Above: A portion of the photographic image “Pull,” created in 2013 by artist Mary Mattingly, who will speak at the Art Center on April 12.
If you’re like most people, you take a few snapshots or keep a journal. Maybe you post videos on Facebook.
But artists do things differently. In the new show at the Des Moines Art Center, called “Wanderlust,” you can see all sorts of souvenirs from trips artists have taken, including a shopping-cart-size bundle of stuff Mary Mattingly dragged across a New Jersey bridge, more than 1,200 porcelain replicas of junk Marie Lorenz pulled from the Erie Canal, and – my personal favorite – photos of bugs that spattered across Greg Stimac’s windshield during road trips along the Pacific Coast Highway and Route 66.
The exhibition itself is a traveler, having originated last year at the University of Buffalo, and it explores how three dozen prominent artists have ventured outside their studios over the past 50 years to create artwork. There are 10 videos on display, including five in their own dimly lit viewing rooms, plus dozens of photos, a poem and a couple of sculptures.
Some of the pieces happen to be beautiful, but most were created as records of an experience rather than as aesthetic objects. So pace yourself, dear visitor: Your brain will work harder than your eyes.
“There’s a lot of detective work here,” University of Buffalo Art Galleries curator Rachel Adams said during the installation. Sometimes you have to look for clues to figure out exactly what was going on.
Consider the British artist Richard Long’s 1967 black-and-white photo “A Line Made by Walking,” which shows a straight path he trampled in a grassy meadow. It’s not much to look at, but it raises questions about the directions our lives can take and the traces we leave behind.
In a 2001 video called “The Great White Way,” the African-American artist Pope.L dons a Superman costume, minus the cape, and alligator-crawls all 22 miles up Broadway, from Manhattan’s southern tip all the way past Washington Heights. The camera catches the mixed reactions of passers-by – curious, troubled, indifferent.
In January a blind artist named Carmen Papalia called Art Center curator Jared Ledesma and asked him to walk through the museum and describe into an audio-recorder exactly what he saw. From the recording, Papalia wrote a poem and printed copies on big sheets of paper, which visitors are free to take.
The exhibition is big and varied enough that you’ll probably find some things that you like and some you don’t. With such conceptual artwork, a lot depends on the written descriptions that are posted near each piece and tend to be a bit dense.
One video is described as “simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, mundane and extraordinary, simple and complex, exhilarating and numbing.” Another video, shot from a canoe, resembles “a dérive, in the Debordian sense, [and] is then the river’s own psycho-geography, cataloging time through subtle and unexpected encounters with the terrain.”
OK, sure. But I still prefer the windshield bugs, partly because their description is so poetic. “Constellations of tiny bodies broken on glass” put “the human experience in perspective: a thousand lives lost for a road trip at night, a car rushing through the air, as others have done and will do, under an infinite sky.”
If anything, the show suggests that any trip can be meaningful if we take it intentionally and pay attention, whether it’s to the grocery store or another country. Just step outside.