Message from a troubled planet

Art: Soledad Salame's creations have something to say about the degradation of the Earth and its disappearing creatures.

May 22, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The invitation is to lean in, look closely, perhaps even listen.

There's a muffled voice emanating from this object on the wall, one of Baltimore artist Soledad Salame's newest works, called "Scrolls IV." You can hardly hear it for the layers of wax, ragged Japanese paper, plastic film, all of it yellowed as if by time. Words jotted in pencil in a column down the left-hand side, next to a tangle of shadowy tree branches, can be only vaguely discerned: "Mexico/how strange/is this/ around me/have killed/their old/life/I feel one/of them "

Salame talking? The branches themselves? The two have apparently begun to merge. In pieces called "Notes VII" and "Notes VIII," Salame seems to identify with the insects that lay trapped in soupy resin, asking in that same pencil scrawl: "Do I have a future?"

These recent years have been hard for Soledad Salame. Note in the work on view at the Gomez Gallery through June 18 a certain tension between hope and despair, between assertion and withdrawal, between statement and silence. The Salame who years ago made her big installations to serve as alarm bells about the dangers of world environmental deterioration is still present, but speaking softer and from a more personal fear.

She is 45 and succeeding on the international art scene. Her work is in corporate collections around the world, as well as the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Organization of American States' art museum. She's in the process of creating a huge walk-through installation at the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes in her native city of Santiago, Chile.

Yet the most affecting work at the Gomez evokes a shadow, or at least an interval of introspection.

Just last week Salame spent part of a day in a local hospital where the test results were good. No sign to be found of the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed on her 40th birthday. The five years since have been an ordeal of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and post-operative alternative medicine treatments in Mexico that left her horribly ill.

Little wonder. She learned some time into the process that they'd been giving her small doses of arsenic.

She was no stranger to illness, having suffered two severe bouts of childhood kidney disease that left her bedridden for months. The cancer diagnosis was a terrible shock nonetheless. During her treatments she wrote notes to herself, fragments of which appear in several pieces in the Gomez show. She looked around and wondered how it could happen, as if the global environmental threat she had been fearful about for years had somehow invaded her body.

"I kept asking the doctors, `Where did I get this? It didn't come from my mother. Where did this come from?' "

The questions led to more questions. She spent time studying environmental science and visiting places that had been damaged by pollution. There were no answers. There was only the continuing story of how people were destroying the planet, how species were vanishing.

Salame, schooled in industrial and graphic design, began creating her own version of what is variously termed "land art," "environmental art" and "Earthworks." She's quite enthusiastic about the artists who do this sort of work, but her version has always been more personal, more modest in scale, less conceptual and more devoted to visual appeal than the work associated with the likes of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim and Walter DeMaria.

She's never moved 6,800 tons of earth into Utah's Great Salt Lake to form the enormous "Spiral Jetty," as Smithson did in April 1970, the month of the first Earth Day. Nor has she gouged mile-long trenches in the earth outside Las Vegas as De Maria did in 1969, the year United Nations Secretary General U Thant said that the planet had 10 years to avert ecological catastrophe.

In the mid- to late-1990s, Salame did create a series of installations that came as close as she has to the kind of brawny stuff typical of the "land artists," who challenged the very notion of art as a salable commodity. It's tough to sell anything but the photographic evidence of an enormous trench in the earth, a giant curtain across 24 miles of northern California or a Mexican volcano modified at the rim with a large cluster of rotting white bread.

In 1994, Salame did create a wall-sized piece called "Garden of the Sacred Light," which incorporated a large, painted canvas with live plants and grasses. She made "Grotto I" and "Grotto II," each of which looked like a half-igloo made of steel and earth, and covered with a layer of moss that was nurtured by a built-in irrigation system. In 1997 she made "Shrines of Nature," a 5-by-5-foot piece consisting of nine shallow, square boxes. In each, an insect or insects is trapped in an ever-rising pool of resin dyed to look like amber.

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