The integrity of an artwork’s site has been a concern for artists since the minimalist and earthwork artists of the 1960s and seventies. Robert Smithson famously distinguished between the real “site” of art and the displacement of a piece of that site into the gallery’s “nonsite.” For artists who share Smithson’s interest, the location in which the artwork is installed is part of its content. In Dala Nasser’s site-specific commission “Adonis River,” currently on view at the Renaissance Society, Nasser extends art’s dialogue between site and nonsite, experimenting in particular with its inflection by a material’s capacity to hold an indexical trace of an original site.
Nasser’s installation at the Ren is comprised of a large spatial environment that takes full advantage of the gallery’s cavernous space. Along with a team of designers, she has erected a towering wooden structure and adorned it with dozens of sheets of fabric and canvas in various shapes and sizes. There’s an aura of incompletion to both the structure and the earth and ash-colored fabrics that adorn it—beams jut out into space while the fabrics are haphazardly draped across, and wrapped around, its beams. If on first glance the structure appears to be mid-construction, the longer you spend in the space—underneath and inside the shade of its fabrics—the more it takes on the appearance of a temple. The fabrics are not just draped across the structure but suspended by delicate wires, the wooden beams functioning as columns and plinths.
To create the work, Nasser traveled to the Adonis River in modern-day Lebanon. The river and its surrounding region are an important pilgrimage site, believed to be the place where Adonis, the human lover of Aphrodite, was killed by a wild boar. In the cave where Adonis is said to have been killed, Nasser rubbed and dyed her fabrics with clay and ashes and water. As with the structure itself, the closer you look at the fabrics the more their intentional manipulation becomes apparent; patterns of earth and rock indexically mapped into their surfaces start to reveal themselves.
According to the gallery statement, Nasser works through “abstraction and alternative forms of image-making” but remains, at her core, a painter, always thinking her work through the medium and its materials. Given that context, the structure itself starts to resemble a deconstructed painting, its canvases multiplying as they are stretched across its wooden structure. The temple is not a finished work but one which glorifies its mere parts, the materials and pigments, which comprise it.
At the Ren, the structure is accompanied by a four-channel sound piece, made in collaboration with the artist Mhamad Safa, in which the two recorded and then slowed down a series of mourning prayers. The soundtrack is full of periods of near silence and it is projected at a very low volume in the space. There is a fragmented, warbling quality to its strange drones and, although it is slowed down to be nearly unrecognizable, a trace of melody or song remains palpable.
In much the same way, Nasser clearly believes that her commitment to the integrity of her work’s site will allow the traces of the earth and water of the Adonis River it traffics in too to be palpable. It seems that rather than leaving that up to chance, the monumentality of the structure is a means of ensuring that audiences will feel they are in the presence of something when they stand in its shadow. Whether one attributes that in the end to the traces of a distant land and the history it indexes, or not, is up to the individual.
“Dala Nasser: Adonis River” is on view at the Renaissance Society, at University of Chicago campus, 5811 South Ellis through November 26.