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Diné artist’s work is a centerpiece of UMFA’s ‘Air’

How can we move forward amidst an environmental crisis? Plants—and artists—may have the answer.  


Diné artist Will Wilson explores this idea in AIR Lab (Auto Immune Response Laboratory), a stunning work of art now on view in Air at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA). Wilson’s AIR Lab was installed with the help of the horticulture team at Red Butte Garden, who helped identify and source the plants growing in the installation. Wilson will give a talk about his work at 6 pm on Friday, October 7, at the UMFA. 


Air explores how air connects us to each other and to the planet, through contemporary art by global and local artists. The works on view use air as both substance and subject matter, with pieces made from smog, particulate matter, gas masks, and oxygen tanks, as well as works of photography, lithography, fiber art, and video, to name a few. As you enter Air, your eyes are drawn to Wilson’s AIR Lab, a massive steel structure affixed with maps, lights, and various green plants.


Wilson is a Diné (Navajo) photographer and trans-customary artist (crossing boundaries between traditional and non-traditional art) who spent his formative years living on the Navajo Nation. Wilson’s art projects center around the continuation and transformation of customary Indigenous cultural practice. To move forward it is important to know from where we came. In the case of our environmental crisis, many researchers and artists like Wilson call our attention to this land’s original stewards and the Indigenous wisdom lost in the lineage of colonialism.


Since 2005, Wilson’s artwork series Auto Immune Response has been exploring indigenous food, dye, and pollinator species with this greenhouse post-apocalyptic take on the sacred Diné dwelling, the hogan. It takes as its subject the “quixotic relationship between a post-apocalyptic Diné man and the devastatingly beautiful, but toxic environment he inhabits,” according to Wilson. The series is an allegorical investigation of the extraordinarily rapid transformation of Indigenous lifeways, the disease it has caused, and strategies of response that enable cultural survival.  


In this AIR Lab, Wilson was particularly inspired by phytoremediation (the use of natural plant processes to clean up contaminated environments), as well as research on the Four Corners Potato.  


Uranium is one of the most toxic radionuclide contaminants and is dispersing in the environment from the nuclear energy industry. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines have been mapped on the Navajo Nation, which covers approximately 27,000 square miles (about the area of South Carolina) in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. With recent developments, phytoremediation has the potential to become an integral part of the management of uranium-contaminated environments. 


With the help of Red Butte Garden, the AIR Lab features plant species, growing right in the middle of the gallery, which remove heavy metals and toxins from soil. Among them are the sunflower, Indiangrass, tule, and duckweed fern, which can help clear uranium, cadmium, arsenic, petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides, and herbicides. This collaboration, like the current environmental crisis, required innovative thinking and creative problem-solving, as what’s good for plants usually isn’t good for fine art (pests and prolonged light exposure), not to mention the challenge of plant sourcing during COVID-19.

Embedded among the plants are various books, like Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation by Dana E. Powell, whose cover features Indigenous children with gas masks, and even more ominously, photographs of the massive uranium gravel pits across the Southwest. Among the darkness shines curled yellow petals of sunflowers and of course the Four Corners Potato plant with a few budding white flowers. The potato, resistant to blight, the potato beetle, drought, heat, and cold, can be stored for eight years if refrigerated and is packed with more protein, zinc, fiber, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B1 than the common white potato. 


Wilson was inspired in part by current research being done on the Four Corners Potato, particularly that of Cynthia Wilson, a Diné nutritionist and traditional foods advocate, who has worked alongside researchers at Red Butte Garden and the Natural History Museum of Utah to re-matriate the potato to Native communities. Cynthia Wilson attributes a generational gap in knowledge about the potato to forced assimilation, displacement, and cultural genocide. But by collecting ancestral knowledge from Diné elders and experimenting with planting techniques, the group is helping Native farmers, including agricultural students at Monument Valley High School, to grow the ancient food once again. 


Today, natural resource extraction, particularly that of uranium, disproportionately affects Diné people by contaminating their land, water, and air. Wilson’s AIR Lab warns us of a toxic future, while providing a sanctuary that symbolizes survival, resourcefulness, and hope.  


See Air now through December 11, and hear from Wilson himself at his October 7 artist talk.