While Washington sculptor Mia Feuer was touring the tar sands of northern Alberta in 2011, the most startling thing she noticed was the trees. Not only were they dead, they also were upside down, roots akimbo in the air, and nested with ravens.
The upside-down trees were the result of an unnatural chain of events: After petroleum had been extracted from a tar-sands site, the topsoil was put back in place; but nothing could grow in the sickened earth except for wheat, a “remedial” plant thought to purify the dirt. But mice came and ate the wheat. So, as Feuer’s tour guide told her, engineers responsible for reclaiming the land installed the upside-down trees so that birds of prey would come to perch and eat the mice. Problem solved, right?
“This one moment, to me, was so heartbreaking, because it felt like I was waiting this whole time for this guy to show me something that would make me feel better — like, ‘Yes, there is an exit strategy to this,’ ” Feuer says. “When I was there that day, he said, ‘Mia, we’ve reclaimed the land; isn’t it beautiful?’ He actually believes that they’ve reclaimed the land.”
It was this topsy-turvy landscape of tar and feathers, wheat and trees, and the slick darkness of one of the Earth’s most controversial substances — oil — that inspired 32-year-old Feuer’s exhibition “An Unkindness,” her meditation on the global petroleum industry as well as her solo debut at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Feuer, a professor of sculpture at George Mason University, is the first local artist to be included in the Corcoran’s NOW series of emerging young artists.
“An Unkindness,” the term for a gathering of ravens, also is the title of Feuer’s ominous, 30-foot-wide sculpture hanging in the Corcoran rotunda. It’s a tangle of scaffolding, pipes and trees covered in tar paper and joined with shredded tires and feathered black wings. The sculpture is lighter than it looks — the pipes and trees are actually made of foam — but the concept is heavy stuff. Feuer became interested in the petroleum industry’s global implications when she was in Egypt for a 2011 residency, watching oil tankers squeeze through the Suez Canal.
“I was thinking about what I was looking at and the heaviness of that little man-made artery of water,” Feuer says. “I started thinking about global-oil political issues.”
That led her to look to her native Canada, where she charmed her way into a tour of the highly restricted tar sands by chatting up an employee via their mutual interest in art. She grew up in Manitoba, a few provinces east, but found that the tar sands were inextricably linked to everything in Canada — even the arts grants she received from the government. Still, Feuer says, she’s not trying to make a political statement with her art. Rather, she’s reflecting upon her personal experiences visiting sites where oil is extracted and transported.
“Even just the word ‘tar sands’ — maybe because I’m a sculptor and I have this relationship to materials, but there was something very material about the word ‘tar sands,’ ” Feuer says. “In my mind it was something I could manipulate.”
The inky blackness of the tar, as well as another Canadian influence, extends beneath the sculpture in the rotunda. It is here that Feuer created “Rink,” a black, ice-less skating rink designed to be used by one visitor at a time. Feuer says she was intrigued by the juxtaposition of an outdoor activity in an art museum and inspired by her memories of solo skating as a child.
“Maybe it’s like the Winnipeg version of going for a walk,” she says. “There was this specific sort of emotion that I experienced . . . you’re really able to access these contemplative, quiet thoughts.”
Lately, Feuer says she has been thinking about her relationship with the global oil industry, which was underscored when she traveled to the Arctic Circle on an arts grant and pondered the possibility of the region’s being tapped for oil.
“It was still pristine, and yet there was this tension,” she says. Inspired by the blueness of the ancient Arctic ice and by a collapsed mine in an abandoned Russian settlement a few hundred miles from the North Pole, Feuer created “Boreal,” a sculpture made out of timber, steel and hand-sanded Styrofoam tiles. And after one of her Arctic guides emotionally described the difference in seeing the region via gas-powered snowmobile vs. a quieter, less destructive dog sled, Feuer built a sled out of tar paper she had found in an abandoned mine in nearby Longyearbyen, Norway.
The artist says she isn’t trying to push environmentalism, though she does agree that Washington, and particularly the Corcoran, is a very good place to have such conversations.
“This is where so many of the very enormous decisions are being made and discussed in regards to the future of energy,” she says. “The discussion on the Keystone XL pipeline is happening across the street.”
Feuer recognizes that she — like each of us — is part of the problem. In fact, in her art she uses such petroleum-based materials as Styrofoam, plastic and tar paper.
“The whole show is petroleum,” she says. “I’m implicated. I can’t even put up this show and be critical of what they’re doing, because I’m in it.”
Through Feb. 23 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday-Sunday 10 am. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. $10; students $8; free for museum members, active-duty military personnel and children younger than 18.
It took a year and a half of planning before “Rink” could glide into the Corcoran’s rotunda. Feuer worked with a rink fabricator, and they tested several types of plastic for the black “ice” before finding the perfect one. The 16-by-27-foot rink was delivered to the Corcoran in more than 20 pieces and took a day to assemble. The museum declined to reveal the specific price but said the cost was in the low tens of thousands of dollars.
When visitors arrive in the rotunda, they’ll see shelves of hockey skates and masks to their left — a tribute to Feuer’s father, a former goalie — as well as a volunteer wielding a clipboard of legal waivers. Sign one, and you’re free to glide around the rink, one person at a time. I found the rink to be more slippery than ice, but Feuer, who was the first to take a spin, says the surface will get easier to skate on.
“According to the manufacturer, the more grooves that are in the material, the better it starts to work,” she says. “I think it actually skates pretty good.”
“Rink” is free with museum admission and will have limited hours throughout the exhibition: from 2 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a big day for museum attendance, visitors can skate from noon to 5 p.m.
— Maura Judkis