Time is Deep at Grand Arts, but the space is a little shallow

Deep Time + Rapid Time is a sprawling, messy exhibition organized by the shifting collective Spurse. The group’s research-oriented work emerges here as a laboratory in which broad, global concepts mingle with local landmarks and minute examinations. The experience implies the strain of expressing temporality: Deep time measured in millions of years, rapid time in more recognizable increments.

The published rhetoric about this exhibition offers a dense explanation of the multiple processes at work — the artists have included clothing design, plant biology, books, research and paleontology as units of examination — but there is still the mechanical business of installing an understandable, workable exhibition in a fully accessible space. That’s where the exhibition falters. Though I enjoyed Deep Time and its spirit of esoteric and practical exploration, the problems of accessibility (or, in this case, inaccessibility) obstruct its success.

The exhibition’s entrance is tricky — you have to guess your way in a little — but that’s interesting. Yet I’m not sure you could get through the installation in a wheelchair comfortably. Getting by “Monument Rock in Gove County, Kansas” is a tight squeeze that forces you to make contact with the latex simulacrum of the rock formation. The massive piece is beautiful, a wondrous feat of mold making, but I had to push it out of the way to see the rest of the room. One portion of the exhibition requires you to ascend a dimly lighted staircase that is wholly inaccessible unless you are able-bodied and your pupils dilate effectively. Creative freedom may be at the core of art making, but installations should be inclusive and be designed to consider an entire audience of viewers. State and federal funding (this exhibition has neither) typically stipulate that spaces ensure accessibility; moral responsibility compels it.

There are things about this exhibition (absent the accessibility problems) that I love, among them the hundreds of felt-covered books available for perusal and the historical books lent from Linda Hall Library’s vast collection, some as old as 1792. Felt is all over the exhibition, covering the books and lining the stairs and the cushiony loft where the stairs lead. Reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’ intensive use of the fabric — his mythology included the story that nomadic Tartars swaddled him in felt and fat after a plane crash in the Crimea — Spurse uses the material here to visually unify elements of the exhibition.

The growing station, a complicated assembly of plants from the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, suggests an early episode of Lost with its tubes, dirt, buckets and starter plants of sunflowers and prairie grass. Geological maps, petrified wood, geodes and fossils are scattered at various other stations. Almost everything can be touched: You can sew, pound grommets and draw. You can look through stacks of maps and research materials and investigate the ephemera of exploration, though some editing would have shorn up this idea more effectively. The light in one portion of the exhibition secretes from LEDs meant to simulate how light has changed from the Big Bang until the present — or so I was told.

The exhibition flourishes in the places where Spurse’s ideas conflate with local interests. The growing station, researched in consultation with Salina’s Land Institute, demonstrates how time can move simultaneously forward and backward, as the institute explores how our historic prairie can be relied upon to repopulate our future prairie. The work with Kansas City Art Institute students to develop clothing as “mobile architecture for migration/sensing time” — despite that jumbled explanation — grounds the exhibition in our city, and the workshops allow the audience to engage directly with the artists and the concepts. I just wish Spurse’s intense creative devotion to process and experimentation were as capably focused on including all of us.

Categories: A&E