Amy Howden-Chapman: Drain Lake Project

This article about Amy Howden-Chapman's video work Drain Lake Project was first published in Runway magazine.

Amy Howden-Chapman is an excellent writer. She completed an MA in Creative Writing in Wellington before moving on to her current studies at the California Institute of Arts. A productive twinning of art and language is evident in Howden-Chapman’s work. Much of her art is built from language.

Her practice is diverse—employing performance, painting, sculpture and installation—but language is always there, ghosting the edges of her physical objects. Often the words are actually present, in the form of speech or writing, but even when they are not I get the sense that they are suggested, waiting to form themselves in the sidelines.

Howden-Chapman’s recent work in the SQUARE² space at City Gallery Wellington, Drain Lake Project, examines the public space of Los Angeles—Howden-Chapman’s new home. In particular the work looks at Elysian Park, the oldest public park in Los Angeles. This park is a charged site, Los Angeles being identified as the city with the least open space per capita of any major American city. Local artists have created the Elysian Park Museum of Art and use the park to stage performances, interventions and coordinated events. Each variously contend with the contingencies of art in public space and the particular pressures of Elysian Park as a site.

Amy Howden-Chapman’s video work documents an ‘audio picnic’, a previous work the artist coordinated in Elysian Park. Friends met to share a picnic next to one of the park’s water drains, on which the artist placed a boom box playing an elegantly spoken monologue. For the SQUARE² iteration of this work, two TVs screened a shakily filmed video of the picnic, and speakers amplified the monologue throughout City Gallery’s entranceway.

Drain Lake Project is inflected with environmental concerns; a common thread across much of Howden-Chapman’s practice.[1] The flyer for the work pointedly features signage for Elysian Park which advertises the park as a verdant aquatic landscape. The dry, concrete drain beside which the picnickers ate speaks of another story—the pressing problems of water conservation and contamination, not only in relation to the upkeep of Elysian park itself, but equally in Los Angeles and its wider metropolitan area.

These ecological concerns are astutely amplified by the artist’s play with the rhetorical devices of language and their inbuilt contradictions. I wasn’t there at the actual picnic, and only had access to the filmed documentation in Wellington, but I imagine the strange, disembodied voice from the boom box demanded the attention of the picnickers. The monologue is read by a man whose voice sounds like a lake:

My voice was chosen because it sounds the most like a lake. Not a river, a lake.  Not at all like a piñata, like a lake. You could say it sounds like a large pond, but really that’s a lake. My voice doesn’t sound like Jack Nicholson, not in China Town, like a lake.

It doesn’t sound like the moon or any thing like that, not like the ocean, nothing so big, but like a lake. Not stadiums, lakes. Not waterfalls, lakes. It doesn’t sound like grass, but I suppose you could say it sounds something like a whole field of something swaying, which in its own way is something like a lake.

This is what I mean about Howden-Chapman’s work being built out of language—which I acknowledge is a slightly awkward turn of phrase. In the artist’s work, objects, circumstances and situations are constructed by words, as if words are the same as people, bricks, fabric or paint. There is a disavowal of the secondary position of language as simply describing an actual thing in real life. Howden-Chapman messes up the relationship of words and their meanings and highlights the politics of metaphor.

I’m sort of writing, perhaps irresponsibly, about Howden-Chapman’s practice as a whole. But here, specifically in Drain Lake Project, the monologue of the man with the voice creates a multivalent shuffling of metaphorical allusions. I’m thinking of these layers as something like this: the lake isn’t here, but there is a boom box which plays the voice of a man whose voice sounds like a lake. His voice cannot physically be a lake it can only sound like one. The man is himself not present, but his voice is. His voice is in turn mediated by the recording and the boom box. It’s complicated. Here’s the break down from the most present to the most absent:

The drain
The people
The boom box
The voice
The man
The speech
The text
The lake

This is what metaphor contradictorily does: describe a thing by using something which is absent. The construction of a metaphorical lake through these components points to the lake’s absence like a finger. It is also a reminder of the man’s absence (we truly want to see this mysterious man with his watery voice), and a reminder of the failure of language to make these things present. This linguistic melancholy intertwines with the ecological concerns evident in Drain Lake Project to make the work a demand; a demand to make absent things available and ready—the contradictions of metaphor are ultimately productive here.

[1] See for example Amy Howden-Chapman’s works Save the Whale/The Great Pacific Ocean Rubbish Patch Recreation, Wellington, 2006, and The Flood, My Chanting, Wellington, 2008.

Thomasin Sleigh