LINCOLN — The keystone to “Walden, revisited,” the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s thoroughgoing exhibition inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden: or, Life in the Woods,” is William Lamson’s sparkling, ambitious untitled video.
It screens, as this one must, in a darkened room. To make it, Lamson built a replica of Thoreau’s cabin as a camera obscura. That’s a primitive camera, a big box with an aperture; if you’re inside the box, you’ll see imagery from outside pass through that lens and project upside-down onto the opposite wall.
Lamson furnished his cabin, all white inside, with a bed, a desk, a chair, and a ladder, all painted white. He built slots in the walls that could open or close, letting images in from different directions. Then he set it adrift on a raft — not on Walden Pond, which as a state reservation has certain restrictions.
The video, a visual lullaby to the sound of lapping water, captures liquid pictures streaming over walls and ceiling: a single disk of light on the door, a ruffling mass of greenery, a sun setting upside down over the desk, and — most rapturous! — a giddy flood of sparkles winking over and across the bed, sunlight dancing on the water outside.
The project embodies, in a way, what Thoreau set out to do: to see, to listen, to awaken to his surroundings. His eyes were his lenses; the dark, welcoming cavity of his imagination, his camera obscura. “Walden” was his report back. It’s a metaphor, too, for what every artist in this exhibit, and indeed what every reader of “Walden” does: We take it in and make it our own.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, starting in 1845. He published his book in 1854, but it didn’t catch fire in the country’s imagination until the 1930s, when the Great Depression stirred interest in Thoreau’s ethic of simplicity. He is the father of American nature writing, and “Walden” grapples with questions we still wrestle with in a society that is less and less simple: environmental degradation, economic insecurity, how to live life deliberately rather than in quiet desperation.
In terms of conceptual art, we can almost call Thoreau prescient. He devoted an entire chapter in “Walden” to sounds; elsewhere, he wrote, “every sound is music now.” A century later, John Cage was composing with found sound and silence. The writer’s transcendentalist eye for the beauty of the smallest ordinary things presages Duchamp’s elevation of found objects to high art.
Thoreau himself may not have cared a fig for visual art — why look at a painting when one can be outdoors in glorious nature? But oddly, his legacy to 21st-century art, which often streams straight from Duchamp’s conceptual tenets, is evident. “Walden, revisited,” then, is a clear choice for an exhibition, and not simply because the deCordova is 2 miles from Walden Pond.
The art is by turns ardently faithful and skeptical. Other videos make cheeky companions to Lamson’s ode: Oscar Palacio’s frenetic, herky-jerky “Pond Path,” made up of hundreds or thousands of still photos stitched together, depicts a breathless, horror-movie race around Walden, with nary a calming glimpse of the water.
James Benning, like Lamson, built his own version of Thoreau’s cabin, and a replica of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s shed. His “Two Cabins” sets quiet videos shot from within each structure side by side. Kaczynski read Thoreau. “Two Cabins” asks: How is the transcendentalist writer a forefather to the violent, survivalist hermit? That link is more direct than his connection to conceptual art.
Mostly, “Walden, revisited” feels like a spirited conversation, wide-open and unresolved. Gina Siepel spent time at Walden with mentors and friends, just as Thoreau called upon friends, including Emerson (who owned the land), to help build his cabin. Siepel and company engage in several projects — studying natural history, performing choreography — that she calls “Re-Surveying Walden.”
She built a rowboat and painted it with colors of the landscape. In notes, she’s frank about dissonances between Thoreau’s reality and what he has come to stand for (Walden wasn’t remote; Thoreau often ate at his mother’s), and about her own anxieties. Walden in 1845 telescopes to Walden in 2014; the eloquent and sometimes cranky naturalist nearly reappears in the rubber boots of the nervous artist.
Thoreau describes in detail building his cabin — the used lumber came from an Irishman’s shanty — and it’s no wonder that artists, who are so often builders, have latched onto the writer’s DIY ethic.
Michael Mercil’s “Thoreau’s Desk (requires some assembly) a composition in three or four parts for percussion trio” came in a crate and was put together in performance by the percussion ensemble Tigue, using a simple sound score (part Cage, part Sol LeWitt) and some power tools. The point was listening; the desk, as a result, is not functional — let’s call it an abstraction. (Tigue will be back for another round in January.)
Like Siepel, Hilary Wilder raises an eyebrow at Thoreau the supposed wilderness man, in her “Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times,)” which she crafts from paper, paint, and glue. The eight desks look remarkably real, but they’re falling in on themselves, paper panthers of the American wild.
“Our Concord waters have two colors at least,” writes Thoreau. “One when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand.” Blue and green. Upon examination, several greens.
Revisiting Walden, Spencer Finch undertakes to delineate the hues. His “Walden Pond (surface/depth)” puts dabs of watercolor, each corresponding to a depth of water, on little tabs of paper, all tied to a sounding line snaking along the floor. Like Thoreau, who surveyed the pond, Finch attends to details and data. And like Thoreau, he parlays those to poetic ends: His string of color is a metaphor for ungraspable light and for the great depth of the water.
The grip “Walden” and its writer have on the American character — on our aspirations and our near constant failure to meet them, on the survivalists among us, and the nature lovers — is perfect fodder for artists.
If Thoreau visited today, he’d be rattled by the consumerism, the ecological disaster, and the human desperation — which, thanks to electronics and social media, is noisier than in his time. But he would be pleased that his ideas and methods remain vital, even as each of us — survivalists and artists alike — have, in the uncanny dark cabins of our imaginations, made them our own.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.