In the Midst of Chaos

Artist Lita Albuquerque’s ‘Red Earth’ brings calmness

By Kamala Kirk

After being closed for more than three months due to COVID-19, The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has reopened most of its garden areas to the public.

Guests visiting the Japanese Garden are greeted by a new site-specific artwork, “Red Earth” by artist Lia Albuquerque, an internationally renowned installation and environmental artist, painter and sculptor.

“I was commissioned to create a work for The Huntington’s Centennial Celebration, and I was excited to work in the gardens and to work in response to nature,” Albuquerque says. 

“Robert Hori, cultural creator of the gardens, took me all around the grounds and offered a wide range of sites. When we walked by the western gate of the Japanese Garden and I saw the intimacy of the bamboo grove there, I knew immediately what I wanted to do. It felt like it was the heart of the garden, that I could do something more personal there and speak to that specific site.”

The installation centers around an approximately 3-ton boulder capped with bright red pigment surrounded by bamboo stalks affixed with copper bands that glint under leaf-filtered sunlight. Vibrant red disks have been placed along paths leading toward “Red Earth” to draw visitors to the display.

“I work with color as presence and as a springboard to sensations,” Albuquerque says. 

“I drew my inspiration from the green circle of bamboo trees, which seemed like a nature theater on which to place a presence. That gentle theatricality also inspired me, like it was meant to have a work there that would be part of the site itself. The piece is really about the grove and the light hitting the bamboo, which I emphasized by creating copper rings to encircle the bamboo stalks at different heights almost as if it were a musical score, as well as Red Earth, which is the boulder around which everything swirls. Most of the time, the earth speaks to us if we would just take a moment to listen and to hear. This ‘Red Earth’ surprised even me after finishing the installation and experiencing it. It’s as if the boulder itself had a presence that was expressing itself to me, asking me to pay attention, asking me to synchronize my heartbeat to hers. Once I did that, I could almost see her breathe. It’s a wonderful moment to be connected like that to the earth itself in the intimacy of the bamboo grove.”

To create “Red Earth,” Albuquerque and her studio team went on a search for the perfect boulder that had to have a certain presence and a certain shape like the crest of a mountain. She knew she wanted Bouquet Canyon rock and found the quarry three hours north of Pasadena, but once there it was not an easy search. At the quarry, the boulders that were already quarried were on the ground and it was hard to see what their shape would be once standing vertically. The boulder could also not exceed 3,000 pounds, as it had to be craned over the bamboo without damaging trees.

“I wanted it to have a mass, a presence, which meant a lot of tonnage,” Albuquerque says. 

“When we finally found the correct boulder after multiple trips to the quarry, the one that we liked most was 7,800 pounds and had to be cut down and trimmed without losing its natural shape. We installed it on a rainy March 10. The opening was to be on the spring equinox, March 21, the first day of spring. Then, during the pandemic, we were able to create the red circles that led the public to “Red Earth,” and a few days before July 1, we were able to complete the installation of the red pigment and the copper rings on the bamboo trees. It is one of the few art works that can be physically experienced during this pandemic. That is exciting to me.”

For Albuquerque, the color red has always been about the fiery energy that is at the core of the earth. Back in 1981, she created a project called “The Horizon Is the Place that Maintains the Memory” for the Hirshhorn Museum and Gardens, which was about the memory of the earth being seen and maintained by the horizon of the moon. For that exhibit, she poured red powder pigment on the stone, as if the stone were emerging or rising from the core of the earth, bringing with it all its energy. The stone at the Hirshhorn was from a quarry in California and was called Bouquet Canyon rock, which is the same rock that Albuquerque used for “Red Earth.”

“Conceptually it is different, but aesthetically has the same quality, only placed in a different context and at a different time,” Albuquerque says. 

“In this case, there is the dichotomy between the presence of a 3,000-pound boulder, which is obviously permanent, and the ephemerality of the powder pigment that can be blown way. The gesture of dusting the boulder with pigment is also so ephemeral. The combination of strength and fragility is what I was going for, that we need to pay attention to both. We certainly understand how changeable things are during this time of the virus. There remain the eternal relationships and fundamental aspects of our existence. Perhaps that quiet theatrical space in the garden, perhaps the mass and presence of the piece, will remind us of that greater sense of being.”

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