Feeling the ‘Emergy’

Maria Michails’ installation will have you thinking twice about Mother Earth

In Emergy, you keep the lights on the Strip alive by rowing a boat.

Sitting in a little rowboat run aground inside Charleston Heights Art Gallery, I’m working up a sweat. If I row hard enough, I can get just enough energy to illuminate the tiny images of the nighttime Strip flickering around my boat. It’s hard to see while I’m rowing, but if I stop the lights will go out on the Boulevard.

The darkened Strip stands in contrast to the bright photos of Lake Mead also dappling the walls. The little LED strip behind these transparencies floods the image with light and sharpens the harsh brilliance of a midday Mojave sun.


Through February 17, free
Charleston Heights Art Gallery

The two sets of images—Lake Mead and the Las Vegas Strip—coexist symbiotically within this exhibition, much as they do in real life. In Emergy, artist Maria Michails creates an experiential immersion into the crisis of water usage and energy consumption in Southern Nevada.

The term “emergy” is rooted in the concept of embodied energy as pioneered by a controversial systems ecologist named Howard T. Odum. Embodied energy maps the energy used in the life cycle of a product. The artist refers to emergy as “the eco-centric analysis of embodied energy,” a consideration of the product cycle from the perspective of environmental sustainability. Michails’ Emergy provides a very physical opportunity to connect the dots between energy and environment.

The installation is beautifully considered, with undulating white walls enclosing the little wooden boat. The entrance to the gallery is masked, submerging the viewer in the waves. The small illuminated images of Lake Mead lining the wall fixate on the waterline—that unforgiving reminder of a rapidly depleting supply. Interspersed are darkened images of the Strip that require the hard work of a willing viewer to ignite.

This interactive component is the heart of the exhibition and brings home the notion of emergy. Rowing the boat to effectively “turn on the power” made quite an impression. At the risk of sounding like a hippie, I felt my mind gravitate to the plight of Mother Earth: It’s hard work sustaining the human animal, and there’s less energy available to meet ever-increasing demands. In terms of emergy, Mother Earth is quite literally exhausted.

Originally conceived and produced as a part of the artist’s MFA thesis in Arizona, the work easily adapts to this arm of the Desert Southwest. With Lake Mead currently at its lowest level since 1937, the ideas present in Emergy couldn’t be timelier. With all its concerns for energy depletion, Emergy is nothing short of invigorating. Michails’ work is thorough and thoughtful, offering an immersive multi-disciplinary experience all too rare in Las Vegas.


Danielle Kelly

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