Elizabeth Nields creates work that is monumental in its proportion, totemic in its nature, and both closed and open in its stance. Drawing from a self-composed and published mythology titled Elephant Temple, the artist’s sculptural series of the same name is inherently rich with narrative, and also with narrative potential; it is rooted in the fictional story of a 5,000 year old religion, and yet knowledge of this specific tale is not a prerequisite for meaningful engagement with the work. “Clay,” Nields says, “feels alive as one works with it.” That’s the feeling her completed pieces exudes as well; it is as if they are living artifacts of one of humanity’s oldest and most vital possessions—religion.
Spread throughout a sprawling wooded area of upstate New York, Nields’ Elephant Temple series consists of large clay works, both sculptural and architectural, that appear in varying states of ruin. Cracks, absent limbs, weathered surfaces, and crude building techniques all visually date this relatively modern temple complex. Monolith, for instance, is not even ten years old, yet with lichen on its base and with trees and shrubs encroaching from all directions, the work feels long abandoned not just as a functioning religious structure, but as an archaeological artifact as well. It is as if the complex has been unearthed by man, and now is slowly being buried again by natural processes. For us viewers, this seemingly precarious state of the work’s existence is precisely what makes it “feel alive.” Standing in front of each sculpture, we find ourselves peering into the distant past at the same time that we consider their distant future.
“it is as if the complex has been unearthed by man, and now is slowly being buried again”
Along with our sense of time, our sense of space is also broadened by Nields’ sculptures. We are walking through the woods and suddenly stumble upon something man-made. Immediately, we sense that the two—man and nature—are in communication; even without the Elephant Temple story, the spiritual dimension of the works are readily apparent. Their grand scale, elementary geometries, and cardinal orientation all work together to give us our contextual bearings. Yet this effect also dislodges us: here we’ve found clear evidence of a religion, yet a sect shrouded in ambiguity because it seems, along with the complex itself, long-abandoned by (and so now utterly devoid of) practitioners. Still, we search; and when we fail to find definite answers in the structures themselves, we adhere to them pre-existing notions that can be neither confirmed nor denied. We realize that this is the best we can do, and this impels us to empathy—to acknowledge without bias the existence (and pre-existence) of beliefs besides our own.
Discovering, viewing and running our hands over Nields’ works, we begin to find something strangely familiar, something both material and immaterial. An essence of a religion without any content, but somehow not just a void. Instead, Nields’ work acts as a kind of a vessel; in it, we find part of ourselves and realize it is that which humanity has shared for millennia. More precisely, we find that, empty of any specific belief, Elephant Temple is brimming with the universally shared system of belief. While the artifacts of religions and cultures are temporary and varied, the work reminds us that the questions they seek to answer and honor have not changed since time immemorial.