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Entries in Gonzalo Lebrija (1)

Monday
Oct252010

Energy Effects

2010, Denver Museum of Contemporary Art

MCA Denver just showed 19 different artists’ work in an exhibit called Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts from the Landscape of Glorious Excess. Each work represented in some way how “abundant space, power, speed, effort, and time become the raw material of art and industry.”

The exhibit succeeded by contrasting the machinery of energy with a vulnerability or weakness inherent in that machine. In pieces like "Statue of Liberty," "Terrestrial Physics" and “Entre La Vida y La Muerte," machinery stands a monument to both ignorance and greatness, with fallible undertones.

The most striking piece in the exhibit, a video titled "Aranjuez," shows a different kind of energy, one made possible only by the mass mindset of a drunken crowd, where the "glorious" excess manifests in a form most debased and dehumanizing.

 

In the Eye of a Needle: Freedom
Willard Wigan’s “Statue of Liberty” stands in direct opposition to the idea of abundant space. It's a sculpture built in the eye of a needle. Wigan, a born dyslexic, creates on such a small scale that he has to hold his breath, work late at night, and work between heartbeats to keep from crushing—and in some cases accidentally inhaling!—his tiny pieces.

Viewable only through the microscope built around it, “Statue of Liberty” suggests abundant power may fail us in the end and possibility due to our own utilitarian designs.

After all, this iconic image of freedom could easily pass unnoticed outside of this exhibit. With details blind to the naked eye, one might consider "Statue of Liberty" as a material defect in an otherwise good needle, "Why can't I get this thread through!?" How will the seam get mended?

As Wigan says in his bio, “It began when I was five years old. I started making houses for ants because I thought they needed somewhere to live. Then, I made them shoes and hats. It was a fantasy world I escaped to where my dyslexia didn’t hold me back and my teachers couldn’t criticize me. That’s how my career as a micro-sculptor began.”

Wigan proves the best needles do not find their calling in mending seams. It's hard to overstate how human design at this tiny scale confuses the mind.

 

In the Eye of the Eye of a Needle: Mushroom Cloud
On the other hand, Jim Sanborn’s installation “Terrestrial Physics” fills an entire room.

 

Using a real particle accelerator, a Van der Graaf generator and a one-million-volt cathode, Sanborn’s work comes directly out of the ethical complexities of modern physics, a theoretical study in the early 20th century which became famously by mid-century an engineering application known as atomic bombs.

Much larger in size and yet made to cause reactions on a tinier scale than “Statue of Liberty,” “Terrestrial Physics” shows how tons of copper, aluminum, glass, steel, and other material are required to produce atomic energy. Yet, the contemporary comment rests in how Sanborn connects all of the control elements of this powerful structure: Using thin strands of knitting yarn. The yarn connects power to switches, switches to motors, and motors to motivations. The viewer could quite easily get tangled in the yarn where the threads bow lowest in the middle of the gallery.

The viewer feels a bit like a tempted kitten, the yarn nearly irresistible overhead, so much so that a museum attendant sits by to make sure you don’t.

Sanborn also created Kryptos, an indecipherable scroll of letters that sit outside CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, as though tempting agency code-breakers to try and solve it. Sanborn seems to ask, “What is science when it becomes an application? What does a moment of insight cost? What does a moment of carelessness cost?”

And what would happen if Schrodinger’s cat took yarny matters into his own hands?

 

Car as Coffin
In the parking lot across the street from DMCA stands Gonzalo Lebrija’s dramatic statue of a car plummeting straight down into a puddle of water. Entitled “Entre La Vida y La Muerte,” the front fender of a car just barely touches the surface of the water below as though the car, a muscle of black steel from the late 1960s, has fallen from a height straight down.

Looking at it, you can hear the violent crash, having seen it a thousand times on television and in films. You can imagine the water splaying and steaming from the slam of this motorized comet. And yet, there is no death. The car hangs forever a split-second from impact.

It’s a visual with much implied energy, and as much of a guilty pleasure to watch as the films that inspired it. You have Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” Mustang frozen in a life-is-reflection metaphor instead of burning up the streets of San Francisco, but badass macho just the same.

 

Nightclub as Coffin
“Aranjuez” is a disturbing and captivating video installation by Gonzalo Lebrija.

Visitors can hear music from Lebrija's video echoing throughout the entire museum. It booms and reverberates from the basement floor like an underground dance party. This builds your anticipation, as you’ve already been bumping along with the tune for thirty minutes before you finally make your way down the stairs to the dark, mostly empty subterranean room, where you find two plush couches and a large screen in the darkness.

The song and the title of the installation refer to a Spanish composition played during the running of the bulls in the town of Aranjuez south of Madrid. (Click to listen to a sample of what echoed throughout the museum.)

The audio is funky. It cooks. But the video features something that clashes with the party sound.

Filmed from the artist’s apartment window in Guadalajara, Mexico, the images begin with overhead shots in a plaza of a crowd ebbing and flowing across the screen. As you sit down on one of the sofas, you immediately feel comfortable and relaxed. The footage of the crowd seems intriguing, like a close up of a rhythmic eddy in a stream.

The more you watch, however, the more you begin to see that the crowd is turned inward around a central nucleus. What gravity pulls people in like this? Celebrity? Money? You can’t tell. Next you see a metal security fence with policemen trying to push their way through and get to the crowd. Is this a jailbreak?

Eventually, Lebrija focuses on two teenage girls in the center of swarms and swarms of men, and you realize, you are watching what might become a huge gang trampling or rape or god knows what. You feel sickened as you watch these girls fend off gropes from men, some of whom seem to be trying to help them. It’s an image of human sexuality at its most insect nature, like watching hundreds of ants trying to mate with the queen. (According to the installation’s placard, the crowd formed when intoxicated young men flooded the street after a soccer match.)

Eventually, the girls run flailing and punching to get free from the crowd. The video closes by focusing on one particularly girl’s escape. As she runs for her life in her tight blue jeans, her thin midriff reveals itself, winking under the cropped bottom of an undersized T-shirt emblazoned across her shapely chest with the number 69.

 

Consider Well This Ruined Aqueduct
Energy Effects’ curators paraphrased Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” in the exhibit’s opening statement, saying, “If the Romans had known more about the laws of hydraulics, they would not have constructed such splendid aqueducts.”

But De Tocqueville did not mean greatness requires a level of ignorance. A bombast. No, he meant greatness and ignorance are the same thing the way light is both a wave and a particle.

In his essay, De Tocqueville says the Romans would not have built the aqueducts because, “They would have made a better use of their power and their wealth. …These things are the splendid memorials at the same time of their ignorance and of their greatness.”

Thus, the works in Energy Effects bring the viewer to a better understanding of that dual nature of ignorance and greatness. The Statue of Liberty confined within the eye of a needle; atomic energy controlled with yarn; a mass of steel, combustion and engineering plunging headfirst from the sky into a parking lot puddle—all of these things show monumental greatness in a tentative (and presumably fatal) balance with their own ignorant predicament.

Yet Lebrija’s video shows that predicament with particular power. At first, his video is a visual composition involving the ebb and flow of organic shapes, like a nature film about a flock of birds drafting in collective flight. But the ultimate reveal is not harmony, but rather chaos. There’s no poetry and no collective, at all.

It’s the most animal nightclub imaginable, where sexual pursuit devolves from dance to streetfight. The viewer watches as space, speed, power and effort mix one glorious excess for the eye, and then the opposite for the heart.

De Tocqueville sums it up: “Whenever a power of any kind is able to make a whole people cooperate in a single undertaking, that power…will succeed in obtaining something enormous from efforts so multiplied. But this does not lead to the conclusion that the people are very happy, very enlightened, or even very strong.”