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Encounters as difficulties (MCAM)


Courtesy of Katie Peterson & Young Suh

Visitors are encouraged to sit in the twelve replicas of Emily Dickinson’s writing desk and look through the artist books that range from fairy tales to a compendium of place names.  Each desk houses a plaster model of an item that can induce death. 

In an attempt to address the anxiety of living at a time of environmental crisis, artists Katie Peterson and Young Suh created an interdisciplinary exhibition that reflects feelings of difficulty that manifest in various tensions between humans and their environments.

Can We Live Here? Stories From A Difficult World is a collaborative effort between Peterson, poet and Professor of English at University of California at Davis, and Suh, Co-Chair of Art and Art History at University of California at Davis. The exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM) features endeavors into the role of humans in nature through photography, video and installation.

The exhibition includes performances, including disruptions staged by humans masked as donkeys seen during the opening reception of the show. Artists and musicians have asked to respond to the show in a performance scheduled on the evening of March 9.

In preparing the exhibition, Peterson and Suh began to discuss the function of the donkey, a re-occurring and shifting metaphor appearing in the show through various media. The donkey, as a beast of burden, grew across the poems and books, and into still and moving images. The experience with the animal became an imprint on these works.

“[The donkey is] the most beloved and mistreated animal in the world,” the artists said in the online Italian magazine Slow Words.

The show acknowledges the difficult emotional impact of living in a world of rising sea levels and carbon emissions elevated beyond what is sustainable.

“Maybe recognizing the difficulty of actually being in that environment and recognizing the harshness of that emotional state and the difficult sense of being by itself is a valuable thing,” Suh said.

However, solutions, while important, are not the only acceptable conversation on this topic.

“[In that emotional difficulty] you can probably find some humor and also you can let things go a little crazy, which we like to do,” Suh said.

Videos, exhibited in two black boxes mark a chance for the artists to shed the rigor of formal art education. Neither artist was trained to make films, offering a lot of freedom that developed into a particular humor nearing irony.

“I think the movies were actually sort of developed with that sensibility of ‘let’s try to let things go a little crazier and a little wilder than the books or the photographs or the poems,” Suh said.

Twelve artist’s books, each situated on an exact replication of Emily Dickinson’s writing desk, effuse an autobiographical tone that also reflects the show’s title “Can We Live Here?” Not only is the title an existential query, but also one of reality as Peterson and Suh traveled up the west coast from California to Alaska and found themselves living in environments of great beauty and great difficulty.

Suh and Peterson began to arrange commonalities in their experiences with nature. They lived together in both the desert of the east Sierras and in the Alaskan winter. Eventually, they found that these commonalities included ideas of difficulties, discomfort and the unfriendliness of harsh landscapes.

“The circumstance […] seems to be a common circumstance, or psychological circumstance, in imagining environmental crisis,” Suh said.

This difficulty, resulting from tension between an individual and their larger environmental circumstance, continues throughout the show.

“If you think about it, you have difficulty because you want something other than what is offered to you,” Suh said.

In this project, there is a marked departure from an authentic question regarding the history of landscapes and other surrogate conceptual focuses to one of simply trying to figure out the artists’ experiences in nature.

“Many experiences in nature have the advantage of making us feel small in body. A humility governs this in feeling, but there is also a managing on the human scale – a retrieval of the very idea of a human scale, something being constantly questioned in a big world,” Peterson said in an interview with Slow Words.

While visiting an artist’s studio, Stephanie Hanor, director of MCAM, hoped to see a provocative confluence of ideas and medium.

“What I am really looking for is the idea of the work and the work itself, the materiality and the experience of the work, to really come together in an interesting or profound way,” Hanor said.

MCAM is a place to engage with the dialogues and studies of the MFA students, but also with disciplines throughout the college.

“Part of [MCAM’s] mission is to be a laboratory of contemporary art practices,” Hanor said.

Visit for additional information about the upcoming performance and lectures related to Can We Live Here? Stories From A Difficult World.


Courtesy of Katie Peterson & Young Suh

The artists work with video, a medium unfamiliar to them, to find humor in their difficult encounters with the environment.