PORTLAND, Oregon — “Now, you’re dead inside,” the gallery assistant said. I looked out, from inside the chain-link fence pen that surrounded me, startled until I saw the subtle smirk creep across her face. I knew “Dead Inside” was the name of this artwork by Portland artist Heidi Schwegler installed in Clatskanie, Oregon’s defunct hardware store. But, for a moment, it felt like the young intern standing on the other side of the fence, outfitted in a trucker hat and muscle tank, had somehow recognized a latent fear of mine: that I would someday fail at my life and end up in a small town like this, and that it would leave me feeling dead inside.
Clatskanie was the first place I stopped when I drove down from Seattle to see the Portland 2016 Biennial, for which curator Michelle Grabner and organizer Disjecta gathered the work of 34 Oregon artists in 25 spaces throughout the state for most of the summer. The Hazen Hardware store’s sign was impossible to miss as we pulled into the small, Main Street-esque strip of the town of just under 2,000 people. The structure of “Dead Inside” is pressed up to the storefront entrance so that as soon as I walked into the space, I immediately had to decide between opening the latch and entering the pen or awkwardly maneuvering around it — an experience of the forced, limited options I associated with small town life.
Schwegler’s other sculptures rested throughout the storefront, among a pungent scent of dust, as if they were left behind after Hazen exhaled its last breath. A pair of shiny, silver paint cans pulverized with holes perched together on an empty shelf like taxidermied lovebirds. A pillow encased in wax slumped against the floor, its texture spiny and rough, as if white barnacles had grown over its hope of ever cradling someone’s head. A plume of fake ficus tree branches bound into a bouquet and drenched in midnight-blue roofing tar, called “Phantom Limb,” hung chandelier-like, over the room’s center. The sculpture’s thick darkness hovered over the beige and gray space, embodying the way absence lingers — and the way trying to avoid it becomes impossible if our senses don’t comply.
When I walked through “Dead Inside” once more, on my way out, I wondered if the other people who experienced the installation — mostly locals that day, who spoke of the JC Penney and the furniture store that had also once occupied the space — felt dead inside. Or, if the temporary art exhibit looked too much like the other temporary things they had watched come and go here over the years to affect them.
I drove out of Clatskanie along a two-lane highway lined with the Queen Anne’s lace and logging supply stores and deer grazing in the vacant patches that had been cleared of their evergreens. I also witnessed the Trump signs so foreign to the places I was used to spending my time, popping their promises along the road. I still didn’t believe them, but if I spent my days surrounded by empty storefronts and farmhouses collapsing in on themselves, I suspect I would seek drastic change wherever I could find it.
The signs disappeared when I pulled into Portland, where I was suddenly surrounded by the 10 biennial venues cast about the city. Most are group shows in more typical gallery spaces, but one exhibit brought back the unease I’d felt on the road: a motorcycle, a baby pram, DJ equipment, and a refrigerator. In the residential garage of curatorial collective Cherry & Lucic, I approached a circle of twentysomethings standing in the driveway holding beer cans, in fear that I had mistaken a house party for the art space. But then, Eleanor Ford, one of the collective’s members, approached and confirmed that the garage was a Biennial venue, though the group had initially submitted their application as a joke.
Once they were accepted, Cherry & Lucic used the opportunity to restage British artist Merlin Carpenter’s 2015 “Poor Leatherette,” an installation of the four luxury items that referenced capitalism’s irreverence. But, instead of the new objects Carpenter included, the collective found used versions on Craigslist and elsewhere, nodding towards the economic reality of being a small-scale art space. I recognized the jaded frustration that lay beneath both the joke and the restaging, from similar residential spaces that appeared in post-recession Seattle. But, many of those spaces have since closed or fled to more central art cities. Combined with the recent shuttering of several of Seattle’s more conventional, longstanding storefront galleries, Cherry & Lucic’s gesture against the system via art that points directly at its unsustainable flaws resonated. The point was brought home when I made my way to the nearby Biennial venue White Box gallery during its regular hours and found the door locked — a reasonable response to hours of sitting alone in a storefront and concluding that no one else is coming.
I didn’t want to make the same mistake the next day, when I drove an hour and a half to my final biennial stop, in The Dalles. So, I called ahead before I pulled onto the highway that runs beside the Columbia River gorge. As I moved along the gleaming river, I could see why Lewis and Clark were drawn this way, and why Carleton Watkins boarded a steamship in 1867 to take his mammoth photographs of the daunting, clay-colored crag chunks that loomed overhead. And, what brought so many wind and kite surfers here now, to fly their neon sails on sunny July days, like they did the morning I passed through. Feeling more like I was en route to a trailhead than an art exhibit, I could see the appeal of this kind of remoteness, immersed in a landscape so distinct that it made city life easier to forget.
When I arrived in The Dalles, the largest city along the Columbia River outside of the Portland area, everything in town was closed, because it was Sunday. Dylan McManus, an artist living in the area, had to come down from his farm in the hills to let me into the Biennial space — a building from 1891 that began as a modest opera house. Portland artist Midori Hirose incorporated that past into her immersive installation, hanging a constellation of speakers from the ceiling that emanated a sedate chorus of hums. Recorded from the voices of local volunteers, the wordless soundtrack resonated most when I stood before vinyl remnants Hirose had rescued from Cascade Record Press, melted down and reconstructed into small, contorted, black masses that reminded me of Heidi Schwegler’s “Phantom Limb,” back in Clatskanie. Hirose’s sculptures are the size of balled fists that she attached to the ends of rotating clock arms. As the vinyl masses circulated clockwise, in silence, it felt as though they were resisting their fates by trying to play. The hums echoing through the space from digital tracks brought out the way records have become fetishized objects that time has rendered needless but whose physical presence people continue to crave.
On my way out, McManus told me how he and his wife had moved to The Dalles two years earlier from New York, to start a small residency program on their farm, and invited me up to see it. As we drove to the house in the hills overlooking the city, I thought of how strange it must be to create art in such a quiet part of Oregon. McManus explained how, after funding from a philanthropist fell through, purchasing the farm from his wife’s family and initiating a Kickstarter campaign became the best way to start the residency they’d initially planned on the east coast. Our conversation was cut short when the family had to get ready to leave for the local farmer’s market, an essential part of the artist’s rural life. As I walked out, past their idyllic view of the city, the valley and the Columbia River, I wondered if this quieter kind of artistic lifestyle wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.