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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Hole earth: A California artist sees virtue beneath the surface

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Angel Chen dug a scaled-down prototype of a project she plans to develop in the Yucatán jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado / Yucatán Magazine

In the California desert, Angel Chen’s white geodesic dome bubbles up from the ground. In Mérida, she’s taken the inverse approach. She’s going underground.

Angel is exploring a project to create an inhabitable subterranean dome scooped out from Yucatán’s jungle earth.

“This artwork is buried in the ground. Art made directly in the landscape. Sculpted primarily of its own material,” said Angel, who has dug a scaled-down prototype in her outdoor studio in the San Sebastián neighborhood. At first glance, it looks like a perfectly round hole revealing layers of earth and sediment. But its meaning runs deeper. The prototype initiates conversations about land use and our relationship to nature. Angel, who has degrees from UCLA and CalArts, was inspired by a 2006 pilgrimage to famous land-art sites such as Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels in Utah and Lightning Field in New Mexico. “This is my life’s work,” she explains. 

Next, she seeks land outside the city for stargazing at night, free of urban light pollution. 

California artist Chen with a rendering of her subterranean land-art project. Photo: Carlos Rosado / Yucatán Magazine

“I am excited to create this prototype here in the Yucatán. It was an idea and theoretical drawing until it came to life here,” Angel says. She is beaming, obviously still enthused after years of planning and labor.

“This prototype in the city was always meant to be temporary. The physical process taught me so much more than I could have imagined at a desk. Digging the hole, making mountains, and now restoring the earth by returning the displaced earth and rocks, filling the hole. It feels like I am not just working with nature, I am nature. Which is exactly the emotion I want the audience to experience.”

The Zen Dome and the underground “art experience” have one thing in common. As she told the Palm Springs Desert Sun: “It is essential to pay attention to nature and for us to be in concert with nature instead of fighting it.” 

“I don’t paint or decorate rocks,” Angel says. “They are beautiful as they are. I believe in respecting rather than dominating the natural world, approaching land as having inherent value.”

The earth implores us to kick off our shoes and connect our bare feet with the electrical charge of the earth’s surface. “Take off your shoes and you are earthing,” she says, and we comply.  “Getting your hands dirty is good for you. Soil is the beginning of life itself.”

The hole is Phase 1. In Phase 2, she plans to build the underground sleeping chamber. The Yucatecan hammock is the inspiration for a planned floating bed. And the rugged, native-stone bedrock creates a dramatic floor. Phase 3 camouflages it underground, where geothermal insulation maintains a cool, consistent temperature year-round.  

The Yucatán is ground zero. Sixty-six million years ago, the Chicxulub meteor extinguished most life forms, including 75% of plant life. When the dust settled, a whole new climate was born where humans could exist. That event was actually the beginning of life as we know it. 

“The experience hopefully impacts our modern culture’s behavior towards nature, building a relationship with the earth itself, feeling comfortable and supported, cocooned underground, attention guided towards the cosmos,” Angel says.

“Structure of the Impact,” Angel Chen’s exhibition of drawings, paintings, ceramic sculptures and photographic documentation of the site, is on view at the Olimpo Cultural Center starting Oct 27.

www.angel-chen.com, Instagram @angelchenartist

Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012.
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