Gallery view of “Trash Cairn” by Rachel Schmidt (2019)
Gallery view of “Trash Cairn” by Rachel Schmidt (2019)

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Since prehistory, humans have had a tendency to mark and remake the landscape. One such ancient way is a cairn, an intentional pile of stones often assembled, among other reasons, for wayfinding or to commemorate a loss.

At Hamiltonian Gallery, Rachel Schmidt’s Cairn Sounds is comprised of five interrelated sound and video installations, made in collaboration with musician om.era.kev. The exhibition pieces together a landscape that’s locationally distinct but uncanny: clouded sky; rocks rearing through grass and heather moor; sheep idling around, and the occasional patch of obfuscating glitch.

All the video in Cairn Sounds was captured while Schmidt was an artist-in-residence at a Sabhal Mòr Ostaig—a college for Gaelic language, culture, and arts—on the serene Isle of Skye, Scotland, last summer. During the residency, the artist became fascinated and heartbroken by the pervasive cairns: some prehistoric and some marking, perhaps, the victims of a recent car crash. Why do we so badly want to be remembered? And strewn through the otherwise pastoral scenes and shots of the harbor and inlets are even more modern cairns, in the form of trash.

Tourism is a primary sector of the economy on the Isle of Skye; folks love how “natural” the island feels. Schmidt points out, however, that like so many other places, the landscape has been irrevocably altered by people: The timber industry razed the island of trees, and the sheep from the wool industry have displaced native species. So what, exactly, is natural anymore? In a doubling gesture, Schmidt echoes the human action on the physical environment through aggressive manipulations of video, glitching bits to obliteration.

While in Scotland, Schmidt began to think about the landscape in terms of resonance, echoes, harmony, and markers of the passage of time. Guided by a musical vocabulary, Schmidt approached om.era.kev to collaborate. As a percussionist experienced with visual art, video, and installation—and a friend of Schmidt’s—om.era.kev was an obvious choice. Save for a couple of instances, om.era.kev improvised and recorded all the sound for, and in response to, Schmidt’s videos, and further edited the sound explicitly for the installation specifics at Hamiltonian. The sound of each of the five installations sits within its own sonic frequency range—in this way, it all sounds perfectly clear. In fact, the musician made these soundscapes to correspond to the Chinese elemental system of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Fire, for example, is at the top of the frequency range.

The atmospheric sounds composed by om.era.kev are non-rhythmic and complement the almost-immersive quality of the installations: crackling, water rushing, metal clangs. They’re gentle without putting you at ease. The five videos run separately, with durations ranging from under four minutes to nearly 20 minutes. As a whole, the installations make up a chorus of sound and light in the gallery.

The videos are sharply projection-mapped, two are flat on a wall with drawing elements, and three are on white sculptural environments. Two of these more sculptural environments feature—you guessed it—cairns. The installation titled “Forget Me Not” features a pile of paper molded into small rock-forms on a jagged bed of white paper grass, lightly surrounded by homey panels of lace and sheer voile. Opposite, in “Trash Cairn,” a pile of white paper cast in trash shapes, glowing intermittently from LEDs beneath, anchors the projections that surround it. Bits of trash in the world may be small, but trash is megalithic in its commitment to its own existence, its unwillingness to decay. Here, Schmidt flips the non-biodegradability narrative and re-envisions our sad plastic human legacy as something that’s actually totally fragile.

Outside on a cloudy Scottish day, sunlight is so diffuse that shadows just don’t occur. In the tightly, and masterfully, controlled installation environment of Cairn Sounds, projected light creates a fully inhabitable space that resonates with feelings of environmental loss—an incessant if hopeless desire to exert control over the landscape as an attempt to transcend the cycles of life and death. Humans mark and remake the land around us, and it’s foolish to think that that can change. As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it, “As if the cairnstone could defy the cairn.” Schmidt, along with om.era.kev, creates a haunted reverberation of this destructive inclination. And yet, there is a simultaneous alternative: a slow and quiet process of looking, reflecting, and listening.

At Hamiltonian Gallery to Feb. 16. 1353 U St. NW. Free. (202) 332-1116.