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Nature is not your friend: A. Bitterman on Indy Island


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A. Bitterman does not understand. - COURTESY INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM OF ART

To quote Jiminy Cricket, as we are so wont to do in these pages, "You are a human animal, you are a very special breed; for you are the only animal, who can think, who can reason, who can read!" Ah, but all that thinking and reasoning can get us in a bind, can make us think we're more (or less) than an animal; can lead us to be believe we're a synthetic, unnatural being apart from the great expanse known as the Natural World. Uninformed and entirely disconnected from the unmediated flux - the "out there" that exists prior to perception and apart from our constructs - the relationship between Nature and Man might thus be plotted as a closed circle, an un-dialectical dialectic in which Man conceives of nature entirely by virtue of his pre-conceptions, rather than any "direct" experiences.

Hey, wait a minute: Is that a guy in a beaver suit? A transcendental beaver suit? Sitting in a recliner in the middle of a field?

Yes, that is. That's the artist A. Bitterman, and while he might employ terms like eco-fascism and, yes, unmediated flux to talk about what he's up to in the Indianapolis Museum of Art's 100 Acres over the next few weeks, we'll put aside those conceptual trappings for the moment. Bitterman is this year's resident of Indy Island, an inhabitable installation floating in the middle of the lake at the center of the 100 Acres park, and as part of his project, INDIGENOUS: Out of the Wild, he'll remain silent during his residency, except when wearing that transcendental beaver suit.

Most of the time, you'll have to talk to him via hand signals. You may bring him food if you wish; he will accept if he so wishes. You may observe him during his peregrinations through the park; several observation posts have the angle for that perfect Kodak moment, while a GPS tracker attached to Bitterman plots his every move.

A viewing station on the 100 Acres's pier asks visitors a series of true or false questions, including "Do artists smell like oatmeal?" and "Are artists closer to nature?" - ANGELA LEISURE
  • Angela Leisure
  • A viewing station on the 100 Acres's pier asks visitors a series of true or false questions, including "Do artists smell like oatmeal?" and "Are artists closer to nature?"

You can take part in the research project too. Photograph Bitterman in the wild and post the evidence to the IMA's website. Suit up in latex gloves, booties and scrub cap - above all, leave no trace - and forge your own trail through his habitat. Learn about Bitterman through "living history" exhibits arranged throughout 100 Acres - where he came from, how he lives.

In another incarnation, Bitterman is known as Pete Cowdin, a father of five and co-owner of a children's bookstore, Reading Reptile, in the Kansas City, Mo., area. Bitterman's interest in gentle, playful subversion seems consistent with Cowdin's work at the bookstore, which is informed by an anti-monopolism, pro-surrealism agenda. Bitterman has mined the territory covered by INDIGENOUS before: For Point of Interest, mounted last summer with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation, he fashioned his suburban home as a historical site, complete with explanatory markers, information on the current activities of his family and cat - and the possibility of applying for a "back country" permit to allow visitors to explore his backyard.

Bitterman started to explore one core idea behind his current project - namely that returning land to its "natural" state is a deeply problematic endeavor that may endanger those who have adjusted to a supposedly artificial order of things in a given environment - a couple decades ago: "A friend of ours, who's a preservationist, took us to a prairie that was being 'returned' to its prior state. It seemed like a good idea at the time; I had little kids then, so we went for a weekend to be introduced to the prairie. We went to where they had blown a dike a farmer had built several years before, and all these fish were flopping around, dying; this whole ecosystem had been destroyed. It was brutal, grisly, and my kids were crying.

"That was twenty years ago, and that's when it hit me: This is just someone's idea of a prairie, and who's benefitting from it except someone who has this idea? That's a fascist sort of idea. If you go back 5,000 years, it would be a conifer forest, so why not return it to being a conifer forest?"

But to be clear, he doesn't think that INDIGENOUS can be plotted on the left-right political continuum, and doesn't conceive of it as an agitative work: "I think it's harder than that; anybody can say this sucks or this is wrong. My work can be misconceived as a right-wing thing, but I think the point is that industrialists and environmental activists use the same outdated narrative to justify their agendas; they're coming from the same, exact perspective concerning the separation between human and natural worlds, and they're both wrong."

If Bitterman is agitating for anything, it's for an attentiveness to the way in which we construct our realities - and, possibly, for more flexibility in the way we construct and relate to our grand narratives.

"I think nature is a pretend place; and I think nature, as an idea, is one of our biggest enemies and maybe a threat to our survival," he says. "When we deal with people, it's happening so quickly that we're constantly building constructs with each other; it happens so fast and fluidly that it is sort of real because that space between perception and the unmediated flux is so small. But our relationship with something grandiose like nature or God or art is so static that it can stay the same way for a person for her whole life."

Is A. Bitterman indigenous to 100 Acres? Well, it's part of an art museum after all. And what better way to support our out-of-work artists than by giving them a place to live and work for the summer?

It's an ideal habitat, after all. He has all his creature comforts, including TV and La-Z-Boy, and if visitors fail to provide enough food to meet his needs, "Like animals in an urban area, Pete can rely on our cafe for castoffs, only he doesn't have to get them from a dumpster," says Amanda York, a curatorial assistant at the museum.

And it's a chance for Bitterman to work on a significant scale. 100 acres make for a huge canvas, and Bitterman was concerned while installing INDIGENOUS with engaging all elements of the grounds. As York puts it, "I don't know of any other residency like this where you can live in an artwork while you're creating it. It's a really great opportunity."

Read: A post by former NUVOite Kris Arnold about designing a GPS device for Bitterman

See: An instructional film on communicating with the artist, from Bitterman's INDIGENOUS project


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