I was happy for the chance to extend my conversation with Burnier; this interview went live a couple days ago on Artslant —
Chicago, Sep. 2014: Robert Burnier has a large body of work on display this fall at multiple locations all over the city. In addition to Inland Delta, a solo show in the West Loop at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, he is part of The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago’s South Side, and presents a separate collaborative project, Inside Space, with artists Jason Lazarus and Molly Brandt at the Riverside Arts Center. As Burnier describes it, this latter project “investigates what is hidden and elusive” in material experience, isolating “what is activated for us by voids and gaps.” It’s a bundle of themes that reoccurs throughout his work. Finally his IN/SITU presentation will open at EXPO Chicago this week where the artist was curated by Renaud Proch.
Clearly Burnier is having a moment. It is exciting to witness. With a background in computer science and painting, his sculptural works interrogate material and philosophical concerns. In one ongoing series, he begins with a flat piece of aluminum, folding it methodically until further folds are no longer possible. The resulting elegantly crumpled objects are covered with a layer of matte paint, and thereafter appear like crumpled balls of thick paper; they evoke the residue of vibrant energies — sitting like cast aside experiments whose original purpose is not longer accessible. Burnier’s work reintroduces the process of thinking as a final object in and of itself.
Robert Burnier, Tera Desegna, 2014, Copper, rubber, 41 x 41 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Caroline Picard: Is there any synergy between the different contexts and sites where you are currently presenting work?
Robert Burnier: Given the theme of Inland Delta, my solo show, it’s been serendipitous to have different views of my work in disparate locales. To me, it all gathers around the solo show at the gallery, which becomes a kind of central node. I hope people will get something special out of piecing the different locales together if they happen to see my work in more than one place. read more
Kendler’s newest work has been blowing my mind ever since I heard about its construction a few months ago and Claudine Isé just wrote about it:
Last night I had the opportunity to experience a new installation by NRDC artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler, at the opening of EXPO Chicago. The piece, “Tell it to the Birds,” asks participants to enter a beautiful small dome, where they sit on a stool and speak into a lichen-trimmed microphone. A computer program takes their words and “translates” them into birdsong, which are broadcast out of the dome and into the gallery. No one but the speaker — and the birds — will ever know what was said. The birds are all endangered: threatened by climate change, habit destruction, livestock grazing, and oil and gas extraction. Perched on the walls surrounding the dome are delicate bird figurines, “camouflaged” by Kendler using strange glittering sci-fi shapes. Are they trying to hide from us? Or are they ashamed? read more
I finally got to write about the art fair as musical metaphor…
As Chicago approaches the four day run of its annual art fair, the art world becomes increasingly animated with preparations. This is the moment backstage of an as-yet empty auditorium; red carpets are cleaned one last time as painters touch up their back drops and technicians in black clothes hastily test light and sound sequences. Dancers stretch. Producers sweat, fiddling their mobile devices unconsciously. There is a palpable buzz of anticipation — an energy not yet disseminated into the greater public, rumors nevertheless spread wildly about what one might expect on opening night. When EXPO CHICAGO opens this Thursday, it will be as if the red curtains have drawn up at last, revealing with it a precise choreography of energy and effort. So begins the musical.
In addition to the booths of over 140 international galleries exhibiting select artists, EXPO CHICAGO platforms IN/SITU works. It’s a bit like a play within a play. The fair itself is one production within which another spectacle — its own exhibition — plays out. This year the series is curated by Renaud Proch, Executive Director of Independent Curators International who describes his selection as “an homage to the city, to what artists take from and give to it, to the abundance of artistic creation and experimental practice that exists here [in Chicago] amid an intense exchange of ideas.” Robert Burnier, Fernando Pareja and Leidy Chavez, Cheryl Pope, Michael Rakowitz, Jessica Stockholder, Saya Woolfalk, Ken Gonzales-Day, and Elijah Burgher all install works that “provide occasions for pause and reflection throughout the exposition.” In so doing they impose different techniques that expand a viewer’s physical, political, and historical perspective. read more
Every few months, I remember Hreinn Fridfinnsson’s House Project (1974) — a small, one-room structure with a peaked roof and a few windows. Wall paper lies on its exterior walls, facing out. The house was thus installed in the countryside, as something that unexpecting hikers or local residents would stumble upon. It inverts normal architectural expectations, making the surrounding world its interior, yet also alienates what lies within itself, beneath its own roof. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Fridinnsson describes it this way:
“Again, [House Project is] mainly a text work: it’s presented as the documentation of the event, as evidence that the house was built, and it belongs to a museum in Stockholm. The idea originated in an old Icelandic book from the early 20th century. A certain gentleman in a village — he was considered to be quite an eccentric — decided to build a new house for himself. He started in the traditional manner with a shell constructed from wood and corrugated iron. But instead, because he wanted to use wallpaper, which was a novelty, and he thought it would make sense to put it one the outside where more people could enjoy it. This was for me just a fantastic thing: a house turned inside-out. Then I realised that it had a meaning. You could claim that such a house turns the world inside-out. So that was the drive to build a similar little house. I stumbled across an ideal site in a lava area not far from Reykjavik and we built it quickly. One of the basis factors of the project was that the building itself wasn’t a sculpture for people to visit. The piece was presented as documentation.”
I was thinking about this house in tandem with a reading group I am participating in at Latitude, Following Nonhuman Kinds. Last week we read Val Plumwood’s essay, “Being Prey,” along with Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia,” and an essay by Jakob von Uexküll, “Intro to Umwelt.” In those three papers, there was a constant slippery, subjective refraction. Our task, it seemed, was to reflect upon the limited mechanism of biologically determined subjectivity. That is the Umwelt: a world different species are predisposed to inhabit as a result of their unique sensory capacities and appetites. Perhaps this is why House Project came to mind in the first place, because it is constructed on the one hand to make the world its own somehow, while nevertheless remaining alien to its own interiority, and of course, being subject to its own predetermined condition: it can’t move of its own accord, etc.
“This island of the senses, that wraps every man like a garment, we call his Umwelt. It separates into distinct sensory spheres, that become manifest one after the other at the approach of an object” (Uexküll, p.107). So every one of us — every human, moth, jelly, whale, tree, house, cat, tiger et al — inhabits a world filtered by its special sensual proclivities. In another Uexküll text, for instance, the author provides color coded diagrams of the same single, interior room perceived from the various perspectives of a fly, dog, and human. Whereas the human notes the topography of furniture, the fly sees only dirty plates. There is something intuitive about this in theory, and yet when Uexküll explains that the horizon line I know is a reflection of the physical limits of a human eye, (rather than an objective bounding line of the earth), I experience sudden difficulty. The idea makes literal sense, but trying to imagine what an alternate horizon might be like eludes me. He describes the horizons of other animals — mosquitos for example — suggesting that every species would experience a different set of horizons.
“Every object becomes something completely different on entering a different Umwelt” (Uexküll, p. 108). Suddenly one’s experience of a static, “natural” material world is illusory. The ant that crawls on “House Project” has one experience of the house — as ground to cover, say — versus a dog who happens to pass by and notice only the scents other animals left behind on its corners — or, for that matter, the rain water water that might take a different path running down the mountain because of the House Project’s presence; certainly the plants under its footprint would feel and respond to Fridfinnsson’s installation as well. Nevertheless, the House Project is a constant in every instance, even if its surrounding subjects can never experience a unified, singular, objective view of the house — as an experience that would somehow assimilate all Umwelts.
In her essay, Val Plumwood effectively describes the horror that comes when one’s world view is shattered. Granted, the rupture of her subjective narrative comes from a near death encounter with a crocodile — it’s bound to be traumatic. Still, she conveys the conflated relationship between linear narrative (i.e. the human compulsion to make sense) and a sudden disconnect with her immediate, relatively nonsensical experience. Perhaps an additional trauma emerges as well — one in which her once stable orientation to the world is challenged and disrupted. The crocodile effectively trumps a casual, originating postulate, reminding her that humankind is part of the food chain. As the crocodile takes her in a death role, she writes:
“Our final thoughts during near-death experiences can tell us much about our frameworks of subjectivity. A framework capable of sustaining action and purpose must, I think, view the world ‘from the inside,’ structured to sustain the concept of a continuing, narrative self; we remake the world in that way as our own, investing it with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution. The lack of fit between this subject-centered version and reality comes into play in extreme moments… This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside,’ as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.”
I have been wrestling with this particular moment because as Plumwood wrestles with the crocodile, her epiphany is not of an expanded consciousness exactly — she does not see beyond her horizon into a transcendent, orgiastic overview of all life forms — rather it is as if the world contracts around her. “…I was seized between the legs in a red-hot pincer grip and whirled into the suffocating wet darkness” (p. 3, Plumwood). The crocodile is the only other presence she conceives, enveloping her like an entire world that obliterates everything else, absorbig every concentrated faculty Plumwood has at her disposal. It is as if the crocodile becomes an archetypal force — an entire subsuming world — rather than a single mortal being. Even her experience of time changes. “The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive” (p. 3, Plumwood). When the crocodile rests, Plumwood is reminded of a material condition beyond her advesary. A kind of narrative returns for a split second, when she considers the impact this struggle will have on her body. “The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll” (p.3, Plumwood). She struggles to escape, clambering up the bank of a river, even while the creature holds her body in its mouth. She hopes to die quickly, while trying to learn the creature’s pattern. She can’t believe this is happening, and madly shoves her fingers into holes of the animal’s body, furtively defensive, searching for its eyes, or some other way to fight back. “[My fingers] slid into warm, unresisting holes (which may have been the ears, or perhaps the nostrils), and the crocodile did not so much as flinch” (p.3, Plumwood). Every aspect of this experience from the crocodile itself, to the water, to her sense of duration, and even her own survival is strange.
Fridfinnsson’s “House Project” comes to mind again. Though the connection still feels intuitive to me, it is tied up with my own attempt to parse how my experience of the horizon is purely subjective (not simply to conceive that fact, but to somehow integrate it with my regular, unthinking experience of the horizon). Plumwood is effectively turned inside out during her encounter with the crocodile. Rather than imagining her experience as something “pure,” or more objective than her experience up until this point, instead it is as if her encounter with the crocodile provided different — though no less subjective — access to reality. As a result, any future experience Plumwood has, must account for the possible disruption the crocodile caused.
Plumwood gives us an ultra-contracted point of view, offering along with it a profound sense of universal truths that she bumps into, i.e. a “bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death” (p.3, Plumwood). Annie Dillard’s essay offers a more distant, abject reflection. Plumwood is prey. Dillard observes prey. Dillard begins, “There were four of us North Americans in the Jungle…The other three North Americans were metropolitan men” (p.78, Dillard). She goes on to describe seeing a deer tied to a tree. It struggles against a rope as it tries in vain to free itself. “Trying to paw itself free of the rope, the deer had scratched its own neck with its hooves” (p.79, Dillard). She watches it struggle, expecting it to die at any moment, before it suddenly springs back to life, renewing a tedious effort:
“Repeatedly the deer paused, motionless, its eyes veiled with only its rib cage in motion, and its breaths the only sound. Then, after I would think, ‘It has given up now; now it will die,’ it would heave. The rope twanged; the tree leaves clattered; the deer’s free foot beat the ground. We stepped back and held out breaths. It thrashed, kicking, but only one leg moved; the other three legs tightened within the rope’s loop…We watched this for fifteen minutes” (p. 80, Dillard).
Ensuring paragraphs capture the circumstances of the travelers and the elaborate meal they eat, all within view of the struggling animal:
“There was also a stew of meat in shreds with rice and pale brown gravy. I had asked what kind of deer it was tied to the tree; Pepe had answered in Spanish, ‘Gama.’ Now they told us this was gama too, stewed. I suspect the word means game or venison. At any rate, I heard that the village dogs had cornered another deer just yesterday, and it was this deer which we were now eating in full sight of the whole article. It was good. I was surprised at its tenderness. But it is a fact that high levels of lactic acid, which builds up in muscle tissues during exertion, tenderizes” (p.81, Dillard).
I love the way Dillard deliberately elides the deer she is watching with the deer she eats. The essay is rife with seeing and being seen, creating a richochet effect, that nevertheless sort of wonderfully returns to a kind of blindness. For instance, she writes “That night I learned that while we were watching the deer, the others were watching me” (p.81, Dillard), and “They had looked to see how I, the only woman, and the youngest, was taking the sight of the deer’s struggles” (p. 81, Dillard). As if in answer, the following paragraph begins: ”Gentlemen of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?” (p. 82, Dillard).
Even if Dillard “knows” suffering, there is something about its purpose that remains elusive. Unlike Plumwood’s crocodile encounter, Dillard’s world seems to expand, as her awareness grows abstract and perhaps even distant. It’s like she is trying to solve an impossible puzzle, a puzzle that resists her moral and perhaps narrative principles. “I have thought a great deal about carnivorousness; I eat meat. These things are not issues; they are mysteries” (p. 82, Dillard).
At the end of the essay, we see Dillard seated at home in front of a mirror, combing her hair. “Every morning for the past two years I have seen in that mirror, beside my sleep-softened face, the blackened face of a burnt man” (p.82, Dillard). On her mirror she keeps a newspaper clipping of a man whom, although a stranger to Dillard, was burned twice in his life. Here we return to the indoors of a domesticity; the author is similarly engaged in habit, the act of grooming and looking at her own reflection. The face of a wounded stranger in an expired newspaper clipping is part of that routine.
“He had been burned before, thirteen years previously, by flaming gasoline. For years he had been having his body restored and his face remade in dozens of operations. He had been a boy, and then a burnt boy. He had already been stunned by what could happen, by how life could veer” (p.83, Dillard).
13 years later, the man was burned again when a bowl of gunpowder exploded. Somehow, I feel like Dillard looking at that photo on her mirror every morning is like the deer pawing at its rope — as though in both instances the subjects are trying to comprehend something about the cause and end of their circumstances, despite insurmountable blind spots. “I read the whole clipping again every morning,” she says. “This is the Big Time here, every minute of it. Will someone please explain to Alain McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on? And mail me the carbon copy,” (p.83-84, Dillard). The beautiful thing about the small wall-papered house is that even if the entire world is ostensibly “inside” of itself (or its view, say), it nevertheless contains a blind spot that is impossible to access.
Oct 16-Dec 11, 2014
Opening on Oct 16th from 6 – 9pm
Featuring Benjamin L. Aman & Marion Auburtin, Joseph Grigley, Young Joon Kwak, Jason Lazarus, Carlos Martiel, Heather Mekkelson, Aay Preston-Myint, Rachel Niffenegger, Xaviera Simmons, Shane Ward, and Shoshanna Weinberger;
with Jane Jerardi as our November Studio Resident.
For its inaugural exhibition, Sector 2337 presents The New [New] Corpse, a group show produced by The Green Lantern Press which features over thirteen artists whose work in photography, sculpture, performance, film, and drawing wrestles with representation to show how the figure appears fragmented, distorted, or emphatically absent. The artists exhume the human body to study the material networks by which it is comprised and the fluctuating edges of its bounds. This exhibit is part of Chicago Artists Month.