Cherish Marquez’s “Voices in the Desert” at Union Hall is the future of art

Is Cherish Marquez the future of art? And are the screen-driven, reality-augmented pieces she is currently exhibiting at Union Hall part of an evolution that will eventually turn all of the art we enjoy digital?

It’s not such a stretch when you consider how much of our lives take place solely on electronic devices now. Would it really be a jump if fabric canvases, with their permanent pictures, morphed into glass-faced monitors where the visuals are in constant motion?

Digital does offer endless creative possibilities, and Marquez’s show, “Voices in the Desert,” exploits several of them, including multi-channel videos, various sound components, and QR codes that allow visitors to download phone-friendly filters that make it seem as if they are walking right inside a work. In one impressive case, there’s a workable video game that doubles as an interactive piece of art.

The show, curated by Ari Meyers, is challenging and immersive in all the right ways and we’re sure to see more of its kind ahead as digital art climbs out of the specialty niche it now occupies. One reason is that mainstream galleries like Union Hall are willing to book them, a real commitment that requires maintaining complicated, high-tech equipment for the length of the show’s run and training the staff to operate it — and then show clueless visitors how to operate it.

Another is because the art world, especially the art market, is suddenly embracing digital with vigor, even if art patrons might be a little intimidated. Marquez recently became the first digital artist of her kind selected for a residency at RedLine, a true show of support for the e-genre from Denver’s premier benefactor of up-and-coming artistic talents.

Then there is the academic angle. She’s also a graduate of the University of Denver’s Emergent Digital Practices masters program, which is now churning out scores of artists with skill, ambition and no intention of ever picking up a paintbrush or a chisel.

But the future of art? Probably not entirely, and even Marquez believes that. People like to touch and hold and walk around things and see their dimensions from various angles. She envisions her work as one of art’s paths forward, though not the only one.

“Voices in the Desert” asserts as much. It has both physical and digital elements and Marquez works them together to evoke an earthy landscape where, like the small West Texas town she grew up in, environmental challenges are extreme.

The voices in this show, at least metaphorically, emanate from the natural elements — plants, trees, dirt, hills, stones  — that have been contaminated with industrial waste and other pollutants, part of the “environmental racism,” as she calls it out, that has wealthier places dumping their waste in places with less political influence, namely in communities in proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Marquez wants us to hear them, the sound of their suffering, but also the stories they hold about the planet’s history and its will to survive. She does this by presenting them in various ways.

The easiest to grasp, and the most visually appealing, comes from the piece titled “The Others,” which greets visors as they enter the gallery. For this, Marquez arranged organic debris, including dried yucca stalks and seed pods from the scraggly plant known as devil’s claw, into an orderly and symmetrical wall installation. The piece highlights the surprising beauty of plant parts we would normally think of refuse and positions the objects as something that should be studied and respected as serious objects. Elevated to the level of art, we see their connection to each other, and possibly to us.

From there, she goes into a more spiritual realm as the show progresses, thanks to her digital work. The shape of the devil’s claw and other organic forms are reimagined in videos that set them in motion within a dark environment that resembles deep space. The plants here seem to be showing us supernatural powers and asking us to consider them deeply as objects in a timeless universe.

For some of the pieces, the QR code allows visitors to immerse themselves deeper, though that requires viewing the objects through the phone and activating custom filters that add extra dimensions to the scene. This is an optional act — you can appreciate the pieces without the technology — but it is helpful for perceiving the deep personality Marquez seems to want to instill in them.

One example is the installation titled, “A Piece,” which Marquez has spread out in another section of the gallery. It consists of an actual metal drum, the kind used to seal off and store contaminated waste, which she has set in a shallow field of sand. It’s a bit ominous on its own.

Though again, the artist offers us a dual way of looking at her work by adding a QR code. Point your phone’s camera on it and tiny, animated barrels show up in the scene and appear to be falling from the sky. We see the act of dropping waste willy nilly into the barren landscape as a common and continuing occurrence.

There is something both high-tech and low-tech in the way this unfolds. It takes some know-how to program these filters, and they do feel cutting-edge. But the animation itself is somewhat primitive — more like first-generation Donkey Kong video game and less like the slick, green-screen enabled, pop-cinema tricks common in current superhero movies. Some people will be impressed by the special effects, some surely won’t.

Same with the video game, which invites players to explore similar themes of unnatural disaster using a mouse which is rolled over a topographic map made of textiles and which invites the operator to “walk towards various landmarks to look into the consciousness of plants and the land.” For some that will be an easy task; others will just be challenged to get the thing working (It’s generational; just be patient, because it’s not that hard).

But the quality of the special effects is not what makes them valuable in “Voices in the Desert.” It is more about how Marquez puts them at the service of her mission to help us become one with the landscape that is threatened.

She is not using them to thrill us; just the opposite. She only wants us to see these natural entities as more than their cellular shells and to acknowledge their metaphysical potential. We don’t have to actually accept that devil’s claw has a soul and a will of its own, just that nature is a powerful force that demands our care. The way we respond to its needs reflects the way humans use their power to hurt and help themselves and each other.

The filters may not be necessary, but they are effective and engaging enough to move us beyond questions of where art’s future is headed, at least when we are in the midst of them at Union Hall.

And, of course, the delivery of this art form will never go fully digital (though people said that about music and then vinyl records and then compact discs went away), but this show makes it easy — even for resistors —to be open to a different kind of future, one where exhibitions can offer bigger surprises, some with the potential to entertain and enlighten us in richer ways.

“Voices of the Desert” continues through Jan. 8 at Union Hall, located inside The Coloradan building at 1750 Wewatta St. It’s free. Check the gallery website for holiday hours. Info at 720-927-4033 or unionhalldenver.org.

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