From da Hood to da Whitney: 3 Artists from Williamsburg Make Goodby Ellen Pearlman
Julianne Swartz uses light, motion, reflection, sound, and ambience as sculpture to take the ordinary and mundane and bump it up into the extraordinary and profound. She employs utilitarian and commonplace objects like conduits and condensers, mirrors, tubes, fiber optics, and lenses, and transforms matter that has no palpability or physical presence and gives it sculptural form. She works at the most delicate of intersections, where the fulcrum point of what is solid meets what is not.
In an early work, Swartz took a single red thread and wended it across a small town in Pennsylvania, mapping the space where a hate crime had been committed. It stretched from the site of the offense and traced how a single action impacted the path of an entire community. A later piece focused on a quivering strand of tinsel blown by an oscillating fan. A spotlight shines down on the tinsel. The image could only be viewed through a punched out, grapefruit sized hole in a wall retrofitted with a convex lens. A recent installation took place through a series of indoor and outdoor mirrors reflecting a garden of whirligigs blowing in the wind. Swartz has used a fiber optic thread of glass to delineate the synaptic interconnections throughout a gallery space, wending it into hidden walls and forgotten cracks.
Sound and light are endemic to our daily experience, but remain essentially ungraspable. We know from engineering and physics that they break down into pulses and waves, but believe we can only hold pulses and waves if we make them into functional light bulbs or radios. Swartz describes their invisible, ephemeral quality as possessing "sensual presence," and believes we receive them through our senses. She delineates sculptural form by making sound and light more palpable to an individual’s mode of interpretation, which means you can’t see them, but you can see the pathway of transmission.
Her installation for the 2004 Whitney Biennial runs six flights through the Museum’s stairwell, a functional system that "irrigates" the height and depth of the building with voices that run through clear plastic tubing. The sound, conveyed by relays of air, builds layers of voices singing that ultimate anthem of longing, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. The installation concerns itself with the "loss of innocence from childhood to adulthood" and a keen "longing for perfection." Using the people in her life, friends, co-workers, shopkeepers, even the superintendent of the building, she builds layers of digitized, unending waves of sound. The music invokes a fleeting intangible— memory and its overwhelming associative power— and taps into the "pneumonic part of the brain." At key points along the installation’s traversal, there are also delicate diffused mirrors reflecting the movement of individuals in the stairwell back onto themselves.
This highly sophisticated work taps evanescent memory association to bring the invisible into form and then move it through clear tubing. She says her sculptures are narrative and sequenced, but are different from film in that film captures its audience through sequences dictated by time allotments. Her installation is fluid and contains sequences laced with narratives that allow the viewer to use the imagery of the audience itself, and float lazily through the space by allowing that moment, and that moment alone to direct the story.
Eve Sussman, "89 seconds at Alcazar," video still.
Eve Sussman’s "89 Seconds at Alcazar" is a nine-minute, High Definition video tableau ripped from the 1658 Diego Velasquez painting, "Las Meninas," inside the Alcazar royal palace of King Philip IV of Spain. First glimpsing "Las Meninas" in Madrid, Sussman realized it was "the first cinema verité film still…a real frame grab." Taking the point of view of the ultimate fly on the wall, she literally recreated the moments leading up to, and directly following, the approximately eighty-nine seconds in time when the principals in the story would have come together in the exact configuration for Velasquez to paint.
"89 Seconds at Alcazar" uses a 360° Steadicam take around a special room constructed inside a garage space in Williamsburg that resembles the palace and its fully and authentically costumed inhabitants. It begins with a shot of an amber lit wall as the camera pulls back to show a dwarf by a fireplace. Children frolic, but only the tops of their heads are visible. The focus shifts to the Queen (played by Helen Pickett) and moves up the fabric of her skirt to her forlorn face gazing out the window. The emotional coldness and straitlaced intimacy of the royals is emphasized. The camera pans and the King, acted by Jeff Wood, is shown in a mirror preparing for the court painter’s entrance as the rest of the royal entourage fusses. The Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting, clad in dark mourning clothes enters and brings the Queen over to the King. Velasquez walks into the room and everyone meets for the first time. Events unfold which lead to the fabled eighty-nine seconds of the title, including a story with midgets, dogs, more mirrors, and the Infata Margarita, the daughter of the royal couple who was eventually married off to the Emperor of Austria. The painting materializes as if it were a real moment in that day’s life. The actual painting Velasquez works on is never glimpsed, just it’s raw jutting wooden frame. Because of that sleight of hand, the painting has been called by the Velasquez scholar Jonathan Brown "in part a meditation on the nature of representation and reality."
Sussman believes that "The picture is actually the most cinema verité moment in art history…it is similar to a Tina Barney photograph." It took her over three years to realize its creation, and she had to beg, borrow, but not steal, editing equipment and in-kind support from HD-Cinema, Panasonic, and a host of others, including paying a cast and crew of thirty five. The video uses a Steadicam technique made famous in the 2001 panoramic film about the Hermitage Museum, Russian Ark. She explained that a Steadicam operator "wears this huge massive harness that balances the camera…and has a counter balance on it so it is twice as heavy as normal." Sergei Franklin, the operator who collaborated with the choreographer Claudi de Serpa of the Frankfurt Ballet, worked as hard as any principle dancer might have to as he glided through scenes with the cast.
Though the dividing line between film and video art is thinning, Sussman believes that there are still distinctions. "Video art is more electric and real…the reason people are more into HD is because it looks like film which has this kind of fiction you can believe in, whereas video art doesn’t allow you to have fiction. Video art is very documentary and performative…video artists tend to make video art because it is cheap and intimate and you can do it at home in your room, and I have never made work like that, I have never been a studio artist, I have always been someone who goes out to a place and does something."
Originally a Guggenheim Award-winning sculptor, she felt that building the set used her resources as a builder and called upon the physical ambitions of a sculptural viewpoint to tackle the piece. She has upped the ante for the Whitney, prodding them to realize the merits of having HD equipment on hand to view this new video, something they have not quite actualized. In fact, she had to even get that equipment donated, a request being granted right down to the finishing wire.
Rob Fischer, "Airplane" (1998), mixed media including airplane parts, photographs, maps, wood, steel, lights and wiring, paint, at Walker Art Center. Photo by Dan Dennehy. Courtesy the artist.
Rob Fischer’s sculptural constructions combine lofty sentiments taken from the philosophical meanings inherent in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past with the time-honored cliché, "you can’t take it with you." His latest piece, for the Biennial, is a twisted walk down a bizarre memory lane. It consists of minutely executed and seemingly random junk piled into a full-sized, six-foot-tall dumpster, a carefully constructed Americana employing a subtext of "Debris R Us." "Hey," you might say, especially if you live near any of the recently booming construction hot-spots in Brooklyn, "I have a big dumpster outside my window filled with stuff too." So is that art? Well, no, not really, and then again, yes in a way.
Fischer explores, "the individual and the individual’s relationship with himself and others" by constructing large pieces which serve as metaphor for culture. He takes the totemic quality of an object’s ability to express one’s hopes and ambitions (think diamond engagement ring) and put them on display inside a dumpster. It is "a container that has parts of old sculptures in it, and parts of those old sculptures have been changed a few times at least and… [I] arranged the composition of those main parts." The transformation points to the failure and despair that accompanies the hope and ambition of one’s goals, and ultimately, the "contemplation of the history of your hopes and dreams and ambitions." And the unspoken debris left behind when all is unrealized.
Which leads us to memory. One of Fischer’s previous pieces was an airplane with a crate built into it jammed full of photographs. Putting the crate into the airplane stuffed it full of memories from the past, and dreams for the future, and made it completely nonfunctional for air travel. The cramming attempted to create and combine at any one moment an impossible task: the inability to photographically record every step you take, or if you possibly could, the impracticality of jamming that record in a container with you as you proceed on to the next step of the next moment of your life. It would make an individual insane, and in the case of an airplane— unworkable and functionless. Fischer says that this kind of paralysis comes from "a lack of ability to actually chose what those things are that you don’t keep."
In his newest dumpster piece, the objects inside have ostensibly terminated their useful lifecycle, and there is indecision about what to retain and what to discard. The tension and conflict inherent in how to start a new chapter in one’s life piles up all around. Being able to realize what things cause the hesitation allow one to prune away the old. Failure to begin that new chapter in one’s process leaves heavy psychic footprints and turns aspirations and the realm of intention to the detritus of random materials.
Ultimately the real reason why the dumpster outside is not art, and Rob Fischer’s dumpster is art, is that when he makes a piece, he deconstructs the principle object and then refabricates it in an entirely new fashion by recycling and reconfiguring it. This is a specific expression of personal indecision that consciously evokes the process inherent in treasured objects of memory. He creates a personal history of a moment frozen in time so that he can be psychically free enough to throw things away, but also to make sure to preserve them in the order received.