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New exhibit looks at consequences of land use, valley fever

“During California’s Great Bakersfield Dust Storm of 1977 a warm winter wind sped to 192 miles per hour. Dust rose to 5,000 feet. The sun went black.”

So reads the artist statement printed on a panel in the Flaten Art Museum for “Black Sun: Rini Yun Keagy with Miljohn Ruperto.” The exhibit opened in on Friday, Feb. 17 with a reception by Keagy and Flaton Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson. It will stay exhibited at St. Olaf until April 16.

“Black Sun” features the work of two accomplished artists: Rini Yun Keagy and Miljohn Ruperto. Keagy is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Carleton College. Her work in video and 16mm film focuses on “race and labor, disease, and sites of psychological trauma,” according to the artist bio on the Flaten Art Museum website. Her work has been screened at numerous film festivals and the film and video art international cable TV station, Souvenirs from Earth.

Ruperto is an artist based in Los Angeles. His art has been exhibited in a variety of places, from the Whitney Museum of American Art to Berlin’s contemporary art museum Haus der Kulturen der Welt. He works with photography, videography, performance and digital animation. Themes of his work include historical and anecdotal occurrences, the nature of assumed facts and perception-challenging illusions.

The themes each artist works with intersect perfectly in “Black Sun.” The exhibit is based on their collaborative experimental documentary short film, “Ordinal (SW/NE).” The film examines a soil-dwelling fungus, coccidioides immitis, and its associated lung infection valley fever. The spores that cause valley fever are found in specific regional areas (Keagy and Ruperto focus on California’s Central Valley) and are stirred up by anything that disrupts soil, from human acts like farming and construction to natural events like wind – or dust storms.

Upon entering the gallery, one will see film stills, video, animation and physical objects from “Ordinal (SW/NE).” Pieces tend to fall into a few themes: examinations of valley fever itself, the way humans use land and the consequences of that land use. They also make unexpected connections from a wide variety of sources such as ancient Assyrian mythology, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Exorcist.”

Walking around Flaten is a visually striking experience, whether one is watching juxtaposed videos of oil rigs working in an orange orchard and a monotonous rotating residential sprinkler, or peering at an animation of Coccidiodes immitis spores replicating in a lung.

But the most chilling part of the exhibit is its namesake piece, “Black Sun.” To experience “Black Sun,” one must stand on a black carpet under a speaker hidden inside a dome. The audio piece recreates the sound of the 1977 Great Bakersfield Dust Storm, with distorted black metal music and the howl of hyenas and jackals. The experience is chilling – meant to recreate the underworld of demons according to Assyrian cosmology. It succeeds in its task.

Overall, “Black Sun” is a sensorily striking examination of the ways nature affects humanity, or – perhaps more importantly – how humanity affects nature.

Be sure to check out the exhibit, as well as some other related events: on Feb. 25, Keagy and a panel of local scholars and filmmakers will present works and scholarship at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Closer to home, Oles can catch a screening of the film that inspired “Black Sun,” “Ordinal (SW/NE),” on April 6, in Viking Theater at 7:30 pm. Both Keagy and Ruperto will be in attendance.

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