Art beat

Remembering Exxon Valdez

22 years later, Carole Fisher will not forget that other oil spill

In June of 1990, about 15 months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Minneapolis College of Art and Design professor Carole Fisher was in Alaska interviewing people directly impacted by the disaster, like John Herschleb, the president of the fishermen’s union in nearby Cordova.

Herschleb described to Fisher the efforts of local fishermen to corral the thick, viscous oil slick with skimmers and absorbent booms ­— a tale that called to mind more recent scenes from the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. In those first days after the March 1989 spill, Herschleb would return home at night but could not sleep, he told Fisher.

“You were ashamed to … be part of the human race that created this disaster,” he said.

In Herschleb’s account it was a nightmarish scene on the water in Prince William Sound, where the massive oil tanker ran aground on a reef and spilled at least 11 million gallons of crude oil (although some estimate it was more than three times that much). He described black crude floating “a foot thick on top of the water,” smothering the sea and nearby shoreline.

The interview was just one of dozens Fisher conducted on that initial trip to Alaska more than 20 years ago. She would return twice in the next two decades, collecting the testimony that fills more than one dozen three-ring binders included in the current exhibition of the Alaska Oil Spill Project at MCAD.

The weight of evidence accumulates in those interviews and in court documents, news clippings and made-for-television documentaries all installed in the gallery.

That evidence describes a massive tragedy for Alaska’s environment, wildlife and people, one that is still unfolding long after it disappeared from the headlines. As photographs taken in 2010 on a trip to Prince William Sound plainly show, the oil is still there, locked up in gravelly beaches — not just lurking just below the surface but pooling between the stones.

Long after the rest of the nation moved on, Fisher continued her investigation. She is the artist as witness, as a patient, dogged documentarian. Her work seems driven by a moral imperative and, appearing now, less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it calls on us to remain vigilant.

In a series of prints, “breathe the breath,” Fisher weaves together the headlines of newspaper stories tracking the 1989 spill and the subsequent court action against Exxon, lists of petroleum-containing products, interview excerpts and repeated, poetic phrases, like “air air” and “whales talking,” searching, it seems, for a deeper meaning within the reams of text. The lists of petroleum-containing products, including everything from dentures to insect repellent to footballs to credit cards reminds us, as if it was necessary, of its integral role in modern life.

A small pile of oil-slicked gravel from the beaches lining Prince William Sound — black like coal but with a greasy sheen — sits in a clear plastic vitrine, and visitors to the gallery are invited to lift the lid off the case and take a whiff. Still pungent two decades later, it reminds one of opening up the garage door, or of the sweetly toxic perfume rising off a new pair of tennis shoes.

In other words, it’s very familiar.

Go see it
“Sticks in the Mind: Alaska Oil Spill Project, 1989–2011” runs through Feb. 20 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S.


A Valentine’s party

Shannyn Joy Potter, curator of VD11, was a little coy about plans for her upcoming Valentine’s Day party and art show at Cult Status gallery.

This we know: local video-maker Bounthiene Thongmanivong is putting together a projection piece for the multimedia event, which also will include a performance by drag artist Krystal Kleer and Venus De Mars on the turntables. Another 10 local artists will have pieces installed on the second floor at Cult Status.

Potter, promising a surprise, did not divulge any more details.

You can be certain, though, this will be no paean to romantic love. VD11 (the sequel to a similar party at the Northrup King Building in 2009) drains the sap from the holiday and does away with the obligatory dinner, flowers and card formula.

“We’re turning it into a party, so it’s more like Thanksgiving,” she said.

Go see it
“VD11: Art for Valentine’s Day” is 8 p.m.­­­–12 a.m. Feb. 11 at Cult Status Gallery, 2913 Hennepin Ave. S. Portions of the exhibit remain on display through March 4. 965-9162.