sprawling and eclectic Huntington Gardens. On the accompanying placard, the artist calls 2020 “the year of perfect vision” and declares that we are transitioning from a human perspective to a cosmic one. These claims somehow seem both outlandish and prophetic amidst the chaos of Covid-19, police brutality, wildfires, and politicking. Yet, if we as a species are beginning to experience “perfect vision,” her work—which demonstrates the illusory nature of reality—presents a conundrum.
The artwork appears at first to be a large boulder decorated with a heavy dusting of vivid red pigment powder. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the boulder is in fact a thin slab. The pigment rests in the furrows of the rock, amplifying its natural form and producing an illusion of depth, the thin sheet becoming mountainous.
Albuquerque has encircled nearby bamboo stalks with thin copper bands, enclosing the central stone in a subtle, metallic constellation. Dulled in some places from exposure to the elements, the bands reflect dappled sunlight. On the rock, the red pigment—a material Albuquerque has used before for its transience—glows. Eventually, it will be blown away to dust other surfaces, the false image it produced fading from view. Between the shimmering light, oxidizing copper, and dissipating powder, we bear witness to multiple, intersecting temporal ephemeralities.
The central boulder is both rock and image-of-rock, circularly referring to itself in the production of its own image. In this way, Red Earth is analogous to its surroundings in the Huntington’s Japanese Garden, a site Albuquerque specifically chose. This garden first opened to the public in 1928, a time when Japanese garden reproductions were fashionable amongst wealthy Westerners. The garden has features transplanted from historic Japanese gardens, such as its iconic moon bridge and a ceremonial tea house that was built in Kyoto in the 1960s and shipped to the Huntington.
Japanese gardens strive for idealized visions of unspoiled nature while they are, in truth, produced through laborious manipulation. Zen Buddhism, central to the history of Japanese garden design, holds that every object mirrors the entire universe and vice versa, microcosm reflecting macrocosm. Since the late 1970s, Albuquerque has explored similar ideas through her ephemeral pigment installations which aim to connect the viewer to their place in both the landscape and universe. In Malibu Line (1978), a striking line of blue pigment appeared to join land, sea, and sky, optically flattening these vast spaces into a single plane. In contrast, Red Earth realizes the sublime on a much more humble, human scale.
Red Earth suggests that there is no material footing beneath our aesthetic perception—that illusion defines both the world around us and our internal, mental landscapes. Today, images are rapidly created, deployed, and destroyed in the service of political domination and control, so much so that the disorienting flood of digital disinformation feels inescapable. Yet, Albuquerque conveys illusion as part of our very human constitution. In this way, Red Earth grounds the slippery nature of both reality and our personal subjectivities, treating them as intimate, familiar, and ultimately empowering—a vantage from which we can re-envision ourselves and our world.
Lita Albuquerque: Red Earth runs from July 1–November 2, 2020 at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108).