BOOK REVIEW: Force of Nature 

Sites Unseen: Force of Nature, the book, beautifully captures last year's ambitious art project

Force of Nature
By Mark Sloan & Brad Thomas
Published by Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art & Van Every/Smith Galleries

Force of Nature, a 144-page hardcover book that documents the groundbreaking exhibit of the same name, is a sober affair compared to Mark Sloan's previous publications, which include circus/sideshow tributes Hoaxes, Humbugs & Spectacles and Wild, Weird & Wonderful. But in its own right, Force of Nature captures the exuberance of the 10 Japanese artists who visited the Carolinas last year to make site installations.

Sloan, director and senior curator of the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, co-curated the exhibition with Brad Thomas, director of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College in North Carolina. About five years ago, the two men decided that it would be a good idea to organize an art show together, putting contemporary work on display at both institutions. The idea escalated into a mammoth multi-site undertaking, encompassing the College of Architecture at UNC/Charlotte, Winthrop University Galleries, Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, McColl Center for Visual Art and Sumter Gallery of Art. For art lovers who couldn't take the bus tour to the various sites, this book documents the entire project.

It's far more than a simple catalog, though. The rich color photography shows the artists at work, using their paraphernalia, sketches, schematics, and captures the final works along with visitor reactions.

A chapter devoted to Motoi Yamamoto accentuates the sheer scale of the artist's elaborate labyrinths made of salt, mirroring the logistical and red-tape issues that the curates faced when coordinating Force of Nature. The shots of Motoi's salt art trickle off the page, in one instance stretching off into a distant white desert of miniature salt dunes. Close-ups show Yamamoto's incredible attention to detail.

The Addlestone Library on Calhoun Street wasn't the only site used by Yamamoto, who also went to Davidson and hung a 40-foot gouache on mylar drawing above a delicate horizontal piece in the Belk Visual Art Center.

On the ground floor of the Halsey, Noriko Ambe transformed trees into otherworldly drawings and cut-paper sculptures. One of the latter graces the book's cover, giving it a three-dimensional look. One chapter shows her at work, projecting a photograph of a dissected tree trunk onto a wall and then drawing over it. For Noriko the process is as important as the final product, and the book serves her well. Wider shots indicate the relationship between her drawings, the sections of tree trunk, and her paper art.

All 10 artists get equal face time. Their creative processes receive as much attention as their completed art. Takasumi Abe is shown with helium-filled garbage bags, kite string, and an iPod, preparing to record cloud sounds. There are dramatic photos of Ayako Aramaki and Junko Ishiro, who use fire to forge their work in unexpected ways.

The book's only failing is a consequence of the original project's ambitious scope. Extensive blogs, videos, podcasts, and Flickr photos were posted on Force of Nature's "online exhibit" website, telling the full story of the project from the artists' viewpoint. Although some self-portrait photos of the participants are included, there's no way to adequately reveal this fascinating aspect of the show. Fortunately, the online component is still accessible through the Halsey website (

Force of Nature ultimately teaches and delights, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process while telling the over-reaching story of the project itself. Sloan's photography is compelling, focusing on the forces of nature — trees, clouds, even something as common as salt — that inspired these artists to create.


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