What lies beneath? A new Nasher artwork follows an underground stream in Dallas
The Nasher Sculpture Center's current show, "Groundswell: Women of Land Art," is a milestone exhibition showcasing contemporary land artists, ones who've been more or less overlooked or forgotten (land art is also known as "Earth art" and "environmental art").
The women have generally worked in the shadow of male artists, notably Robert Smithson ("Spiral Jetty"). Nonetheless, they pioneered using dirt, water, sunlight, air, fire, mirrors, even explosives to work on a large scale, outside regular gallery spaces, to work directly with our natural - and unnatural - environment. Over the past several decades, they've created sculptures, parks, installations, entire landscapes.
A new, commissioned artwork in the Nasher show traces one part of Dallas' environment that most likely, you've never seen: a stream buried under downtown.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Tamara Johnson and Trey Burns gathered together the 15 people who were going to follow them on a walking tour across downtown.
"So we're going to pass out a little map," Johnson said through her portable PA system. "It goes over the places where we're going to stop on the walk today."
The walk is roughly three miles long. It'll go from the Arts District, through downtown, past the American Airlines Center, under I-35 and into the Design District, then finally — through a parking lot — to the Trinity River.
The tour leaders, Johnson and Burns, are co-founders of the Sweet Pass Sculpture Park in West Dallas. Commissioned by the Nasher for this project, the two have worked with one of the show's trailblazing artists, Mary Miss, to research this route, the path of an underground stream called the Dallas Branch. (There's another, shorter tour that travels in the other direction — following the stream to its origins.)
As a land artist, Miss has done everything from sculptures to citywide projects involving greenspaces. One ongoing concern has been water.
"I've been working on a project about a buried stream called Tibbets Brook that's actually going to be brought to the surface up in the Bronx," she said. "They call it 'daylighting' a stream, having a stream see the light of day."
So when curator Leigh Arnold told Miss there's a stream, called the Dallas Branch, under the Nasher -- she was immediately interested. In New York City, subway stations, even basement apartments sometimes flood during rains. They're built on top of creekbeds.
Dallas was also built over a network of such creeks. In fact, in 1911, the city's original urban planner, George Kessler, envisioned the city being organized around several of the streams — expanded and softened with boulevards and parks much like Turtle Creek. And several of Kessler's ideas were even adopted, including Reunion Station and Turtle Creek.
But then the automobile intervened. And Dallas became more invested in building highways, office towers, suburban developments and more levees. Especially levees. A 1908 flood nearly destroyed Dallas — that's why Kessler was originally hired to re-design the future city.
The Trinity River — and its many creeks — have been unpredictable because of the area's soil and weather. Simply put, North Texas waterways are often unable to handle the extremes of heat and downpours. The soil — baked hard, undergirded by bedrock and often resting on a relatively flat incline — can't absorb or disperse the rain fast enough.
So all that water is going to get to the Trinity somehow.
Floods have been such a fact of life here, in 1929, T-Bone Walker made his recording debut singing about it:
That dirty Trinity River
Sure has done me wrong
That dirty Trinity River
Sure has done me wrong
It came in my window and doors
Now all my things are gone.
Today, unbeknownst to most Dallasites, the basements of many downtown buildings —especially underground parking garages like the ones for the Dallas Museum of Art and the Trammell Crow Center — are equipped with sizable sump pumps to keep the lowest levels dry. In 2009, before the Wyly Theatre opened, KERA News toured the building's lowest level — to see the pumps in action.
Mary Miss was quickly intrigued by Dallas' underground water.
"I really am interested in how we can engage people with the land around us and make people aware that this template that nature has laid down continues to impact us today," she said.
Miss' artwork at the Nasher is 'Stream Trace: Dallas Branch Crossing.' It's made of rows of large X's that resemble railroad crossing signs -- but they're as shiny as mirrors. They're meant to suggest sunlight sparkling on water, the water that once flowed there.
Mary Miss has basically 'daylighted' the Dallas Branch.
"I wanted to do a project that allows this stream to be resurfaced metaphorically, visually," she said, "and take people out to see where it used to be."
That second part of the project -- the 'taking people out to where the water was' part -- that's this, the walking tour.
On the walk, we occasionally did go 'underground' — as when Burns and Johnson led the group into the Dallas Pedestrian Network, the haphazard labyrinth of tunnels that connect many of downtown's office buildings and are mostly empty on weekends. Envisioned in the '70s as a kind of 'alternative downtown' that would help office workers interact and have lunch while escaping the city's blistering sunlight, the tunnels were later called the "worst urban planning decision that Dallas has ever made" by then-Mayor Laura Miller. They drained away much of the city's visible street life.
Appropriately for the walking tour, the one place the group visited in the underground had a small gallery featuring photographs by Seth Casteel. All of them were of dogs swimming underwater.
But any actual water encountered along the tour was either splashing in public fountains or hidden down in storm drains. Fittingly, along the way, the sidewalks and a number of the storm drains were marked by stripes of blue spray paint. Miss had painted them — to indicate the original path of the Dallas Branch.
Having trekked into the Design District, the tour group made one last effort — climbing to the top of the Trinity River levee, near where the Dallas Branch once emptied out.
"We have finally arrived at the Turtle Creek Pressure Sewer and have a great view of the Dallas floodway," Johnson said.
The two tour leaders had stashed a cooler with cans of water and beer as a reward. We drank and took pictures, while standing near a blocky, concrete and steel structure with fencing and barbed wire and a sign announcing we were standing next to the "City of Dallas Flood Control District. Authorized personnel only."
Mary Miss' achievement - highlighting a buried stream that can be found on old maps -- may not seem like much. But unknowingly, we Dallasites walk over long-lost creeks every day. They're part of the huge flood control system that Dallas has built up over decades -- with levees, pumping stations, storm drain tunnels and giant underground reservoirs.
Miss' point is we have utterly transformed and developed this entire North Texas landscape. Suburbs, airports, office towers.
But all that rainwater still has to get to the Trinity.
- The last "Stream Trace Walk"from the Nasher Sculpture Center is Dec. 17
Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.
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