It’s hard to be present anywhere, much less in nature these days, with the distraction of our screens.
Local artist Alyssa Baguss challenges viewers to come back to the moment and embrace the natural world through her upcoming exhibition, “You Were Never Here.” Through a trio of 2-D and 3-D artworks, she explores the concept of nature as scenery and our constant drive to be anywhere but where we are.
These pieces are what Baguss calls “a conceptual continuation” of an inquiry-based body of work undertaken over the past five years that considers how technology influences the way we experience the outdoors and how it shapes our expectations. And because we don’t necessarily have to go outdoors to experience nature, she’s also interested in how we try to bring nature inside.
“A lot of pieces in this show are referencing scenery and theater and this false nature, the thing that’s happening in the background,” she says.
For Headwaters, a floor-to-ceiling curtain, she used a 360-degree camera to capture an image of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca.
“There’s something so interesting about going to the birthplace of the Mississippi and walking across it. It looks like a postcard up there. It’s incredible,” she says.
This piece toys with the idea of shutting out nature (by pulling the curtain across a window) to appreciate nature. “I love doing that to people: look away from the outdoors to see the outdoors,” she says.
Curtain immerses viewers in mountains and valleys through a series of hanging photo wallpaper landscapes. It was inspired, in part, by a neighbor from Baguss’ childhood who had a mural of a palm tree and ocean scene in their basement. She and her friend would often pretend they were somewhere else. “It’s really satisfying. It’s escapism,” she says. To create the piece, she used the Miura map folding technique to create the topography.
Understory is a drawing rendered from a 3-D scan of oak savannah forest at Silverwood Park. She’ll do the drawing directly on the wall of the gallery. “It’s a one-shot deal. I have to get it right,” she says.
Baguss’ interest in artwork of the natural world sprung from her rural, agricultural upbringing in the Midwest. She spent a lot of time outside in her youth, and that shaped the way she sees landscape. Her good sense of direction meant she was always aware of where she was and how she was moving through space. Local, place-based representations are also important to her. “Our identities, as Minnesotans, I think, are influenced by all the water that’s here.” She’s also intrigued by iconic vacation spots. “I’m a beauty-chaser,” she says.
Though Baguss studied visual art and minored in education, her career path eventually led her to Three Rivers Park District, which opened Silverwood Park in 2009. The park needed someone to create a new curriculum to help visitors engage with nature, and she had ample teaching experience.
After 10 years in that position, she took over as director. The park now has a gallery, an outdoor sculpture trail, and runs 500 programs a year. “My work-work and my artwork have blurry boundaries,” she says. “It’s all one big thing.”
Her professional role has provided her a unique perspective from which to gather more questions for her art-making. She people-watches at the park, noticing how visitors behave outdoors. She wonders what each one wants when they come to the park, and why some people are comfortable in nature while others are overly cautious.
“I am at great ease in the outdoors. It brings me peace and I think it makes me a healthier person,” Baguss says.
Technology has become part of that experience, however. She researches places before she goes. She uses GPS to navigate parks. She likes to take pictures and uses identification apps that help users find out what different flowers are. But she acknowledges technology walks a fine line between enhancing an experience in the outdoors and distracting from it.
“[At the park] I see people staring at their phones while they’re walking and talking. I’m not a judgmental person, but I wonder what their experience is like, and if they’re really present in a space. Or maybe that’s not even the point. Maybe they’re taking a walk because they want to call their mom,” she says. “But I wouldn’t say my position is really neutral. I do think we have an attention problem in society. I think that we could be more present in where we are or who we’re with. I feel there’s a value to being present in the outdoors, or just life in general.”
IF YOU GO:
“Alyssa Baguss: You Were Never Here”
The show opens this Thursday, November 21, and runs through March 1.
Minnesota Artists Exhibitions Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Art