On a recent Saturday afternoon, Megan Berner and I carpooled up to Virginia City to look at her exhibit, Umwelt, in the Silverland Gallery. Berner is a Reno-based artist, a photography instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a contributor of arts writing to this newspaper. I had missed the opening reception of Berner’s show, but after a few minutes in the gallery, I was glad I’d missed the opening because this is the kind of exhibit best viewed alone, or with a small group, rather than during the boozy bustle of a busy reception.
The exhibit consists of two parts: “Umwelt” and “The Explorer Series: Arbitrary Territories.” The two installations are separate and distinct, installed in two different rooms of the attic gallery space, but thematically related. “The Explorer Series” is a collection of cotton flags and photographs of flags staked at strategic locations throughout the region, like Death Valley and Pyramid Lake. Each flag is individually tailored for each location, with a unique color scheme and design, though each features an eight-pointed star.
The flags are Berner’s cheeky response to the practice of using a flag to mark and claim an area of land.
A placard in the gallery lists Merriam-Webster definitions of the words used in the exhibit: “Arbitrary 1. Depending on individual discretion and not fixed by law.” A word that many of us might think of as synonymous with random actually represents personal choice.
“I’m really into words,” said Berner.
Berner’s interest in language might explain why she’d be willing to title a show Umwelt. Umwelt is a German word that translates as “self-centered world.” It’s a term sometimes used in biology—Berner first encountered it in a book by environmental writer Barry Lopez—to describe the subjective way an animal views its own surroundings.
Berner also really likes the look and sound of the word: “Even if you don’t know what it means, it makes you sort of curious.”
“Umwelt” includes a beanbag sitting area across from a projected video. The video features the shadow of a truck, fluctuating in size and shape as the truck drives up the central Nevada stretch of U.S. Hwy. 95. The video was clearly shot looking out of the passenger’s window—a side review mirror is occasionally visible—and it’s evocative of the thoughtful feeling a passenger might have during a long drive across the Nevada desert.
The video is accompanied by sound: a light, feathery, flickering sound punctuated by an occasional percussive burst.
“Do you have any ideas what it is?” Berner asked me. We were lying on the beanbags, and watching the video.
I listened closely and thought about it for a minute, before suggesting, “It’s a flag blowing in the wind.”
“No, but that’s a good guess. It’s a moth in a jar.”
It was only after she identified the sound that the rest of the installation came into focus for me: a swarm of white, life-size origami moths suspended from the ceiling.
Berner looked incredibly relaxed sprawled out on the floor, her head resting on a cushion. She said that the shadow of the truck reminded her of a buffalo.
“I’m interested in wallowing,” she said. “And it’s something that buffalos do. They wallow.”
“What’s wallowing?” I asked.
“It’s kind of what we’re doing right now. Lounging in a state where you’re able to let your mind wander. … Lying around and daydreaming is like the most productive thing you can do, I think. That’s where you come up with all the great ideas.”