Like most contemporary art installations, Heather Parrish’s “Passages” is a piece that rewards patience and contemplation. The construction, which is on display in the Krasl Art Center’s Artlab gallery, requires just a moment to observe, but it asks much more of you than superficial observation.
The installation itself is simple. Squares of waxed paper are assembled into curtain-like sheets that hang, translucent and free-swinging, from the ceiling. Two sheets form walls that hang parallel to the side walls of the gallery, and a third sheet hangs perpendicular to the first two, like the cross bar of an “H.” This third wall curves away at its bottom from the entrance of the gallery, and a projected image of flowing water — accompanied by a low, rumbling sound — plays across it.
Parrish, who is a student in the Masters of Fine Art program at the University of Notre Dame, says her work is about “inhabitation,” and she defines inhabitation in terms of “interior and exterior, container and contained, host and hosted.”
In a basic sense, she’s exploring issues of space — the space created by her constructions, the space in which the viewer stands, and the relationships between those spaces and the spaces beyond the installation. It’s in the contemplation of these concepts that “Passages” has something to offer.
The installation certainly creates its own space within the gallery. Near the entrance, the sidewalls and the cross wall, with its projected moving image, form a sort of theater, encouraging you to simply stand inside and watch, but the inward curve of the cross wall creates a tantalizing space near the floor that nearly dares you to crawl under and into it.
There are more spaces to explore, though. Squeezing between the side walls and the gallery walls — an act that seems a little transgressive, but is perfectly acceptable — leads you through a narrow passage into an enclosed space at the back of the gallery. This space is an inversion of the theatrical space on the other side; here the cross wall curves toward you, and the space is private, secret. And as you move around the installation, the construction’s fragility becomes an obvious contrast to its architectural presence; the walls move in the breeze of your passing, and light makes its way through the translucent panels.
On a deeper level, Parrish wants “Passages” to address the exterior spaces around it through the imagery of water. She makes the connection to the St. Joseph River and its literal and symbolic implications. She notes that the river is a metaphor for a journey, and it does indeed link South Bend, where Parrish studies, and St. Joseph, where the installation stands, but more than that, the river defines both places; it is, indeed, the reason for both cities’ existence.
In its attempt to connect itself to the exterior, however, “Passages” is less obviously successful than it is in creating its own interior space. Parrish cites artists John Turrell and Olafur Eliasson as influences, but whereas both of these artists pull the outside world into their work via the intrusion of exterior light, Parrish’s “Passages” is self-contained in its windowless gallery, and it provides no obvious link between its recorded image of water and either the river or the big lake just over the bluff outside.
What matters is not whether or not the installation satisfactorily answers the questions it poses, but simply that it poses the questions in the first place. It’s not the kind of art that placidly gives you what you want. It makes you work for the answers — it even makes you work for the questions — and answers that you find for yourself are always more satisfying than answers that are handed to you.