Following THIRST, a Rauschenberg Grant Recipient
by Marjorie Flanagan
If you seek strange and interesting art themes, tantalizing new techniques and mind-blowing collaborations, dig deep. Austin artists are carving out their niches with heartfelt vigor. Those who look will be rewarded with Women & Their Work’s latest highly charged art eruption, THIRST.
As a recent recipient of an Artistic Innovation and Collaboration Grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation, Austin’s own Women & Their Work is raising its profile as a hub for creativity. The Rauschenberg Foundation provides artistic grants to help share with the world art that is fearless, collaborative and pattern-breaking in the vein of artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose artistic career spanned disciplines including painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography. He also worked beyond the parameters of visual art to design album covers, create theater sets, and choreograph dance. With THIRST, the collaborators hope to create a dialogue that is a voice for positive change. With the grant, W&TW is helping create and launch a unique art experience on the shores of Lady Bird Lake.
The Rauschenberg Foundation grant process was not only a call to artists, but a challenge. The awarded art needed to be innovative, discipline- crossing, and imaginative. The Foundation wanted the participants to push themselves and take risks in the pursuit of more powerful work. Artists creating art for art’s sake can take on as much risk as they want, but public entities asking artists to push the boundaries is unique. As the only Texas arts organization receiving a Rauschenberg grant, pressure is on W&TW to perform. The art and social ideas that gave way to their final sculptural proposal came from round table brainstorming sessions with inspired minds from the Austin community, including artist and professor Beili Liu, Norma Yancey and Emily Little of Clayton & Little Architects, and Cassie Bergstrom of the dwg group, Landscape Architects. The questions echoing included: What is affecting Austin now? What can this artwork activate and provide exposure for? How can we create a challenging art endeavor? The resulting proposal was awarded the grant. It is to be an activist earthwork sculpture titled THIRST.
THIRST will explore the loss of 500 million trees caused by the Texas drought in 2011. The topic of climate change will be addressed with the installation of a 30 foot dead tree in the center of Lady Bird Lake. The tree will hover over our rippling river, its roots reaching and yearning for the water—its thirst never quite quenched. The tree will be painted ghostly white in a memoriam of all of the trees that have fallen victim to our current drought. It seems THIRST aims to say: ‘this is our state, these are our trees, and they are dying.’ Along our beloved trail which encircles the proposed tree location will be fourteen thousand white prayer flags hand imprinted with a black image of the tree. These prayer flags reference the Tibetan ritual of creating flags that are hung and blow in the wind to spread compassion to all of the pervading space. Traditionally, woodcut prints and text are included on the flags. For THIRST’s installation, hike and bike trail walkers during September and October will be asked to help create personal script on each flag, and the wind will carry their hopes and compassion to our city (exact timing to be announced). The art installation will create a heightened dialogue around water conservation and urges viewers to ask themselves, “How can I help?” The possible solutions generated from THIRST to help save Central Texas trees will become part of the artwork itself; an unknown that will only be understood in time.
The process to bring THIRST to fruition has been arduous. The team is working with city officials to pinpoint the tree at the heart of the sculpture. The phantom-like tree will be located among the strong but drought-ridden, dying trees somewhere along the Colorado River. The team has worked countless hours coordinating details with city officials and public art teams to ensure the safety of our beloved lake as well as the public and the art piece itself. The challenges include securing the artwork without damaging nearby historic pedestrian bridges, taking care of the surrounding delicate ecosystem, preventing possible vandalism, and providing nighttime lighting. Hands and heads are full finding solutions for these possible issues. That is part of what will make THIRST so stimulating. Most of the THIRST artists and collaborators find problem-solving as part of the process of creating art; nding solutions to art-challenges is ful lling and builds amazing experiences for the creator and viewer alike. When Robert Rauschenberg was alive, his art and ideas were both challenging and crossed a variety of studies. The reward here is a spirit of cross-collaboration.
Chris Cowden, executive director of W&TW who has been part of the THIRST artwork since its inception, refers to the project as “Janus-faced. THIRST has the ability to both look back at the lost trees and look forward to water conservation.” As activist art, THIRST calls viewers to organize, motivate and build solidarity surrounding climate change and water conservation. It is our responsibility to transform this inspiration into action. With a long history of great collaborative and activist art behind it, including works by Rauschenberg himself, Jean Claude and Christo, Robert Smithson and the muralists of the WPA, THIRST can address issues beyond the purely intellectual. Art is visual first and then speaks to our cerebral sides. The excitement is building to see how it might transform our city central trail as well as the viewers that happen upon it.
With publicity that includes multiple artist talks surrounding its installation and news publications in print, radio and web form, THIRST provides Austin art with the opportunity to become in uential on a national level as well as a local one. As Austin quickly became America’s darling with the prosperity of the tech industry, music-centric festivals and livable wages for open jobs, why not an art boom as well?