Debbie Long turns motorhomes into ships of light

Light Ship “Naima” set in the remote landscape of New Mexico (courtesy Wendy Shuey)

TAOS, New Mexico — The sky is perhaps humanity’s most universal experience. Nearly a thousand years ago, the “great houses” of Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins, both in New Mexico, were lined up to track and highlight celestial events. The same basic idea is behind Debbie Long: Light Shipsthe artist’s first solo museum exhibition, which pays homage to the desert sky and its continuous yet mercurial shift of light.

Over the past decade, Taos-based Long has outfitted two vintage motorhomes with hundreds of cast-glass pieces that collect skylight through a transparent ceiling. Inside the pristine white bedroom of “Willa, stationed outside the Harwood Museum of Art, viewers lounge in cream-colored bean bag chairs for an hour-long immersive viewing experience (no phones or recording devices allowed). Clouds pass overhead, light streams from sunrise to sunset, dusk to moonlight, and every movement of the sky’s orchestra sparkles in the handmade pieces of glass. Like many of Light and Space’s most successful pieces, “Willa” and its predecessor, a trailer called “Naima,” rely on the simplest of gimmicks: light gathering.

Guests gathering outside ‘Willa’ during the public opening of Harwood (courtesy Andrew Yates)

Inside the museum, a short video familiarizes viewers with “Willa” and her relationship to the land. Long says the ideal viewing experience of one of his “lightships” (a pun on the Earthship homes that dot the Taos Mesa) involves a trip to the remote desert landscape where it will be set up at least semi -permed. “For me, it’s not a regional piece,” she told me. “Once you’re inside, it doesn’t matter where you are. You go somewhere else. But by placing them in the landscape, my intention is that the RV is somewhere you have to go, so that slowing down and being away is part of the whole experience.

An indoor, site-specific museum installation is intended to recreate the night sky experience of “Willa” and “Naima”. A white cube built in a box with removable transparent panels collects light from the museum’s windows, bouncing it into the chamber, just as the aluminum frame inside the motorhomes and a thick polycarbonate roof panel help to gather light. The result is a duller, moodier experience of watching light filter through glass orbs than in VR outdoors.

Debbie Long, “Willa (interior)” (2015-2020), RV, light, glass, 26 x 8 1/2 x 10 feet (courtesy the artist)

About these orbs: They are made through a lost wax casting process in which each mold is annihilated during the firing process, making each piece unique. Long says his process of building each piece of glass in the RV is intuitive. “I started in a corner and dialed my way, 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 clumps of glass look like balls of honey dripping from the ceiling – or malformed stalactites, or an oozing rash. But just as you start to speculate on what exactly they look like, gazing up from your perch, the light shifts almost imperceptibly, moving through the glass, moving your eyes around to form new shapes and shadows. That’s when you realize the glass is just a vehicle for the main event. Inside this chamber, you are beholden to the sun or the moon – using the sky as your canvas – to change your experience. “It’s a slow read,” Long says in the video.

Debbie Long, “Naima (interior)” (2012-2015), VR, light, glass, 18 x 7 1/2 x 9 feet (courtesy the artist)

It is 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 parked in Bell’s yard, and it saw its first setup in a dry lake bed as part of the 2013 High Desert Test Sites, in the Mojave Desert. But Long also says the work benefits from her long relationship with the vast landscapes and unbroken skies she came to know when growing up in New Mexico.

Long insists that light ships is not meant to be experienced in 10 or 15 minute glimpses, and the Harwood offers periodic paid sunset viewing experiences of “Willa”, led by the artist herself. Viewers report that at dusk, the ceiling of a light ship recedes into nothingness, leaving only the floating glass to fix your eyes on. It prompts a meditation on the passage of time in a day, on the subtle sway of light and darkness and our minute experiences of both. Sitting in a dimly lit motorhome, feeling the 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 neighborhoods . All around me, inside “Willa, the world recedes into precise yet ever-changing measurements of light, space, and color. As I step outside, I’m newly grateful for the suddenly gigantic and impossibly bright sky.

Artist Debbie Long outside of “Willa” during the opening to the public of Debbie Long: Light Ships at the Harwood Museum of Art (courtesy Andrew Yates)

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