Joan Linder’s exhibition “Project Sunshine” centered on the notorious environmental disaster, one of the worst in U.S. history, known as Love Canal. Conceived by the 19th-century industrialist William T. Love, Love Canal was supposed to be a “model city” in Niagara Falls, N.Y., but by the 1920s funds were gone and it was abandoned. The site became a dumping ground for various chemical companies. Thirty years later, after some 20,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried, the landfill was revitalized, and new homes and an elementary school were built on top of it. In the late 1970s, media reports exposed the tragic health consequences of the contamination, eventually prompting a massive evacuation.
Linder’s research into the archives of the Love Canal calamity is at the heart of “Project Sunshine,” which presented hand-drawn replicas of PDF documents (all works 2013-15) she found mostly online, including evidence of sinister cover-up attempts by officials. Deftly rendered, these ink drawings faithfully record not just every word and photo, but also every incidental mark—coffee stains, photocopy glitches and her own highlighting of passages. The verisimilitude is so convincing that it is only by peering closely at these copies, displayed in a long vitrine, that the artist’s hand becomes evident. These fake documents that look real subtly call into question the authenticity of the archive form, with its illusion of fact and truth. That the artist installed herself in the gallery regularly during the exhibition to publicly draw more documents, as a kind of performing scribe, evokes again the malleable nature of the archive, since hand-copying opens possibilities for alteration and subjectivity.
The exhibition juxtaposed these various documents with a large, life-size colored ink drawing of a section of the site itself—empty land overgrown with seemingly indestructible plant life—next to a similar drawing of Linder’s backyard, which looks nearly the same. Lyrically rendered, the landfill greenery is pockmarked by unidentifiable brown spots that could be random rocks but recall malignant ooze. In addition, the artist presented a 45-foot sequence of drawings in several accordion-folded Moleskine books portraying the fence surrounding the site. All of these works share a potent mix of the mundane and the ominous. In the accordion drawings, signs stating “PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESSPASSING” are followed by those reading “PARKING LOT FOR SUBWAY CUSTOMERS ONLY” and “YOUNG LUNGS AT PLAY: THIS IS A TOBACCO-FREE ZONE”; verdant lots become fallow; and a succession of power lines leads to unmarked mounds of earth, row houses and city streets.
If “Project Sunshine” was, in the end, a study of denial, it was also a lesson in the power of bearing witness. In this sense, the work is a meditation on collective memory and trauma. Perhaps that’s why the artist, who became interested in Love Canal after moving to nearby Buffalo to teach, emphasizes the way history—via vested interests—buries what its producers wish to forget, creating a landfill of secrets upon which new and false realities are built. Menacing drawings of Linder’s own Geiger counter readings poignantly remind us that the lives of those occupying the area now, under the assumption that it’s been “cleaned up,” may yet be in jeopardy.