Artist Monica Haller pairs centuries of soil and art in a provocative new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
When artists take on the earth they tend to go big, carving mountains as Gutzon Borglum did at Mount Rushmore or as James Turrell is doing at Roden Crater, an extinct Arizona volcano he is sculpting into a sky observatory.
By contrast with those epic outdoor gestures, Monica Haller’s “monoliths” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are intimate things that bring dirt right into the galleries.
During a yearlong residency at the museum, Haller created 10 shallow wooden boxes, each about 42 inches tall, containing core samples of earth from around Minnesota, northern Iowa and as far south as New Orleans. Soil scientists use such boxes to preserve, display and study soil samples.
In her “Beneath the Ground” project, which runs through Oct. 26, Haller pairs her Midwestern monoliths with art in the museum’s collection that depicts — or came from — landscapes like those in the dirt samples.
The art spans centuries and cultures, from a 500-year-old Japanese screen to a Tang dynasty water pitcher, Dutch and American paintings, American Indian garments and even the museum’s own building. The soil samples are equally varied, ranging from thick black muck to pebbly white clay, fine sand, crumbly peat moss and brown gravel.
Paired, the samples make for a surprisingly engaging display, full of revelations and subtle connections between art, science, history, politics and economics.
“It’s fascinating and really makes you think about the rocks and dirt and material under us and how we must protect it for generations to come after us,” said MIA docent Shirley Kaiser, a retired St. Paul school administrator who gave her first tour of the exhibit recently.
Lessons from the land
Haller, who now lives in Berlin, is a socially engaged artist best known for her acclaimed “Veterans Book Projects,” which recorded in words and pictures the often traumatic experiences of Americans who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. For her new project she consulted and collaborated with soil scientists, museum curators, Indian representatives and her own father.
The project started a few years ago when her dad sold the last acres of the family farm he’d tilled for decades near Albertville, Minn., just northwest of the Twin Cities. Before leaving the land, he stored some of the farm’s dirt, intending to find another home for it. That gesture made Haller think that “the soil right under my feet had something to teach me,” she said in an MIA video.
Sitting in on classes at the University of Minnesota, she learned about different types of soil, their origin, age, chemistry, texture, fertility, water capacity, mineral content, uses, economics and so on. The Loess Hills of western Iowa, for example, are a 200-mile-long band of windblown silt that was deposited there after the last glaciers retreated more than 200,000 years ago. Iowa’s hills and a 2.5-million-year-old loess plateau in Shaanxi, China, are the oldest and deepest deposits of such soil in the world.
With that novel factoid in mind, Haller linked Iowa’s dirt to a case of beautiful pale olive green pottery in the museum’s collection. The vases and pitchers are not made from loess, but were made in Shaanxi province during the T’ang and Northern Sung dynasties more than 1,000 years ago. Next to them stands a monolith of the Iowa soil, a foot of rich black topsoil capping layers of fine brown loess silt below.
Elsewhere she paired a New Orleans core sample with Salomon van Ruysdael’s 1656 painting of crowded Dutch ferries being rowed across a pretty little marsh river. The top layer of the New Orleans monolith, taken from under a house abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, is studded with urban detritus — cat bone, marble, bullet — while the bottom section is a cracked layer of heavy gray clay.
“I thought the contrast of those two things was brilliant,” said Melissa Collins Rutter, a soil expert who helped Haller collect and prepare soil samples. “As a soil scientist I don’t usually look at highly disturbed urban situations like New Orleans, but here in the painting you have something really picturesque that would have been built on this same sort of messy, disturbed soil. “
One of their samples came from a wetland near Rice Creek north of Minneapolis. Its spongy black topsoil is marsh muck over a layer of sand, silt and white clay “that has so much calcium carbonate in it that if you were to drop a bit of hydrochloric acid on it, it would bubble and fizz quite violently,” Rutter said.
A choice of water or corn
The Rice Creek sample stands beside a Japanese folding screen painted about 475 years ago on which egrets and other water birds flutter over a similar marsh. A wall panel explains that Minnesota once had 20 million acres of such wetlands, which reduce erosion and flooding, purify water, filter out chemicals and provide wildlife habitat. Now the state’s wetlands are half that size, having been drained for housing and agricultural use.
“In soil use management, people make conscious decisions,” said Al Giencke, a soil scientist and retired 35-year veteran of the Natural Resources Conservation Service who helped Haller locate, gather and prepare samples. He now leads exhibit tours that often spark debate.