I think it was in the movie version of The Iron Mistress that Jim Bowie, swapping stories in a bar, tells how his notorious and perfect blade was made from stardust -- “made in heaven, but all of hell any man can handle.” These are mythic words from a mythic man, but sometimes the myth is just a movie, even a rather old fashioned movie, and Jim Bowie turns out to be more like say, Clayton Williams, and you can’t realistically draw his famous blade from the buckskin any more than you can produce Excalibur from the throat of Prince Charles.
So there is a duplicity built into myth: when you get close to it, it disappears and the raw material of reality from which it is made tends to replace it.
This kind of duplicity characterizes they said there was a paradise way out west, Anya Gallacio’s salt and barbed wire installation at ArtPace in San Antonio, Texas. Part winter wonderland, part hell frozen over, the work is simultaneously eerie and charming. As much drawing as intervention, the space is both actual and illusionistic, inside and outside, premeditated and from the hip, sweet and saline. Visitors to the gallery have sometimes assumed that the piece was conceived by the artist at her home in London, a regional study proposed from afar, while some others have had their Texas pride wounded by the quixotic enclosed panorama. Many more have responded to something in the atmosphere of the work, something which comes perhaps from the serendipitous circumstances under which it was created: the short span of an ArtPace residency. Gallacio often makes work of materials at hand near the site or somehow of the site so there is a resourcefulness that is familiar to her and thus the feeling of inspired happenstance combines with that of determined execution in this silent, stunning work.
The piece features 3000 feet of barbed wire (rust never sleeps) looping like vines and hanging like waterfalls from floor to ceiling across a 12,000 pound bed of salt spread across the floor (salt is a preservative by the way). In addition a single jelly bean is perched like a little sweet Buddha on a barb near the center of the piece. The long barbed wire arcs, draped in every direction across the 1200 square foot space, are comprised of a number of links each produced by cutting a foot long piece of wire and then bending each end into a closed loop which serves as the connector to the next one. Some anomalies occur in the way the wire is strung. A short strand connects the upward and downward swoop of a large draping loop; a medium length one will connect inexplicably to a longer one; one loop even plunges straight down and straight back up again at about head height. These read as sections of disconnected romanticism spliced back into an arrangement that is overall more formally derived. The barbed wire is strung from pre-existing galvanized pipe track light bars and hangs with a resolute gravity which gives the feeling that it has been in place a long time. All the lighting has been removed except for 4 large 150 watt globes hanging upside down like a bunch of horn-swaggled Reddy Kilowatts strung up and left to contemplate Gallacio’s dry gulch minimalism.
When you’re in the space, the salt crunches under your feet like snow and the afternoon light which pours in through a large corner skylight lends a naturalistic effect. The salt dips and swirls in small drifts, and in areas where the barbed wire snakes sketchily across the floor, the work resembles nothing so much as the grass range of a cattle ranch in winter. But this benign beauty has its darker side, kind of a twilight claustrophobia laced with a slaughterhouse/border patrol effect. You can sense the corporate reality behind the western myth. You can even hear a salt mill grinding, deep beneath the floor. If the jellybean goes unplucked by a random visitor looking for a little taste of paradise, it will happen when hell freezes over.
Copyright Hills Snyder, 1999 / appeared in Artlies #22, 1999.