Maybe you noticed a few oddities on the Diag a few weeks ago, such as the 10-foot dioxin molecule or the tree memorial. The installations were only up for about a week, but they were nonetheless a blissful and unanticipated break from the norm. The spirit of public art was fused with an environmental focus that appealed to aesthetics as well as ideals.
Thankfully, it hasn’t ended.
The group responsible for spreading this amalgamation of art and science to Nichol’s Arboretum is known as Digital Kami. Its website states that “Digital Kami is an interdisciplinary collaborative effort to integrate technology and art.” The project mirrors many of the same themes found in the Diag installations will. But the vast amount of space available in the Arb (compared to the Diag) creates a different set of restrictions.
Several members of newly founded Digital Kami were also active with the Diag installations. Carrie Morris, a graduate student in the School of Art and Design, worked extensively on the arboreal shrine in front of Tisch Hall. In the same vein of establishing a connection between art, nature and society (i.e. industrialization, globalization, etc.), Morris’s new project consists of a television buried face up in the Arb’s prairie, continuously showing footage of last year’s annual prairie burning. The prairie was recently set ablaze, so the installation juxtaposes the old with the new. Although prairie fires are a vital component of their ecosystem, there is an apparent irony when considering the human involvement needed to maintain the environments we ourselves have jeopardized.
“After we researched the site more and discovered it’s history, we realized that our ideas of what constitutes a ‘natural’ landscape had changed,” Morris said. “Our work then became about illuminating those invisible processes that we had discovered and we felt the public was unaware of.”
While the concept of the “natural landscape” ties the various projects together, there’s a significant spiritual element as well, evident not only in the group’s name – Kami is the Shinto term for ‘nature spirit’ – but also in the installations themselves.
Perhaps the most endearing of the projects is the Shinto shrine installation. Dozens of opaque, identical houses constructed with hard plastic are randomly distributed around the peony garden, and each contains a faint light that’s turned on in the evening.
The spiritual overtones aside, the repetitious shrines are engaging in that they present a minimalist and urban aesthetic in a natural setting. Instead of clashing with their surroundings, their white opacity only highlights the virulent greens of the forest around them. Impossibly, nature and civilization are coexisting in harmony.
“The minute you step outside as an artist, you are competing against the sky, and the scale becomes infinity,” Morris said.
Joggers, lovers, cyclists, spring enthusiasts; the casual Arb enjoyer represents a symbolic extension from the cityscape to the tree line. Humanity inevitably consumes and isolates the natural world, paring it down to easily digestible versions such as the Arb or Central Park. How do we maintain a connection to the natural world if it’s only witnessed through an urban lens? Digital Kami’s installations establish such a connection in a tasteful, efficient way. The artworks do not take anything away from Ann Arbor’s arboreal gem.
The presence of public art in our lives can only better our daily routines. Whether its trees lighting up as you jog through the woods, a flickering TV in the middle of a prairie or a giant, black spinning cube, public art increases our awareness – either consciously or subconsciously – of our involvement in the world around us. The fostering of this awareness is a laudable goal, and Digital Kami acts as our middleman between the sterility of concrete and asphalt and the bright, evolving natural world.