It’s an unseasonably cold and windy Memorial Day Weekend, and, lulled by the quintessential American smell of fry oil and the sound of overlapping band riffs, I wander the annual Mayfair Arts Festival in Allentown en route to The Pig Pen Project. I linger and read signs that boast, baffle, conflate, and entertain: “Temporary Tattoos That Last A Lifetime”…”Wine Slushies.” Elbow to elbow in a knot of people, I join their search for the hidden animals in Cheryl Hochberg’s painting of a big buffalo. At the back of the Agri-Plex, past Holstein-print garbage barrels and emergency vehicles, I find the group exhibition of site-specific, experimental installations I’ve been looking for, set in the dirt, in neatly raked animal pens (no animals) bordering the Greenwood Cemetery.
The prominent and unifying feature of the Pig Pen’s fifteen art installations is the tin roof above the pens, arrow-straight and stretching as long as a football field.
Themes of absence in the show next to the cemetery
With “Live, Stock, and Processed,” sound sculptor Scott Sherk installs miked PVC pipes from the roof, capturing the resonance of the wind. He mixes live sounds of today’s event with sounds he recorded and edited from the past two months on location. Listen and you’ll hear airplanes, traffic, sirens, garage doors, leaves blowing— events from a longer arc of time that create space. The layering immediately connects with the extreme compression of smells, words, sounds, and images that I just experienced in the main hall.
“Under the Canopy,” by Jill Odegaard, loosely weaves together multi-colored, fabric-covered aluminum wires into a hammock-like sculpture. Peering through Odegaard’s fabric structures and listening to the dense sounds of this particular setting, I scan various family names on gravestones — a meeting of art and death in the same blunt manner I associate with Pennsylvania farmers.
Gregory Coates‘s “Hilda, Barbara, and Me” continues the confabulation of art and death. The piece, of clotheslines, clothespins, blue pigment and colored lights, links the recent loss of his girlfriend’s mother, Hilda, with thoughts about his own mom’s and his own mortality. The work came from discovering Hilda’s clothespins still stuck on the line after she died, and it’s a poignant reminder of her absence.
The building slopes upward, rising gently and consistently under my feet as I walk towards Lucy Gans‘s “One in Three.” Scores of scattered disembodied heads hug the earth. The clay icons represent females and remind me that one in three women will be abused. (The artist invites visitors to take a head with them and make a donation to Turning Point of the Lehigh Valley.)
Focusing on the natural aspects of the space — the earth itself and gravity
“Ephemeral Interpretations” by Lisette Morel invites volunteers to enter the pens with rakes and make designs. Eva Di Orio and Donna Cleary evoke the pull of gravity on the slope: Di Orio’s “Soothe” ponders human touch by juxtaposing an overturned table, a painted monkey, and a collection of books arranged from oversized to pocket-sized. Cleary’s “Venting Installation,” a tower of found trash sculpture, seems ready to tumble over even though it is lashed together with bright green rope. Using discarded construction buckets, she playfully discovers fresh authenticity in already humble materials. I’m reminded of the recent tornados, and the work points towards regeneration without being too “cheerful.”
Moving outside the Pig Pen
“Portale,” by Leah Dixon and Barb Smith, pulls me out onto the long strip of grass running between the animal pens and the graveyard. Simple, green and sporting a chiffon scarf, the rectangular box resembles a threshold, a coffin, a phone booth, or an invitation. The piece was later destroyed by high winds, a fitting end if you consider that man-made objects “flirt with disaster.” Smith’s plastic “Clapper Hands,” installed high in the maple tree above the Pig Pen, which applaud alongside rattling leaves when the wind blows, are also presumably gone. Forcing people off the center path and back onto the grass alley, Victoria Snyder‘s site-specific piece blocks off the exit at the top of the slope by weaving blocks and string into a barrier.
Serendipity of gold bricks by two artists
I am intrigued to discover that Brian Wiggins and John Mortenson, independent of each other, both made pieces featuring fake gold bricks. Wiggins’s “Heart of Matter,” a pallet of phony bullion made from gold-painted cardboard, fools me because it reflects light just like the real thing; yet, the feather-light bricks shift around on the pallet in a humorously suspicious fashion.
Mortenson’s “Honor System” features one lone gold-painted brick on a hand truck. I ask, “Are we not obsessed with the recession?” His efficiently ambiguous piece suggests both the creditor who will come to collect and the debtor who leaves his payment unguarded. The transaction hits home when I lean over the rail and see a scrap of an American flag in the dirt, blown in from the cemetery. This piece sums up my experience of the 2013 Pig Pen Project: Money and patriotism don’t have a chance in hell against the wind.