Poetry in (Eco)motion: Prairie by Shawn Decker
On a visit to Chicago this month, I got to see and hear Shawn Decker’s Prairie at the Chicago Cultural Center, in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery. It’s a combination of sound sculpture and art installation, and it’s wonderful. When I went, there was a half-hour ballet in the space, On the Prairie: Elemental, a weaving of ten short dances by different choreographers into one phenomenal piece by the Elements Contemporary Ballet company. Yes, it was poetry in (eco)motion.
Decker’s Prairie is a set of metal rods that evoke tall prairie grasses. Each has a tiny motor and a tiny speaker, and together the rods emit tiny clicking and whirring noises that seem insect-like or wind-induced in their softness and apparent (technologically arranged!) randomness. It’s a lovely combination of sound and silence that, without an inch of nostalgia, creates an impression of a lost natural world. That is, the outdoors is implied indoors, the natural world is conveyed through technology and artifice, and an interior space reminds us of an exterior space with subtlety and restraint.
And, in my case, with dancers running through!
Before the dancers appeared, though, I had time to walk through the space in meditative silence. Other people were there, but there was a hush of mutual respect, with cell phones off, delighted children in sock feet, and a muffled human rustle that faded into the background, its own live soundtrack in harmony with the devised one. The sounds of Prairie came into the foreground, requiring attentiveness, sustained attention, a body/mind attuned to listening. The same is required for poetry, the writing of it, the reading of it. I could come up close and look at a tiny motor or stand back and gaze at the whole field. I could see each thing for what it was, a meticulous machine, or notice resemblances—first to grasses, yes, but the metal prairie “stems” also resemble tiny fishing rods that “catch” both silence and sound, silvery imaginary fish. Out on the prairie where I live, among cornfields, prairie restoration is ongoing, dotted by small ponds. So I felt at home away from home, a poet and prairie girl in the city, a natural woman in love with art. And, acutely, I felt like a sometimes alienated resident of the endangered planet Earth, since the exhibit invites us to contemplate how we engage with our environment.
Shawn Decker’s Prairie at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington Street) is up in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery until May 5, with a closing reception on Friday, May 3, 5:30—7:30 p.m. There are other dance and movement programs lined up in conjunction with the exhibit, as well as music, discussions, a terrarium workshop, and even mediation sessions, so check out the schedule of events in connection with Prairie by clicking the Cultural Center link below.
–Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor