Over the past three years Andrea Bowers has emerged as a prominent voice among artists engaged in community-based interactions. In 2006 she launched a project addressing The AIDS Memorial Quilt,the enormous cultural artifact comprising thousands of grave-size panels, each sewn in honor of someone who died from AIDS-related illnesses. As a part of her project, Bowers video-recorded her interviews with the staff responsible for storing and maintaining the quilt, and composed drawings based on individual panels. This mix of “Frontline”-style documentation and handmade objects—some produced by the artist, others loaned by activists—also characterized Bowers’s first solo exhibition at this gallery.
Anchoring the show (all works 2009) was the problem of global warming and the environmental damage inflicted by oil and gas exploration. For The Day the Water Died, Bowers scanned every page of the collected transcripts of the 1989 Citizens Commission Hearings on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and presented them as archival prints within a hardbound book. Pictured on the cover of the book, and also on loan to the gallery, was a large banner that hung from a Kachemak Bay boat in the aftermath of the spill, declaring, “Alaskans Still Fighting for the Earth.”
Moving northward, the video Circle records Bowers’s interviews with three members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, an organization formed to address gas and oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ranging in age from 20-something to 72, the interviewees, all women, talk passionately about the environmental changes threatening their habitat. In the video Interview with Betty Ann,Bowers departs from environmental issues to recount her written conversations with a deaf Gwich’in woman. Their heartbreaking dialogue focuses on Betty Ann’s struggles with drug use and the challenges of single parenthood in the Arctic.
Elsewhere in the show, a postcard-size photorealist drawing depicts a group of snorkelers treading water off the Florida Keys. Seen from the vantage point of a reef-dwelling fish, two of the figures hold a sign underwater announcing, “It’s getting hot down here!” On an adjacent wall was a striking 8½-by-78-inch banner of bead and needlework squares that displays the last words of slain Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, “Lord take my soul but the struggle continues.” Other handmade objects included a pair of graphite drawings that reproduce illustrations from anarchist guides to environmental activism.
While most of the work addressed the dire consequences of relying on petroleum, and certainly invoked the topic’s complexity, the range of people, locations and events tended to diminish the exhibition’s focus. The directness of Bowers’s tone, however, serves her well as an activist.
Photo: View of protest banner in Andrea Bowers’s exhibition “Mercy Mercy Me,” 2009; at Andrew Kreps.