Most businesses in the East Crossroads closed hours ago, but on a balmy Monday night in June, the garage door at Meya Metalworks is still open. There's a U-Haul parked outside on 16th Street, and two men are dragging what appears to be the gate of a human-sized possum trap onto the truck.
It's less than 24 hours before the artist who calls himself A. Bitterman hits Interstate 70 in the U-Haul and heads east. And while his itinerary doesn't include hunting, it does call for something akin to camping. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has awarded Bitterman this summer's Indy Island residency; in a project he calls Indigenous, the artist plans to run wild on the museum's wooded grounds for six weeks.
The brochure he has produced for the IMA explains the residency this way: "A. Bitterman, an artist we know little or nothing about, has been released into the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. He has assumed a temporary residence on the island and will be ranging throughout the park in June and July."
Imagine the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art sharing DNA with Shawnee Mission Park and you'll get a rough picture of the Art and Nature Park, which Hoosiers call the 100 Acres. Oxbow Lake, the body of water surrounding Indy Island, sits in the middle of the park, and the White River also borders it.
Lisa Freiman, IMA's senior curator of contemporary art (who selected Bitterman for the residency), has studded the park with pieces by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists, including Andrea Zittel's "Indianapolis Island," an inhabitable floating sculpture resembling an igloo with a porthole on top. Zittel earned accolades in the 1990s for sculptural works that examined domestic space. She designed the island as a temporary home for artists who would interact with park visitors. Over the past two summers, Indy Island residents took members of the general public on rowboat excursions, attempted to lower E. coli levels in the lake water, and led riverside yoga sessions.
Bitterman has something different in mind. That's where the human-sized possum trap comes into play.
A. Bitterman the artist is Pete Cowdin, who runs the Brookside children's bookstore Reading Reptile with his wife, Deborah Pettid. The couple live with their five children and a cat in a modest, two-story house in Armour Hills dominated by bookshelves and materials for Bitterman projects.
On the day he showed The Pitch around their home, Cowdin wore his usual gray baseball cap (emblazoned with the toothy grin of Totoro, from the Hayao Miyazaki anime classic My Neighbor Totoro) and spoke in his usual opinion-intensive staccato. A week before his departure for Indianapolis, the two front rooms of the house served as makeshift studios. Most of a room that appeared to serve as a home office was occupied by wooden panels for a lakeside informational kiosk. Boxes holding spotting scopes and a coin-operated candy dispenser sat in corners of the adjacent room.
Last summer's large-scale Bitterman work was an installation mimicking a national park. The exhibit, titled Point of Interest, was in the Cowdin family's front yard. Its centerpiece was a wooden panel with illustrations of resident fauna, a map of stratigraphic rock formations, and an outline of the 4.6-billion-year history of the site. The 0.17-mile "Upper Lawn View Trail" took visitors around the front yard, past a picnic table and a tubular sculpture labeled "Cloud gazer." The audience was largely made up of neighbors and passers-by out for a stroll or a jog.
Point of Interest aimed to point out the disconnect between our daily lives and our notions of nature. "Sometimes we travel long distances so that we can be in nature," read some of Bitterman's text on a metal plaque in the installation. "We confuse nature for the natural world, and this has generated a kind of madness." The front-yard national-park exhibit suggested that nature is a place we inhabit, not a place we visit.