On May 19th, 1780, a strange phenomenon happened in New England: the sun never came out and the day remained as dark as night. We know about New England’s Dark Day because of two types of records that describe it. One is filtered through human experience; texts written in 1780 describe residents in panic, assuming that dark skies could only be interpreted as a sign of the end times. Deacon Samuel Gatchel wrote of the “imminent fulfillment of prophecy” in a text verbosely titled The Signs of the times: or Some expositions and remarks of sundry texts of Scripture, relative to the remarkable phenomenon, or dark-day, which appears in New-England on the nineteenth of May, 1780. Other written reports (there were many) mention unusual responses to the dark day from the natural world: flowers folded their petals, night birds came out to sing while day birds slept, chickens retreated to their roost, cattle returned to their stalls, and frogs croaked as they did at midnight.
In the centuries that followed, we learned of another way to describe the event that took place on New England’s Dark Day through the use of scientific reasoning. Found within the trunks of trees in Ontario’s forests were rings scared with charcoal and resin, indicating that widespread forest fires in Canada caused a thick, dark cloud of smoke to prevent daylight from reaching much of New England.
Artists Michael Assiff and Dennis Witkin have found fertile common ground within the story of New England’s Dark Day. For Assiff, the phenomenon—or perhaps more accurately, the light that science and hindsight has retroactively cast on the phenomenon—provides a parallel to the collective panic we find ourselves in today, in part due to ecological crises too often thought of as independent of human interference and scientific analysis. For Witkin, the 16th-century illustrative engravings and texts produced by New England's residents provide a poetic backdrop for his work, which often involves antiquated technologies like bells, weathervanes, and lamp posts. Their two-person exhibition is the inaugural exhibition for Hotel Art Pavilion. The artist-run gallery is the second phase of a curatorial initiative, hotel-art.us, that was founded in 2012 and produced primarily for online audiences.
A welcome mat constructed of compressed hardwood ash (a collaborative piece by Assiff and Witkin) lies before the entryway to the gallery, leaving soot on the soles of viewers’ shoes before they walk onto the white floor inside. Amidst ashy footprints sit Witkin’s sculptures: dustpans that seem utilitarian in that they’re depositories for damage, yet their resonance can only be inferred when free of debris. In the dustpans’ basins, the artist has rendered tableaus of landscapes and interior scenes in relief, and the outlines of the objects mimic the waist and yoke of an old bell.
Upon entry to the gallery, a dim red motion-censoring light, obscured by a layer of hairspray and ash on its surface, turns on to mark the presence of a viewer. This piece by Assiff continues the artist’s interest in the flawed logic of energy consumption; the energy-consuming light is unable to perform its task due to the remnants of an over-extracted resource (hardwood trees). Again in reference to logging and extractive economies, Assiff’s wall pieces—hand-carved stretcher bars typically used as the “bones” of a canvas—depict a replica of a statue from the Algonquin Logging Museum in Ontario, located in the forest that had once burnt down and caused New England’s Dark Day.
“The time of this extraordinary darkness, was May 19, 1780. It came on between the hours of ten and eleven, A.M. and continued until the middle of the next night; but with different appearances at different places. As to the manner of its approach it seemed to appear first of all in the S. W. The wind came from that quarter, and the darkness appeared to come on with the clouds that came in that direction. The degree to which the darkness arose, was different in different places. In most parts of the country it was so great, that people were unable to read common print — determine the time of day by their clocks or watches — dine — or manage their domestic business, without the light of candles. In some places, the darkness was so great, that persons could not see to read common print in the open air, for several hours together. The extent of this darkness was very remarkable. Our intelligence, in this respect, is not so particular as I could wish: but from the accounts that have been received, it seems to have extended all over the New-England states. It was observed as far east as Falmouth. — To the westward, we hear of its reaching to the furthest parts of Connecticut, and Albany. — To the southward, it was observed all along the sea-coasts: — and to the north, as far as our settlements extend. It is probable it extended much beyond these limits, in some directions: but the exact boundaries cannot be ascertained by any observations that I have been able to collect. With regard to its duration, it continued in this place at least fourteen hours: but it is probable this was not exactly the same in different parts of the country. The appearance and effects were such that in response, townspeople gathered in prayer, fearing the end of time. Candles were lighted up in the houses; — the birds having sung their evening songs, disappeared, and became silent; — the fowls retired to roost; — the petals of flowers folded inward; — objects could not be distinguished but at a very little distance; and every thing bore the appearance of night.”