‘LEGEND’ Digital print by Jan Piribek.
Sometimes it takes an act of art to care about something you otherwise wouldn't.
Understanding "(En)coded Landscapes," the psycho-geographical installation currently on view at Mayo Street Arts, isn't exactly a walk in the park. Rather, it's a rigorously investigation of the process by which someone makes sense of the unknown. Using handmade maps, GPS and QR codes, from-memory drawings, videotaped pagan rituals, and a symbolic metaphor involving hula hoops, Jan Piribek has created one of the most ambitious, arcane, and deeply conceptual art shows in recent memory.
The genesis for "(En)coded Landscapes" came in 2006, when Piribek, a USM art professor, traveled to Latvia to oversee an international exchange program (while the school still did those) and conduct a sabbatical project. While there, she spent time at Open-Air-Art-Museum in Pedvale, a cultural attraction whose 100-acre grounds contain dozens of sculptures and installations. Piribek, haunted and intrigued by the history of the museum's walking grounds (which includes the taint of blood from German soldiers, the tragic and lovesick death of a princess, and more), created two types of maps based on walks she took of the museum's grounds.
The first map is a functional one. To fulfill the sabbatical project, Piribek consolidated the 118 exhibition sites on the museum grounds into a tangible fold-out guide for visitors. She drew thumbnail sketches of each installation and provided detailed notes on its origin and artist, noted which exhibits were temporary and permanent, and wrote about the impetus for her own addition, a GPS-mapped constellation of handmade flags she placed on the museum's northern fields.
With her original goal completed, Piribek might have stopped there. Instead, she built the second map, a far more complex system of memory, myth, and personal narrative, which makes up the installation at Mayo Street Arts. Building on the original museum walk, "(En)coded Landscapes" extrapolates the rigorous precision of the first project into highly subjective meta-narratives. Digital prints of the original 118 exhibition sites (rendered from memory) adorn one of the walls, and it only gets more metaphysical from there. "Field Walk," a satellite view of the artist's flag installation enlarged and traced to resemble a sort of hieroglyph, is juxtaposed with a grainy digital print of the topography, the markings of which Piribek uses as a reference for a further drawing that accesses some long-buried personal experience of hers. "Snake Walk" likens the Pedvale walk to those Piribek has conducted stateside, where she cross-references a symbolic event (a snake crossing her path) with the Latvian museum's singular history, further encoding it with her own like coiling strands of DNA.
Less immediately visual than visionary, the exhibit has a compelling narrative feel. At its best, it's a synthesis of the novels of W.G. Sebald — who shunned plot and told stories through his protagonists' desultory recollections made while walking through parts of Europe — and Janet Cardiff, whose audio walks are some of the most effective and intimate uses of technology and psycho-geographic narrative ever made. While Piribek's associations are occasionally hard to parse (like "Tornado Walk," a digital print of a map of the touchdown points of tornados in the artist's home state of Illinois during her lifetime), the extent to which she labors to make sense of her studies — indeed her life — to herself and others is itself inspiring, and makes for one of the most concise examples of true art around.