Ballroom’s Patty Chang exhibition details care and mourning in the face of loss

A socially distanced crowd gathered at the opening of Patty Chang’s work Invocation for a Wandering Lake: Parts 1 & 2 projected on the side of Ballroom Marfa earlier this month. Chang’s work runs every night at sundown from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. from now until Sunday and is free to the public. Photo by Maisie Crow

MARFA – Driving down Highway 90 after dark this week, passersby might catch a glimpse of two videos projected onto the exterior walls of Ballroom Marfa. Those who take the time to stop and watch the two 12-minute art pieces that are playing on the white facade will see Los Angeles-based artist Patty Chang performing acts of care and mourning.

On the front wall of Ballroom Marfa, a projected video shows Chang scrubbing and washing a lifeless whale; around the corner, another video depicts her in Uzbekistan, one year later, exhibiting that same level of care for a man-made object, a decaying fishing boat in a dried out lake. Together, the videos are a meditation on what it is to care, to mourn and to lose, whether it’s life or livelihood.

Chang said that in some ways, all of her longer-form video work deals with loss. When she was creating the videos on display, she said she was dealing with her father having a degenerative illness, along with the new birth of her child, “which is a joyful experience, but also entailed the loss of my former self,” she said. For her, she said, “Large-scale loss sits next to personal loss.”

Washing a dead animal and a rusted-out boat doesn’t solve a material problem or bring back what has been lost – in her life, for the whale, or in the fishing community that has experienced its lake drying up, ending a town’s main industry. Nevertheless, when Chang came upon the dead whale off the coast of Newfoundland, she felt compelled to do some sort of ritual to mourn it. “It was more instinctual that something was dead and it seemed to be neglected, and I felt really sad about that,” she explained.

“When I went to Uzbekistan the following year, I was reminded of the state of neglect, and that compelled me to repeat the ritual,” Chang said. “The loss of a fishing industry because the body of water one has always lived next to disappeared into a desert is just as important to mourn as the death of a whale and the local population’s loss of a fishing industry through a cod fishing moratorium.”

Though the works were produced between 2009 and 2017 as part of a larger series, The Wandering Lake, Ballroom Marfa Curator Daisy Nam chose to mount the exhibit of Patty Chang’s Invocation for a Wandering Lake: Parts 1 & 2 as the art institution’s contribution for Artists’ Film International 2021, a global program that features moving-image work.

AFI 2021 centers around the theme of “care,” and Nam connected Chang’s work of care and mourning to the current cultural moment, where a global pandemic has led many to contemplate how to mourn monumental losses of life and industry.

When the artist filmed these particular videos, she wanted them to be shown in a landscape setting, not confined to the white box of a typical art gallery, so she appreciates the works on-site in Marfa, “in the space of a former prehistoric sea that has now turned into a desert,” she said. “The geological scale of time contextualized it and reminds me that human infrastructures may soon return to the earth.”

“Over the last year, we collectively experienced extreme loss due to the ongoing pandemic,” read the Ballroom release announcing the exhibition, which opened on April 9. “If we are to create new ways of living, perhaps we first need to practice ways of mourning, mending, and contemplating through rituals of care, as the film suggests.”

The exhibition of Patty Chang’s Invocation for a Wandering Lake: Parts 1 & 2 runs every night at sundown from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. from now until Sunday and is free to the public.