Review of Ghostdancing, Barbara Dolan-Wilkinson and Lori Goodman

by Jane Ingram Allen
Sculpture Magazine, International Sculpture Center
Melvin Schuler Sculpture Garden, Morris Graves Museum of Art

I first saw Ghostdancing, a collaborative earthwork installation by sculptors Barbara Dolan-Wilkinson and Lori Goodman, on a beautiful spring day filled with the strange Northern California light that is filtered through giant redwoods and softened by moisture from the Pacific. The installation took advantage of the light and transformed the space.

Ghostdancing consists of multiple translucent white cylindrical forms of handmade paper stretched over bamboo armatures, with numerous tree limbs and stumps leaning in various directions and living plants partially covering curving mounds of mulch and stones. The rhythmic repetition of forms, the soft whites and muted colors of the natural materials, the patterns of light and shadow, and the undulating layout create a visual dance.

Integral to the installation is the concept that it will grow, change, and deteriorate over time. When I was there, the piece had been up for more than 10 months and was showing the effects of time and weather. The plants were green and flowering and the numerous sculptural elements had shifted and weathered, some grayed and tattered and others dissolved into compost, leaving only skeletal remains. These changes reflect the processes of nature and gently remind us of our own connection with this cycle. The title “Ghostdancing” sounds vaguely Native American and, in fact, the multiple paper and bamboo cylinders look somewhat like tight-skinned native drums. These forms also resemble truncated trees, and observing the decay and changes over time reminds us of the vulnerability of trees and the dangers of ecological misuse. In this area of California one is particularly aware of the continuing war between environmentalists wanting to save the trees and the lumber industry wanting to cut them down for wood. Signs of the area’s economic dependence on wood and wood products are everywhere-from huge lumber- yards to redwood burl souvenir shops and parks featuring drivethrough trees. While this piece does not make any overt environmentalist or “tree hugger” pleas, it subtly raises these issues. The ghostly limbs dancing in the wind and the white translucent stumps amid the growing plants evoke feelings of respect for nature and the place of decay and regeneration. It’s hard to imagine the cold architectural courtyard of the Morris Graves Museum without this installation. The artists told me that before their installation (which was the first site-specific work in the courtyard), the space was a flat, gray, gravel-covered expanse used for receptions, small concerts, and occasional exhibitions of sculpture. Ghostdancing made walking through the courtyard an adventurous sensual experience. The path of the installation as it wound through the space made it impossible to see everything at once, and the different heights of the constructed berms contributed to the sense that this work might continue indefinitely. Configured in an Lshape and extending from the side front entrance across the back of the museum, the installation provides exciting visual interest to an otherwise bland space. The artists told me that they agreed to return the courtyard to its former state, so the berms, the growing plants, and the sculptural forms will sadly all be taken away. However, the museum plans to permit future installations. This continuation again emphasizes the regenerative aspect of art and nature as the spirit of Dolan-Wilkinson and Goodman’s work continues to dance.