Michael Paha

at Perimeter Gallery

Nature has been a pretty marginal topic in contemporary art. When it does come up it tends to be treated with a certain cynical fatalism–not that there isn’t cause for such an attitude. Even National Geographic has gotten depressing lately. In Michael Paha’s newest living sculptural environment, As We Sleep, nature is the art–both object and subject.

This is one of Paha’s “arsariums,” a term made up from the Latin word for art and a suffix denoting place or instrument. The definition of this neologism is conveniently displayed on a wall, but it doesn’t begin to describe this amazing work. It’s a place that is also an instrument for a timely reminder of our dependence on the organic, cyclical phenomenon we call nature.

As We Sleep simply points out that life goes on regardless of people and their schedules, regardless of how important we think ourselves, individually or collectively. It sets up this kind of contemplation by creating a nocturnal environment. One comes from the blazing summer into a dimly lit room cooled by two ceiling fans rotating at top speed; there’s a bed in one corner of a large room and a matching desk diagonally opposite. There is the soothing sound of running water, and this might just be a serene place for sleep and study were it not for the structure that divides the room.

It’s a peculiar room divider. About a third of it is an exposed stud wall with a doorway framed out for access to the bed side. The rest is a sort of open shelving unit, which literally supports life. A series of wide, upright planks stop short of the ceiling and are tied together by shelves or occasionally thin struts, which relieve the cabinetry comparison. It’s an ant farm format gone wild.

The basswood desk has a drawer, only it faces the wall, so it can’t be opened. The top is cut out, though, and you can peer through a grid of wire mesh across the top into a burrow of wood shavings containing a cardboard box hut and a feeder tube. Paha’s arsariums are complicated blends of living things, and this is the nest for the main mammals of As We Sleep, eight white laboratory mice. The drawer is bathed in red light from a bulb in a red lamp clamped to the desk. Next to it on the desk top is a tray of working toy microscopes and glass specimen slides.

The wire mesh covering the drawer turns into a corridor up a ramp carved out of the desk top, then becomes an airy skyway bridging the space between the desk and the divider unit. There it takes a right turn past a cantilevered shelf holding four volumes of How Things Work and continues in permutations of passageway and cage throughout the long, tall see-through wall. There’s a playhouse or rec room with two exercise wheels for the mice, a stretch of running track high up in the unit, and various other big caged areas. The mesh tunnels pierce through the stud wall section via arched holes; here the passages zigzag up and down to and from a mouse penthouse above the doorway–a duplex cage complete with loft platform.

Marine habitats and a bird sanctuary are intertwined with the mouse havens and skyways. In the end bay of the central divider is the source and recycling mechanism of an elaborate water system. It’s fed from a shower head, which aerates the water as it falls into the first aquarium. In the aquarium is a layer of potting soil, to add nutrients, covered by a layer of sand, to prevent the water from running black and dirty through the rest of the system.

Water flows down from the first, high tank through transparent plastic tubing into another aquarium, this one populated by baby catfish mimicking sharks and by ordinary bait-shop leeches feathering through the water like sea snakes. Then the liquid passes through other tanks impersonating various habitats–a sort of wetland area, and a little model creek–that hold an assortment of aquatic grasses, aerating plants, and some maple tree seedlings. The water meanders finally to an angel-hair filter and a cleaning tank of charcoal, and is then pumped back up and through the shower head to cycle around again.

A vertical caged section is potted with four miniature trees. Under them are feeding troughs for four white zebra finches with bright bills, perching and cheeping. The mice like to congregate below and feast on the seed the birds spill. Above this aerie is a long, horizontal landscape that the finches can fly up to. It’s lit with a soft orange glow and strewn with moss and twigs for a prairie effect. Three model-scale exhaust chimneys ventilate the space as well as complement the farmland analogy. Paha thinks of this as the birds’ evening rooftop environment, and discreetly tossed in a toy rooster weather vane to secure the point.

Although only the mice and finches actually coexist in the same space, Paha arranges his habitats of sea, land, and sky with a visual cohesion that masks the divisions. The separate areas are joined by natural details and repeating elements. An asparagus fern pokes up from its terrarium through the mesh of a mouse cage, a four-foot potted tree is inserted between a couple of basswood uprights. Next to the mouse rec room, hanging above its entrance, is a little wooden planter containing a bonsai juniper tree. Some of the shelves of the divider and the floor under it are covered with sand, rock, and scrub, which, in true diorama fashion, are securely glued down.

This is not the kind of art you can take in at a glance. Following the apparently random, cyclical patterning of his multifarious elements, Paha uses a scale model of organic principles to prick some meditation on the reality as well as wonder of earth’s environmental complexity. It is sufficiently thought out and formally balanced so that viewers are diverted from similes of science projects to the natural impact of human existence.

As We Sleep is not just a cute essay on the primacy of nature over mortal man. The arsarium is not self-sufficient and requires regular maintenance, nor are its organic parts truly interrelated in a strictly microcosmic ecology. It’s an artificial model made of living things, artfully provoking notions of biological existence beyond man but still dependent on some human interface.

Paha’s concept of nature is sublimely nonpartisan. It doesn’t nostalgically romanticize the organic realm, and it doesn’t exclude humans even though we’ve proved nature’s worst enemy. The artist says his arsarium is “like a little garden factory or stream table factory,” viewing cosmic complexity with apt humility. What he’s created seems more like a little slice of heaven on earth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Testa.