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Deborah Stratman explores her fascination with sinkholes at Hallwalls

From "SWALLOWS: Subsurface Voids"

Wall copy for the current Hallwalls exhibit recounts the story of Jason Chellew who was relaxing in his living room one evening in Alta, California, when the floor of the room suddenly opened up beneath him, swallowing him and the room into a sinkhole, killing him, but not harming his pregnant wife, who was in bed in another room. It took rescue workers two days to recover Jason’s body. Meanwhile, nary a sign of the disaster was visible from outside the house. What caused the fatal sinkhole? It isn’t known for sure. But in the late 1800s that area of the Sierra Nevada foothills was heavily mined for gold. An underground mine collapse is a possibility.

The exhibit by multi-media artist Deborah Stratman is all about sinkholes, and includes photos, videos, conceptual model drawings and paintings, sculptural models cast in plaster or concrete in actual mini-sinkholes, and a central sculptural model of a house and surroundings falling into a sinkhole in what looks like a coal mine, with working miners, one of whom stops work to check out an automobile that has dropped into his work area.

One of the videos shows the aftermath of wreckage at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a 40-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep, sinkhole opened one morning in the middle of the display area, swallowing eight vintage Corvettes. Only one of them was salvageable. That area of Kentucky is full of underground caves and caverns and is notorious for sinkholes.

And most fun of all, numerous examples of the sort of impromptu sinkhole—available by mail order, packaged in convenient roll-up form, from the Acme Company—the Roadrunner occasionally places as a foil—a pitfall, literally—for the dim-witted Wile E. Coyote, who invariably falls into the hole, resulting in substantial physical injuries to the coyote, in addition to frustrating for the time being his pursuit of the Roadrunner.

There’s a whole wall full of photos of otherwise intact and unimpaired landscapes with an Acme Company black hole applied to the photo.

In an artist’s talk at the opening, Stratman discoursed on her fascination with sinkholes as places that are also events, interesting as physical phenomena and because of their psychological impacts, and connections of her sinkholes project to the work of earth artists like Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, as well as to her own previous work. For example, a project she did in Anchorage, Alaska, involving placing a large disk mirror near the top of a woody mountain ridge, the disk barely visible from the city of Anchorage, from where it appeared as a kind of tunnel hole through the mountain. (At Artpark in the 1970s Nancy Holt did a project involving random placement of segments of water-filled culverts upright in the ground, the top of culvert and top of water level at ground level. They were like eyes into the center of the earth.)

Another wall copy narrative tells the horror story of when an oil drilling rig in a lake in Louisiana punctured the roof of the Diamond Crystal Company salt mine 1,300 feet beneath the lake surface, causing the lake waters to pour into the puncture hole, which rapidly expanded in size and scope. The resulting whirlpool sucked in the drilling rig, eleven barges, and sixty-five acres of surrounding trees and terrain. The incident raised questions about a federal strategic petroleum reserve program plan to store seventy-five million gallons of crude oil in a nearby decommissioned salt mine.

The Deborah Stratman exhibit is called “Swallows: Subsurface Voids.” It continues through June 27.

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