Interrogating the Archive

Kari Varner, whose work is on view in the 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum. Photo: James Byard.

Posted by Liam Otten June 30, 2017


What does an archive preserve? How long does knowledge last? And just how much can the human mind discern?

In The Missouri River 38.81408088787352, -90.12370347726687 and 38.815604433618454, -90.12407945049151, Kari Varner examines the resiliency of nature, the specificity of place, and the limits of our own perceptions.

Taking its title from GPS coordinates, the installation consists of three interrelated elements—a video, a digital print, and a six-foot-long glass water tank—all centering on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi.

"I chose that site because I wanted to reflect the context and community in which I'm making," said Varner, a 2017 MFA graduate of the Sam Fox School. "But I also was interested in this loss of identity." Though the Missouri is the longest U.S. river, the confluence—located a few miles north of St. Louis—represents the point at which the river is subsumed, physically and symbolically, into the larger Mississippi.

Last spring, Varner visited the confluence more than two dozen times, shooting exactly 1,000 photographs of the water's surface. To create The Missouri River, now on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, as part of the annual MFA Thesis Exhibition, Varner printed each frame onto thin organic paper, which she then submerged into the glass water tank. As the images disintegrate, bits of paper fall slowly away, forming a sort of photographic sediment—a process she documents in the accompanying video.

Finally, to create the digital print, Varner layered all 1,000 exposures in chronological order. The result is a cool, steely gray field of color, the dimensions of which approximate those of the glass tank. Filled with waves, ripples, eddies, and other watery details, the image represents a wealth of information that, paradoxically, is rendered impenetrable by its own density.

"I think a lot about the limitations of the archive," Varner said. "This piece is very much about describing a particular location, but the photographs are always mediated." As a viewer, "you're never really allowed to see them.

"Eventually the tank will resemble a riverbed," Varner added. And yet, ironically, the archive will in a sense remain preserved.

"The components are all still there."

The MFA Thesis Exhibition remains on view through August 6.