March 11, 2021
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Created by Brooklyn artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya (whose Connective Tissue filled the Barrick Museum in late 2019), Portone comprises five 10-by-10-foot metal squares connected by crossbars into a skeletal rectangle. As I tromp toward it, the piece suggests abandoned pipework, which chimes with the ruins of nearby Rhyolite, its aspect changing depending on your angle to it — now a sequence of squares, now a folded plane — until finally the squares cohere into a 30-foot hallway, beckoning you in. Portone means doorway in Italian.
If you go straight to it without stopping by the Goldwell office, you’ll probably have to enjoy Phingbodhipakkiya’s work purely on its visual terms, which is perfectly cool: walking through its hard, inorganic angles toward a neatly framed patch of the distant desert floor, blue ridgelines, and bluer sky, you’re inside a box but exposed to the world. Unlike the nearby pieces, Portone is purely nonrepresentational — it doesn’t offer the obvious critical-thinking entry points that an oversize naked cinderblock lady does. But since Portone does present an explicit act of passage and emergence, you sense that it has meanings encrypted behind some idea you can’t quite access. Maybe if, like Phingbodhipakkiya, you have a background in neuroscience — much of her artwork has a compelling STEM lean — you might grasp what otherwise must be learned from the artist’s statement posted in the office window:
“It is modeled after a beta sheet,” the statement says, “a critical substructure that makes up the protein catalase.” Catalase, we’re told, “converts caustic hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen” — fundamentals of life. Beta sheets? Catalase? Never heard of them. Perhaps someone can drop that knowledge a little closer to the artwork it unlocks?
Still, the artist’s conceptual intent now becomes clear: It’s a metaphor for purifying transformation, for turning toxins into necessities, and at the deepest interior level. Viewers are invited to tote all the divisive crap they’ve internalized from our debased political and social realms, from their own conflicted psyches, into the passage. Doing so, and this is the statement speaking, will figuratively “transform the noise and pain inside of us into life-altering strength.” As you step through the final frame, you’re released into the open desert, which represents “a more nurturing and unified world.”
Obviously, if you’re open to such speculations, dawdling mindfully in Portone can have an emollient effect on your 2021-battered limbics. If I didn’t find it exactly life-altering, I loved being encouraged to think and change in ways a lot of abstract art doesn’t attempt. And I felt a purr of intellectual ASMR at seeing art and science duet toward such a distinct and frankly hopeful meaning. “I’m obsessed with it,” a friend texted the other day.
(Not all of Phingbodhipakkiya’s conceptual thrusts worked for me. Her statement compares moving through Portone, “with an eye on the horizon,” to ascending Dante’s nine circles of heaven; to me that felt a bit glib and unsustained by the piece itself.)
Now, try this. Having worked through the piece and pondered its transformation aesthetics and emerged into the vast release of the desert, look back through it. There is Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada, the giant cinderblock nude — she’s so neatly framed it’s hard to imagine it’s not intentional, though nothing I’ve read about Portone mentions it. And if you’re still in high-concept mode, this immediate resituates the artwork as existing on a continuum of some sort: between nature (the desert) and nurture (those big square boobs)? Or between —
Oh, never mind. It’s funny, just roll with it.
Is Portone worth the two-hour drive? Fair question. I thought so, and not just because I’m getting reimbursed for the mileage. Thanks to the gray mental lividity of quarantine, I’m frankly in need of urgent high-end thought experiments like Portone, and especially in such an expansive setting.
"I AM GOING SLOW!" my partner replied. The windows were down, and the noise of the sedan on the graded road was jarring and graceless. We really needed a four-wheel drive.
"INCH IT!" I said, "OR WE'LL BLOW A TIRE!"
Wrong thing to say, but he eased up on the gas so we could converse without shouting.
"All we need now is a bust tire," he huffed. "Who'd find us way out here?"
I observed that we were in Lake Mead Recreational Area, not the middle of nowhere.
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"We don't have to stand on the lakeshore to see the conjunction," he said. "We can stream it."
No way was I going to stream a once-in-800-years phenomenon when it was present, live, ephemeral and all the more valuable for it. And manifesting on the solstice, no less. Anybody who read their December horoscope knew that the 2020 Great Conjunction was a big deal. Even people who dismissed the symbolic code of astrology acknowledged that something mighty was going on in the sky.
My partner steered around a deep gully. "We can see it in our backyard."
No, we couldn't see it from our backyard, a few miles from the Strip. The whole point of the outing was to observe the height of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in the desert without casino lights dimming the spectacle.
"There's no one out here," he grumbled. "Anything can go wrong."
I knew what was next—he was going to recount all the potential risks of being alone in the desert, culminating in a homicidal boogeyman lurking among the dunes.
Nature makes my partner uneasy. He grew up and lived in the great cities of the world: Buenos Aires, Beirut, Los Angeles, New York, D.C. I am a woman who wandered through the forests of Southern Illinois as a child before overlanding across the Sahara Desert as an adult. Who traversed Sudan, on foot and in vehicles, from South to North. Who climbed the Mountains of the Moon in Congo, explored Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. I know rugged. I know deserted. And I certainly know tires.
"Careful! If we sink into fine gravel, we'll get stuck."
Then we'd have to dig out the tires. And put large, flat rocks in front of them to drive over again and again until we were free, like I learned to do in Egypt. That would really make him go crazy.
"I think we should stop," he said. And stopped.
"Not here! Keep going!"
The tires spun, found traction, jerked forward.
"We should turn around," he insisted. "It's going to be pitch dark soon. What will we do if something happens?"
To avoid argument, I relented and we crept back up the track, but I convinced him to park before reaching the main road. We scoped the conjunction through binoculars, enjoyed a falling star. With the glow of Lake Las Vegas in the distance, my partner—who usually spends his time analyzing global economies—finally relaxed. He searched the sky for satellites. The faint odor of creosote wafted through the air. Saturn, the planet of limit, and Jupiter, the planet of expansion, shone like twin beacons of hope in a fraught universe. Society needed to shore up some areas, open up others. The conjunction, according to some, heralded a new era.
Then I heard — or thought I heard — a noise echoing in the desert.
"I can't see Saturn's rings," my partner said. "I thought you could see the rings through binoculars."
A crunching sound — regular, then halting. Then silence. Coyote? Something with weight, stepping on sand and gravel. I wanted it to go away, but the volume increased. Senses revving, I stared. The darkness coagulated into a silhouette.
"Someone's coming out of the desert!"
My partner was so engrossed in the stars that he hadn't registered the intruder.
A huge man stepped unhurriedly down a random desert slope beneath a halved moon. Like an apparition from a medieval primer, he was unnaturally tall and thin, wearing a long, hooded coat.
My partner put the binocs on the trunk of the car, freeing his hands.
Ominously, silently, the figure stepped toward the car with a robotic gait, the hood covering his head and obscuring his face. The Grim Reaper, incarnate.
I performed the lightning calculations of survival if he had a scythe. I'd have time to leap in the car—my companion wouldn't.
The man walked slowly to, then around, our vehicle, as if we were simply an impediment on an invisible trajectory across the Mojave. He gave us small berth, but never did the hood face our direction and reveal clues to his identity, to the uncanny mission of traversing the open desert, alone, at night. He vanished, unhurried, into absolute darkness, his footsteps stopping, then starting again, the sound diminishing until I couldn't hear it at all.
"Let's go," whispered my partner. "He may come back."
But I wanted the night to regain its majesty, to admire Jupiter's massive size against Saturn's more modest girth. I listened intently for footsteps as I lingered, hoping we were safe. In a parallel universe the Grim Reaper might have removed his hood and bid us a fine evening. Or auditioned for a slasher episode of True Crime. I'm not paranoid. I'm not.
"We should leave."
I stood my ground. My partner would probably resist walking the Sunset Park nature trail in the future, let alone hike a well-trod path in the Valley of Fire.
He opened the car door. "Ready?"
As soon as the tires gripped the asphalt, he turned on the radio, waiting for KNPR to mosey into range. On the way back to the city, we listened to SpaceX coverage and discussed the straws in Lake Mead. My partner is interested in nature; he just doesn't much like being in it. Then he said what I, too, was thinking: "That man in the desert was very odd."
"Just some hermit in a hood." Understatement was my only hope.
"And you wanted to go out there by yourself to see the conjunction."
I'd threatened a solo trip to Lake Mead, since Covid prevented me from rallying friends. That's why he'd come along in the first place. To protect me. To conjoin his Saturn limits with my Jupiter expansion.
"Can you imagine the risk if you'd been alone?"
Here it comes.
"It isn't safe out there."
City-boy comment, earned this time. But I tried to put the incident in perspective. "That was a one-off. Strange men in hooded cloaks don't step out of the desert at night—it just doesn't happen."
"You're gloating," I said.
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Marich stayed in LA, but he soon realized that acting was not the career for him. “After I got out of school and started auditioning, I was kind of like, well, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this whole rejection thing,” he says. While acting in a small role in a friend’s movie, he got the chance to work as a production assistant, and he decided that where he really wanted to be was behind the camera. He started making short films with friends, and in 2009 he shot his first feature film in LA. “That’s what I consider my film school, the epic failure of my first movie,” he says. “It was really learning what not to do and what to be prepared for.”
One of those lessons Marich learned was that in LA, everyone is an indie
filmmaker. “Here, if you’re working on a very indie level, you’re fighting an uphill battle because so many other people are doing that,” he says. “If you don’t have the money for permits and stuff, you’re kind of going by the seat of your pants, and there’s another 3,000 filmmakers here doing that.”
But on Marich’s home turf of Ely and the surrounding community, being a filmmaker is a rare thing. “I was home visiting, and it just clicked,” he recalls. “I was like, I have the most incredible resource right here in my front yard in White Pine County, Nevada. There’s everything I need there. And all the stories that I’ve really ever started to write naturally start there.”
So Marich, who still lives in LA, switched gears, and started making films at home in Northern Nevada. His fourth Ely-shot feature, the documentary-style thriller Horror in the High Desert, premieres this week at the second annual Ely Film Festival (which, like most events over the past year, will be held online).
The filmmaking environment in Ely could not be more different from the LA scene. “It was the most nurturing and uplifting experience, and it continues to be,” Marich says. “I feel like it’s a community that will open their arms to any filmmaker, not just someone who’s from there.”
Marich’s previous film, Reaptown, premiered at last year’s first annual Ely Film Festival, which eked out an in-person event just before Nevada’s stay-at-home order came down. “Showing it in my hometown at the theater I grew up going to was a really magic experience,” Marich recalls. “I was kind of scared to death, because it’s filmed there, and people in my hometown are so supportive and so proud of me.” For two years in a row now, a Marich feature has been the centerpiece of the Ely Film Festival, and he’s become sort of the unofficial filmmaker laureate of Ely.
“It was never a goal to be like, ‘I’m going to make all my movies in Ely,’” Marich says. But Ely has become his muse, and he has two more Ely-based projects (a slasher movie and a crime drama miniseries) lined up following Horror in the High Desert. “Every time I’m there, I get more and more ideas. I’ve got a book with about eight really solid productions that I cannot wait to complete there once this pandemic is over.” For Marich, Ely is not just a welcoming community; it’s also a cinematic wonderland. “It has this quality to it that would be really hard to recreate on a sound stage,” he says of the picturesque town.
So even though Marich will be participating in this year’s Ely Film Festival virtually from LA, he’ll be back in Ely (where his entire family still lives) soon, to shoot his next film or to teach the next generation of aspiring Ely filmmakers via an educational program started by the festival. For now, he’s just excited to share Horror in the High Desert with audiences in Ely and beyond. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made,” he says. “It’s the first movie I’ve made where I have zero insecurities about showing it to people.”
The Ely Film Festival takes place virtually March 12-14, $25. elyfilmfestival.com
Photos and art: Goldwell by Christopher Smith; So That Happened illustration by Christopher Smith; Dutch Marich headline and inset photos courtesy Dutch Marich
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