At Large  December 21, 2018  Lorissa Rinehart

Art from Scrap: Anne Percoco's Alchemy

All images courtesy the artist

Anne Percoco, Terrarium, 2014

Anne Percoco’s art is junk. Quite literally.
 
Reimagining Arte Povera for the Anthropocene, Percoco utilizes discarded materials and abandoned spaces in the built environment often regarded as worthless. But to her, it is precisely because these materials and places are overlooked that allow them to accumulate possibilities otherwise absent in traditional white box art. More than assemblages of society’s flotsam and jetsam, Percoco’s excavatory work reveals obscured layers of meaning beneath the rubble of commercialism, creating a complex lens through which to view the inherent interconnection between the human and natural worlds.

Indra’s Cloud

One of her earlier works in this vein, Indra’s Cloud, grew out of an Asian Cultural Council residency in Vrindavan, India. According to Hindu Vedic texts, it was in this small town on the Yamuna River that the god Krishna encouraged residents to question the primacy of Indra, god of storms and river flows. In response to this insult, Indra unleashed what seemed an inexhaustible storm that threatened to wash the town right off the map, so to speak. But ever compassionate, Krishna lifted the town above the deluge until Indra’s storm rained its last drop.

Located about a hundred miles downstream of Delhi, today Vrindavan is both a site of pilgrimage and intense pollution from urban and agricultural runoff.  Informed by both of these realities as well as the mythohistorical context, Percoco reimagined this foundational story as a contemporary allegory in Indra’s Cloud, a floating sculpture composed of over 1,000 discarded water bottles sewn together with scrap plastic rope and shaped around a small wooden boat. Launched on the Yamuna River, Indra’s Cloud became a potent symbol and physical manifestation of the extreme dangers of human-induced ecological degradation as well as a reminder of this knowledge that has been woven into religion, lore, and myth for eons and only recently forgotten.

Indra’s Cloud

In the past few years, Percoco’s work has evolved to include those plants commonly referred to as weeds that society regards as unwanted, if not contemptible. But Percoco has a different view of these plucky plants. “I’m really drawn to their scrappiness and ability to not only survive but also thrive in difficult conditions,” said Percoco. “So many of our cultivated plants do poorly unless we care for them in a very prescribed way, providing just the right amount of sun and water, and fighting pests and diseases on their behalf. But weeds will grow even though we’re poisoning and cutting them back. There’s something inspiring about their resilience.”

Percoco has integrated these plants into her work in a variety of forms starting with her 2014 installation, Terrarium that transformed ArtBloc’s shipping container/mobile gallery into a lush environment. But the installation bore little resemblance to what one imagines when thinking of “green space.” Composed of weeds evocative of The Little Shop of Horrors, magenta LED lights, and a site-specific sound installation by Michael Durek, Terrarium looks more like a post-apocalyptic disco than a peaceful park or tranquil garden.

Terrarium, 2014

This unlikely juxtaposition of urban flora and technology reveals the hidden shadow of curated green spaces that exclude and erase humans’ often deleterious effects on nature. Simultaneously, the work highlights the overlooked potential for resiliency in “junk spaces” such as parking lots, construction sites, and abandoned buildings that these plants most readily inhabit. Beyond novelty, Terrarium invites viewers to both figuratively and literally view these plants in a different light.

Percoco’s latest project, Parallel Botanies, on view at the Casa Colombo Gallery through February 2019 explores the possibilities that arise when these two types of junk - human and natural—converge. According to Percoco, the project started when she saw a collection of discarded pine tree air fresheners—a la NYC’s smelly cabs - intermingling with a pile of real leaves. “It just seemed like a great joke to me, like they were pretending to be real,” Percoco remembers. “And it struck me that, without meaning to, we’re inventing imaginary plants everyday. They're all around us, but we don't always see them.”

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

Parallel Botanies diptychs

From there, Percoco started creating paper-based collages from hyper-commercialized flora represented on advertisements, decorations, and processed food packaging. The result is oddly biodiverse landscape reminiscent of those conjured by Italo Calvino’s stories erring on the magical side of magical realism. Having reappropriated this imagery of nature from commercial products, Percoco effectively removes it from the sterile world of corporate advertising and places it squarely back in the realm of imagination. In so doing, Parallel Botanies reveals the possibility of fecundity in the most unlikely of places: the trash heap.  

Though her materials and subjects have changed throughout her career, one constant in Percoco’s work is its ability to transmogrify the worthless into the valuable. There’s a certain alchemy in this, but also a kind of radical empathy in appreciating the intrinsic value of that which society has written off as unwanted.

About the Author

Lorissa Rinehart

Nomad, author, curator, and amateur ethnobotanist, Lorissa Rinehart is currently wandering the streets of New York in search of interesting stories, art, and urban flora.  

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