TAOS, New Mexico — The sky may be the most universal experience of humankind. Nearly a thousand years ago, the “great houses” at Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins, both in New Mexico, were aligned to track and highlight celestial events. The same basic idea is behind Debbie Long: Light Ships, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition, which pays tribute to the desert sky and its continuous but mercurial shifting of light.
Over the past decade, the Taos-based Long has outfitted two vintage RVs with hundreds of cast glass pieces that collect light from the sky via a transparent ceiling. Inside the pristine white chamber of “Willa,” stationed outside the Harwood Museum of Art, viewers lounge in cream-colored beanbag chairs for a one-hour immersive viewing experience (no phones or recording devices are allowed). Clouds pass overhead, light trickles from sunrise to sunset to twilight to moonlight, and every movement of the sky orchestra flickers in the handmade glass pieces. Like many of the most successful Light and Space pieces, “Willa” and her predecessor, a trailer called “Naima,” rely on the simplest of gimmicks: light collection.
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Inside the museum, a short video acquaints viewers with “Willa” and its relationship to the land. Long says the ideal viewing experience of one of her “light ships” (a wordplay on the Earthship houses that dot the Taos Mesa) involves a trip to the isolated desert landscape where it will be at least semi-permanently installed. “For me, it’s not a regional piece,” she tells me. “Once you’re inside, it almost doesn’t matter where you are. You go somewhere else. But placing them in the landscape, my intention is for the RV to be someplace you need to travel to, so that slowing down and remoteness is part of the whole experience.”
An interior, site-specific museum installation is meant to re-create the night-sky experience of “Willa” and “Naima.” A white cube built within a box with removable transparent panels collects light from the museum’s windows, bouncing it down into the chamber, just as the aluminum framework inside the RVs and a thick polycarbonate roof panel help to gather illumination. The result is a muted and moodier experience of watching light filter through the glass orbs than in the RV outside.
About those orbs: They’re crafted via a lost-wax casting process during which each mold is annihilated in the firing process, making every piece unique. Long says her process of building each glass piece into the RV is intuitive. “I started up in one corner and composed my way out, placing glass and grinding light holes by hand,” she explains. “I built it almost like you build a drawing.”
Filled with amber light, the small glass clusters resemble globs of honey dripping from the ceiling — or malformed stalactites, or an oozing rash. But around the time you start speculating on what exactly they look like, gazing up from your beanbag perch, the light changes almost imperceptibly, shifting in the glass, moving your eyes around the shape of new forms and shadows. That’s when you realize the glass is only a vehicle for the main event. Inside this chamber, you’re beholden to the sun or the moon — using the sky as their canvas — to shift your experience. “It’s a slow read,” Long says in the video.
It’s possible to see a Light and Space lineage in Long’s work. Having moved to Taos in the early 1990s, she befriended artists Larry Bell and Ron Cooper. For a time, “Naima” was stationed in Bell’s yard, and it saw its first installation in a dry lakebed as part of High Desert Test Sites 2013, in the Mojave Desert. But Long also says the work benefits from her long relationship with the vast landscapes and uninterrupted skies she got to know as a child growing up in New Mexico.
Long is emphatic that Light Ships is not meant to be experienced in 10- or 15-minute glimpses, and the Harwood is offering periodic ticketed sunset viewing experiences of “Willa,” led by the artist herself. Viewers report that at twilight, the ceiling of a light ship recedes into nothingness, leaving only the floating glass to fix your eyes on. It sparks a meditation on the passage of time in a day, on the subtle sway of light and darkness and our up-to-the-minute experiences of both. Sitting in a dimly lit RV, feeling minutes pass around me in the muted outside world, I can’t help but think of lockdown, quarantine, and social distancing, people alone in their own quarters. All around me, inside “Willa,” the world recedes into precise but ever-shifting measures of light, space, and color. Stepping outside, I’m newly grateful for the suddenly gigantic, impossibly bright sky.