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International collaboration yields high-tech public art for New Mexico, Navajo Nation

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Not many people have been to Coyote Canyon, a remote spot on the nation's largest American Indian reservation.

Bordered by sandstone outcroppings and dotted with pinon and juniper, the location served as a perfect backdrop for an unprecedented venture into high-tech public art by the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico.

With the canyon as their blank canvas, Navajo teacher and artist Bert Benally and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei teamed up for the "Pull of the Moon" installation in late June. Benally was on the ground in western New Mexico while Ai, who has been banned from leaving China, participated from afar. The goal was to temporarily transform the landscape through sand drawings, sculpture and sound.

While the public couldn't visit the site, organizers with the Navajo Nation Museum and New Mexico Arts had every bit of the project documented with photographs and video so it could be virtually replicated for the rest of the world to see.

In the last two weeks, they have been working feverishly in preparation for Wednesday's public launch some 220 miles away in Santa Fe.

Aside from a two-dimensional documentary, the scene at Coyote Canyon that June night will be screened inside a giant digital dome. Clouds will be drifting overhead as the flames from Benally's piece illuminates the desert surroundings along with the interlocking stencils created with dozens of pounds of powdered porcelain sent by Ai from China.

"There's just so much that went into it that we made the decision to have a more cutting-edge technology format. It will bring it more to the people in a way that will make them feel like they're right there," said Eileen Braziel, the project's co-ordinator.

In a matter of days, nature reclaimed the site, erasing any signs of the artists' creations. It was part of New Mexico Arts' TIME project, or Temporary Installations Made for the Environment.

The latest TIME installation marks a new kind of public art for New Mexico, where most art resides on the walls of public buildings, is permanently on display in common areas or integrated into architecture. Over the last two decades, the state's public art program has placed more than 2,500 pieces.

"What the state is doing is changing up, in a big way, what art in public places means," Braziel said.

For the Navajos, it's about changing outside perceptions of tribal members and forging new roads for Native artists.

"We're experimenting and seeing where these new roads will lead," said Navajo Nation Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler.

The "Pull of the Moon" digital dome will be on display this weekend on Museum Hill, and organizers plan to take the exhibition on tour.

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM .

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Online:

http://www.nmarts.org

http://www.navajonationmuseum.org

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