Embodied Objects and Narrative Spaces:
The Work of Ingrid Lahti

by Leo Daedalus

Ingrid Lahti builds her installations and sculptures from evocative materials — tumbled Frazier River rocks, aluminum and cold steel, water, wind and heat, light and sound — but her medium is felt experience. Lahti deploys spaces, materials, and objects expressly to elicit bodily sensations and return us to the present moment.

We enter her work, literally or otherwise, to encounter not a gesture but the direct sense of ourselves, in context, as if revisiting a place buried in memory — a room from infancy, or the locus of a recurring dream. To the receptive participant, the experience is unsettling, provocative in its insistence on our embodied presence — real, complicated, often ambivalent or confused. Above all, we are emphatically not the abstracted observer: we bring ourselves wholly into the work, or we see nothing. The formal and conceptual rigor belie the bald truth that we are here in the flesh, in the marrow, whether we like it or not.

A dreadful curiosity compels us into the constricted entryway of Refuge, 1997, through the tortured execrations hissing from a lo-fi tape loop. Past a heavy curtain we enter the warm glow of a giant chandelier of amber globes, suspended over a full ton of strewn river rocks. The ambient soundtrack of a waterfall is soothing, but it is also Stygian. For the precariousness of our refuge hangs over the knowledge that we can only leave the same, harrowing way we entered. We emerge, finally, as from a Sophoclean play, implicated in a plot line carrying a cathartic potential.

Indeed, narrative is the other essential hallmark of Lahti's work. Her method is autobiography and self-inquiry, but as universal propositions: the artist's story provides the conditions for the propagation of the viewer's.

"Ingrid Lahti… has been able to expose herself more honestly than most artists. However, the integrity and honesty of her work does not equate with total disclosure because the viewer's act of interpretation precludes absolute understanding. Both inviting and denying us the right to see the work.... she successfully pulls us along her journey of suggestion and, on the way, encourages us to examine our own equally complex subterranean life. Her art points toward our common, complicit interiority."

— Carole Fuller, independent curator, July 1999

Over the past two decades Ingrid Lahti has created numerous site-related installations for galleries and alternative spaces in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, Chicago, and Bali. In 1991, one part of her two-room installation Wet/Dry rained for six weeks at the OK Hotel in Seattle, while the dry half languished in dust. In Chicago she built out Shelter and Shadow, 1995, four emotionally laden, interactive rooms for visitors to the ARC Gallery. In SKIN, 2005, at the Barefoot Studios in Tacoma, she presented the very visceral Squeeze, an interactive neoprene structure and video performance foregrounding the oft-repudiated ungainly side of our fleshly predicament.

Lahti’s sensitivity to place and its story translates naturally into her public artworks, such as the five-part sculpture Cairns, 2003, for the Convention Center Station in Tacoma, and the Chandelier of recycled globe lamps for Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. In 2002 she created the 9/11 Memorial for the Community of Bellevue on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The sculpture interacted with the environment, moving and shimmering in the wind, rain and sun, continually reflected in the water surrounding it. She worked with filmmakers to produce a short video of the sculpture, also titled 9/11 Memorial, which premiered October 10, 2004 at the Northwest Film Forum.

The purview of Lahti’s work continues to expand. Her narrative world has always encompassed natural protagonists in rocks, trees, landscapes and waterways. A recent series casts sonograms of birdsongs into sculptures that move in the wind. Hisselly Songs of an American Robin, 2005, currently installed at the Port Angeles Fine Art Center, translates three seconds of a robin’s song into undulating, light-reflective aluminum tags, giving a distinctly biodiverse form to Lahti’s already comprehensive sense of autobiography. The story — a gentle requiem for habitats and species lost — is told in this case by a bird, but, as with all of Lahti’s work, the experience is ours to populate.

Leo Daedalus, 2007