Jen Urso is many things. Being a multi disciplinary artist can lead you in spurious directions—in her body of work you will find movement, drawing, photography, cartography, and video, all in the service of revealing the invisible. Urso magnifies and elaborates upon events, instances, spaces, and trends that surround us but often go unseen. A map of the biodiversity in Scottsdale, Arizona, a sand tracing of her figure reinterpreted as the as the coastline to the island of her body, origami balls filled with her own breath to measure the physical space her exhalations occupied. In some ways, Urso is playing science with art, or art with science. (I’m sure there is a difference.)
Last year, Urso added horticulture to her constantly growing list of creative aptitudes in her piece “What the Desert Already Has” for the Barrick Museum exhibition Modern Desert Markings. In response to land-art superstar Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” Urso repotted soil from the legendary art piece, creating a dialogue with the work and the land itself.
Urso’s exhibition What the Desert Already Has is on display at the Lost City Museum in Overton, a stone’s throw away from Heizer’s “Double Negative,” until Oct. 20.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The minute I saw little green sprouts coming up from a tank, I was like “Wow, not only is it beautiful, but it’s also something that’s alive.” It speaks of place and environment.
We were having discussions, throughout this whole process, with the museum staff. Groups would come through, and they’re like, “Is this art? OK, so you’re growing plants?” And I’ve questioned that too. If I just let plants grow, is that art? That’s just kind of nature doing its thing. But of course, it’s art. Not only is it a reference to a larger piece of art that is essentially just nature, or a human disrupting nature, but contextually, growing a plant in a Plexi box in a museum is vastly different from growing a plant in a pot in your living room.
You really hit on notions of indigeneity, on the idea of how to have a relationship with the desert, and that a desert is not a wasteland.
I remember when I was proposing it. I wasn’t quite sure what [the museum’s] viewpoint was when I saw the call for work. Are they land art fans? Are they going to read this proposal and be like, “Oh, she’s so negative against it?” We should be honoring the great land artists and of course, they’re influential. I learned about them in college. But it was so problematic learning about it back then. None of the work that was presented to us as reference points [was] done by women. And in land art, it was even more so. I mean, you had Nancy Holt, but she’s married to [Robert] Smithson. Not that her work was not valuable—it’s just that I think she only got visibility because he was getting visibility.
Luckily, we have a lot of people who are making the decisions, who are open to different ways of thinking and making [land] artwork that isn’t necessarily, “Let’s make a gigantic thing and stick it here and keep going bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger,”—using more resources and not questioning that. That’s always been pretty important to me, the use of resources in the work itself.
Can you expand on that?
I remember there being a point, it was probably 15/20 years ago, where I had installed this piece. I was really interested in making things that broke down, making things that appeared to be sturdy or long-lasting, and [making] them fragile, and then [going] the other way around—where it was like something that appeared to be fragile, [making] it more resilient.
I’ve done this piece where I had made these concrete tiles, and then people walked into the space and they had to walk onto these tiles and break them apart. They’re specifically made fragile so that they would kind of return to dust. By the end of that exhibit … I’m cleaning it up, and it’s not something I was going to store. So then I’m throwing it away. And I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” I’m here lugging hundreds of pounds of concrete to the dumpster. What am I doing? You know, I’m just putting more stuff into the landfill.
But what does that mean, throwing it out? I began only trying to use materials that were compactable—so, fabrics—and you could just put it in a bag, and it could expand out into this big thing. But even that seemed like, “OK, I’m still using all these resources, and I’m using these materials, and there’s already so many things in the world.” There’s plenty of stuff that I can use that doesn’t leave an impact. There’s so much damage being done. I don’t want to be contributing to it.
Your work deals a lot with precarity, and movement and immediacy, too. Would you consider yourself a performance artist?
I wouldn’t [have] before, but I think I’m starting to feel like yes, I am. I feel like the piece that was at the Barrick, and that’s now at Lost City, is this very slow performance, because it’s about my process of going into [the] space, taking this soil, watering it like all of that is part of this performance of sorts. So, I’d say yes.
Jen Urso’s exhibition What the Desert Already Has is on view at the Lost City Museum in Overton through Oct. 20.
Portrait courtesy of Jen Urso. Exhibition photos courtesy of Lost City Museum.
Follow @jenurso and @shmapsmaps on Instagram.