A newly commissioned immersive installation inspired by poet W.S. Merwin will open next month in Chicago. The installation coincides with the May 16 opening of the American Writers Museum, located in Chicago’s famed “Loop” neighborhood.
The special exhibit, entitled Palm: All Awake in the Darkness, was created by artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris (in collaboration with Ian Boyden); and it is inspired by Merwin, his poetry and dedication to nature, and specifically, his 18 acre, hand-planted palm forest on Maui’s North Shore.
The installation is the museum’s first commissioned artwork and was made possible by support from The Poetry Foundation and additional support from The Merwin Conservancy. The installation includes living palms, a new video work by Sayler/Morris, and sound design that includes poetry by Merwin as well as Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain, Ross Gay, Ezra Pound and a traditional Hawaiian chant sung by Dr. Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele.
Palm is inspired by the life and work of the American poet and meditates on Merwin’s capacity to invoke in his readers a sense of the wakefulness of the world, according to a spokesperson. Merwin is not only a celebrated poet, having won nearly every major poetry award, including the appointment of poet laureate, he is also a visionary gardener and environmentalist. Starting more than 30 years ago, Merwin and his wife Paula embraced a piece of certified wasteland in Maui and tree-by-tree grew one of the most species-rich palm gardens in the world–a garden that aspires to be a forest, according to Merwin.
In this installation, Sayler/Morris and Boyden make an analogy between gardening of the sort Merwin undertook on his land in Maui and writing. For Merwin, both activities were infused with a spirit of contemplation and awareness profoundly shaped by Merwin’s practice of Zen Buddhism.
The installation is designed to be contemplative. As viewers walk through three distinct spaces, the sound of poetry being recited by its authors come in and out of the threshold of hearing. Viewers enter through a facsimile of a shade house Merwin used to cultivate palms. When exiting the shade house, one enters a central area for viewing Sayler/Morris’ video made of footage and sounds taken in Merwin’s palm garden, paired with Merwin’s own recitation of selected poems. A final area with spot-lit palms and four speakers project the voices of both Merwin and contemporary American poets who were influenced by his work.
For many years, Merwin has made a practice of composting letters he receives from all over the world. Through this practice, the writings of those touched by Merwin’s work become part of the trees in his garden. At one end of the exhibition, visitors will have an opportunity to write their own message. To spur thoughts, Sayler/Morris provide the prompt Merwin gives in one of the keynote poems of the exhibition, “Place”: “On the last of the world / I would want to plant a tree / What for…” The artists will take all the messages collected in the course of the exhibition and “plant” them in Merwin’s garden.
This is Sayler/Morris’ second large-scale installation in conversation with a major writer. In 2014-15, the duo worked with writer Elizabeth Kolbert on a large-scale video installation titled Eclipse that commemorated the extinction of the passenger pigeon at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA).
Palm: All Awake in the Darkness is a temporary exhibit at American Writers Museum and will be open to the public through October 2017.
Artist’s rendition of the new Merwin installation courtesy the Merwin Conservancy