Interrogating the archive

Kari Varner explores nature, disintegration and the lifespan of knowledge

Artist Kari Varner, whose work is currently on view as part of the 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition, in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

What does an archive preserve? How long does knowledge last? And just how much can the human mind discern?

In “The Missouri River 38.81408088787352, -90.12370347726687 and 38.815604433618454, -90.12407945049151,” Kari Varner examines the resiliency of nature, the specificity of place and the limits of our own perceptions.

Kari Varner, detail from “The Missouri River” (2017). (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Taking its title from GPS coordinates, the installation consists of three interrelated elements — a video, a digital print and a 6-foot-long glass water tank — all centering on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

“I chose that site because I wanted to reflect the context and community in which I’m making,” said Varner, a 2017 Master of Fine Arts graduate of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “But I also was interested in this loss of identity.” Though the Missouri is the longest U.S. river, the confluence — located a few miles north of St. Louis — represents the point at which the river is subsumed, physically and symbolically, into the larger Mississippi.

Last spring, Varner visited the confluence more than two-dozen times, shooting exactly 1,000 photographs of the water’s surface. To create “The Missouri River,” now on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, as part of the annual MFA Thesis Exhibition, Varner printed each frame onto thin organic paper, which she then submerged into the glass water tank. As the images disintegrate, bits of paper fall slowly away, forming a sort of photographic sediment — a process she documents in the accompanying video.

Finally, to create the digital print, Varner layered all 1,000 exposures in chronological order. The result is a cool, steely gray field of color, the dimensions of which approximate those of the glass tank. Filled with waves, ripples, eddies and other watery details, the image represents a wealth of information that, paradoxically, is rendered impenetrable by its own density.

“I think a lot about the limitations of the archive,” Varner said. “This piece is very much about describing a particular location, but the photographs are always mediated.” As a viewer, “you’re never really allowed to see them.

“Eventually the tank will resemble a riverbed,” Varner added. And yet, ironically, the archive will in a sense remain preserved.

“The components are all still there.”

The MFA Thesis Exhibition remains on view through Aug. 6. The Kemper Art Museum is located near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Regular hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. the first Friday of the month. The museum is closed Tuesdays.

For more information, call 314-935-4523; visit; or follow the museum on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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