July 12-18, 2002 | Philadelphia Citypaper [art]
Tree of Life
By Robin Rice

Keiko Miyamori
IMAGINA (2001-02)

Root, contaminants from the root (stones, bricks, glass, metal), water prism, swing and light.

In the Project Room's installation, Keiko Miyamori captures the spirit of the neighborhood in the roots of one of its trees.

In a neighborhood ripe for artistic development, Project Room is off the gallery-goer’s familiar paths, but in its three-year history, it’s attracted a substantial and diverse audience. The nonprofit space was established by Kait Midgett in a corner of her business Sculpture Lab, where she fabricates large objects (usually involving resin casting) for clients including artists Virgil Marti and Pepón Osorio. An installation artist herself, Midgett established Project Room in response to Philly’s lack of venues for site-specific installations. She says that once she accepts an artist's proposal (and a laughably small fee for expenses), "I don’t have any involvement in the process."

Project Room is open two afternoons a week (Wednesday and Friday) and by appointment – not unreasonable hours, but ones that discourage spur-of-the-moment visits.

"Where is it exactly?" a friend demanded when I told her I'd been there. She vividly described her search for the gallery on what she remembers as the hottest day of 2001. Finding herself bewildered and dripping with sweat in the same cul-de-sac for the third time, she gave up on Project Room and made her way to Anthropologie. There she bought a new outfit, which she wore out of the store and into a nearby bar for a refreshing drink.

This fashion denouement can be avoided (though it might be fun). Keeping in mind that elevated temperatures depress mental acuity, it's not that difficult to find Project Room, on Eighth Street near the southwest corner of Girard. The gallery's shiny white door attracts the eye. Ring a bell and you will be admitted.

It's cool enough and pleasant inside. You may even find the artist Keiko Miyamori in the gallery. Her installation IMAGINA centers on a tree root so imposing that it seems to crowd the available display area. This is partly an illusion occasioned by the expansive bristling character of the root, and partly by the powerful life force of tree roots in general. Resting at an almost vertical angle, the severed trunk of the tree, five feet in diameter, confronts visitors with aggressive angled cuts, which reflect the major branches of the root system. These hacked facets also imply the violent dismemberment of a living thing. In previous works, Miyamori, who typically uses wood in the form of roots and branches, presented blunt, cut stumps in a way that suggests a more cold-blooded mechanical severing.

Miyamori discovered this fallen tree following the dynamite implosion of the Cambridge Plaza Apartments, at 11th near Girard, in July 2001. A video made with Abbe Klebanoff documents her determined efforts to salvage the root system as a work of art, a project that drew in construction workers and neighborhood residents, emphasizing the living tree's role as a presence and symbol of community.

Miyamori's primary intervention with the root system involved cleaning. She gently freed chunks of debris from the grip of root tendrils capable of crushing cement, bricks, Coca-Cola bottles and still-shiny hunks of porcelain bathroom fixtures. Sorted materials gathered in by the tree's roots are displayed in piles on the floor of the gallery.

In previous installations, Miyamori placed a chair or similar made object on a human scale near the tree root. Here, a rope and branch swing hangs from the ceiling. Miyamori also hung a large 30-gallon water prism high above, where it casts a moving rainbow from around 2:20-2:45 p.m. and 3:15-3:30 p.m. on sunny days.

Of course the root itself dominates the space. Huge and shaggy and glistening with golden ruddy colors enhanced by a glossy finish that the artist applied, it does not look dead. It is a stunning demonstration of radical scale shifts from the monster conduit of the trunk to threadlike capillaries. It's intimidating and almost frightening.

Miyamori says she aimed for a scientific look in presenting the root in the gallery – a good choice. Photographs of earlier root installations show the tree roots dwarfed and isolated in large and rather industrial spaces. This one has a different, more intimate, casual feeling. She makes an explicit statement about her intention through a short sage-disciple dialogue presented as text. Though elegant in gray letters on the wall, the words did not really deepen the experience for me.

The video viewable in a nearby area includes footage of local residents reminiscing about the history of the Cambridge Apartments and commenting on the salvage of the tree as a project. Miyamori said that many residents who had known the tree in its former life attended the opening.

What is revealed in the microcosm/ macrocosm of IMAGINA is, on the one hand, the mirror of what has been discarded and, on the other, the visceral, secret, regenerative part of a being (the tree) without its festive public face. It is also a moving commentary on the loss inevitable in the "progress" of civilization.