The first thing that hits you when you walk into Pioneer Square's Method Gallery is the smell. It's woodsy—maple, wet bark, the sea when it rains, fall. But the second thing to hit you is the sound of quiet robotic whirrs scraping against the hard floor. Inside a massive plexiglass and steel tank in the center of the gallery, several vacuuming robots appear to be cleaning up a giant pile of dried leaves. It's a total mess. But makes complete sense.
Seattle-based artist Launa Changnon's I'm sorry for your loss takes the grieving process and puts it into a physical, time-based form. Through February 18 at Method, these vacuum robots—Roombas, fyi—will take on the Sisyphean task of cleaning up these dead, brittle leaves. It's a clever, hilarious, and still rather sobering embodiment of the ways we think about grief. As if it were a task with a definite beginning and end—like its work.
The tank in the middle of Method containing all the action is 18 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet high, just tall enough to rest your elbows on. The giant pile of leaves is smushed against one side of the tank; on the other side is the vacuums' home base. For a couple of hours each day—regardless of the gallery being open—the Roombas will attempt to clean the tank in their little robotic way. You can peek in on the process from the gallery's street-level window on Third Avenue.
I'm sorry for your loss has been five years in the making, growing out of Changnon's own experience with death and grief. Changnon wanted to make something that reflects the compartmentalization and discomfort that comes with loss, so for two autumns, she collected dried leaves from her backyard, from around her neighborhood, from the side of the road. In total, she amassed 140 bags (or 4200 gallons) of leaves, which line the walls of the gallery, almost looming over the tank and giving the gallery this heavy, woodsy smell.
The Roombas steadfastly do their work. They drive headfirst into the giant pile, breaking the leaves down to fit into their little robot mouths, filling up their little robot stomachs. Once full, they scurry over to their port where another bigger vacuum sucks up their leaf bits and then go back on their way. Changnon even put a GoPro on top of one of the Roombas and hooked it up to a projector, so viewers can get a ground-level view of this work. Throughout the run of the show, she will replenish the dried leaves in the tank, keeping these Roombas extremely busy, and once the show is over Changnon is inviting viewers to come with her to ceremonially dump all the leaf bits in the Puget Sound.
Watching this process from above is satisfying in the way that watching those carpet-cleaning TikToks is satisfying. The difference is that the Roombas' work in this exhibition feels much more participatory. Even though I've seen a similar one vacuum my parents' home a zillion times, in this context, I felt emotionally invested in these robots' impossible job.
Indeed, I saw my own personal obsessions, toxic thought loops, and griefs in their hamster wheel of cleaning. And there's a sense that—just like grieving—the Roombas' work will never end. Sure, the robots' work will literally end—the exhibition will close, Changnon will deconstruct the tank, and another artwork will occupy Method's space. But for as long as there are leaves to clean, those Roombas, in some universe, will be there quietly working away. In that way, perhaps it's actually comforting knowing that there is always something to clean, or a piece of a loved one to hold onto. It's almost as if they never truly went away.
Launa Changnon's I'm sorry for your loss will be up at Method Gallery through February 18. The gallery is open Friday noon-4 pm by appointment only and Saturday noon-4 pm with no appointment necessary. Changnon will also be hosting a First Thursday reception at Method on February 2 from 5-8 pm.