Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Where Are We? — Tavares Strachan

Note: This exhibition has been extended to 1/13/07.

Tavares Strachan is a name you will hear again. (The pronunciation is approximately “ta-VAR-ez strawn.”) The young artist, who grew up in Nassau, Bahamas, graduated this year from Yale’s MFA program. I encountered an example of work at the Armory Show last winter and mentioned it in this blog. That work, thought small in scale, had certain traits that also show up in the artist’s larger projects.

Strachan’s debut on the West Coast is hosted by the non-profit Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It’s a coup for the Luggage Store’s curators, Laurie Lazer and Darryl Smith.

Strachan’s installation is called “Where We Are Is Always Miles Away.” The gallery windows have been blacked out for the occasion. The main source of illumination is the fluorescent lighting inside the primary object, a tall hexagonal chamber standing in the space. This metal structure has windows on all six sides. (Photo at top.) On the floor inside, the artist has installed a square 3,000-pound section of sidewalk extracted from a street in New Haven, Connecticut. The cement rests on a layer of dirt. (Photo above.) Captured as part of the sidewalk are a parking meter and a stanchion that holds three parking signs. A water valve cover with a blue lid was also captured. (Photos below.)

The chamber is hermetically sealed. Its temperature and humidity are controlled by external equipment. The interior environmental conditions, including the light, are designed to mimic those found in New Haven at the time and place of the extraction. (Photos of the air control system are below.)

In a small side room, there are before-and-after photos in New Haven and a short video projected on the floor, providing an accelerated account of the removal in New Haven. Just outside this room is a letter from the City of New Haven expressing enthusiasm for the project and (even more amazing) the city’s willingness to to perform the removal, storage, and replacement pro bono.

Strachan has carried out a related project in which he extracted a 4.5-ton block of ice from a frozen river in the Alaskan Arctic. Later the ice was installed in a refrigerated viewing container, which was shipped to the Bahamas for exhibition in July of this year. The refrigeration system can be operated by solar power. This work was recently relocated to Miami for exhibition during the Miami art fairs this month.

It’s worth noting that there are some precedents for Strachan’s transpositions of landscape. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Smithson made his Nonsite sculptures, in which materials like stones gathered from specific locations (often in New Jersey) were placed in metal containers for display in a gallery, along with photos and maps of the site to which the nonsite referred. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark cut sections from old buildings and displayed them in galleries. In a work called “Sod Swap” (1983), David Nash exchanged two small areas of land between Kensington Gardens, London, and a property in north Wales. In 1998, Richard Barnes made photos of the “Unabomber” cabin in an FBI warehouse in Sacramento, where it was being held as evidence. Barnes also photographed the Montana location from which the cabin had been removed.

One way that Strachan differs from these artists is his tone. His clinical style of presentation, so seriously elaborate, radiating almost a CSI aura, is a strategy of deadpan wit. Absurd objects are presented with solemnity, sparking amusement followed by more serious thoughts.

Strachan is so newly arrived that there isn’t much commentary available on his work. What little I’ve found is couched in the evasive style so common to art-speak these days. There are statements that the artist “touches on” this and “references” that. It’s the sort of writing where entire fields of knowledge—ecology and entropy—are introduced with a wave of the hand. Even the short quotes from the artist do not really bring the work into focus. (A full-fledged interview would help.)

Strachan’s practice is confounding because the results are so striking, yet hard to pin down. His work clearly means something, but he's not trying to illustrate a proposition. I see him as an ideographic artist: he uses symbols that have manifold meanings. His work is not about making statements but about creating awareness. His stunts are so unexpected that they seem to bypass critical analysis and register in some visual-emotive area of our brains.

It’s also clear that Strachan’s works are more than objects; they are performances. After learning the basic facts about the objects, you marvel at the resourcefulness and determination required to produce them. Realizing that so much effort was invested in an absurd project, you sense the artist's exuberance and feel energized by it. And you catch the hint that you, too, could intervene in the world.

One of the contents of Strachan’s work is an interest in displacement—what it looks like and how it feels. Displacement is now a universal experience, even for people who stay in the same locale. The world’s rapid changes, occurring on many levels at once, are leaving everyone somewhat adrift. Random bits of our former worlds turn up looking forlorn. But paradoxically, displacement can also make people more aware of connections that were unseen or neglected before. In Strachan’s work an underlying sense of connection seems as strong as the evidence of disconnection.

Another meaning of the work can be seen in Strachan’s use of environmental control systems. He seems to be suggesting that any place on the globe, no matter how negligable, is maintained by fragile balances of nature. And by transporting samples of the world far from their origins, he invokes an awareness of the entire Earth as a system of balances.

In his Luggage Store installation, Strachan also manages to signify, in his prankster way, the extent to which living in a free country subjects people to constraint. Ripped out of context, the parking meter and the three parking signs symbolize the regime of micro-management that people face at every turn.

Strachan's ability to create memorable objects that balance wit and seriousness is a sign of his artistic acumen and probably of his staying power.

A footnote: Recently I happened to see video documentation of two related projects by other artists. On the theme of management of public space, the Rebar Group is doing an ongoing project called “COMMONspace,” under the sponsorship of Southern Exposure. The group is carrying out actions in privately owned open spaces in San Francisco to test the behavioral codes and enforced rules of each site. Also, in a too-brief group show at The LAB, young Japanese performance artist Yoshinori Niwa presented a video showing him as he carried a bag of trash from Tokyo for disposal in San Francisco. Along the way, the bag went through Narita airport security and a checkpoint (customs?) in the U.S. It was a very funny and pointed performance.


Anonymous said...

God, so much text, such drab and ugly images.

Are you really so in love with this, or is it the Yale imprimatur that makes you feel the need to go on?

I respectfully enjoy your blog. But this work is just dismal. I suppose impoverished-Bahamanian-goes-to-Yale is a rewarding narrative for you,but if a work needs an acre of text to explain/legitimize/justify it..

Drab, dismal garbage.

Bob said...

I realize that for blog readers, a little text goes a long way. What would be viewed as a short essay in a magazine looks like major text in a blog. I often complain myself about bloggers who go on and on! So I make a conscious effort to be concise. But for some types of work, I find that I need a little more space to place an artwork in context and try to describe what interests me about it.

“Drab” and “dismal” are not words that I would use for Strachan’s installation. The piece is too theatrical for that. I found it exhilarating, actually. Although worked out with great care, the project at its core is rather unbuttoned.

I touched briefly on Strachan’s bio because he has just appeared on the scene and because it seems relevant to his theme of displacement. I don’t know if he has been impoverished. According to his resume, he has spent many years in institutions of higher education. His MFA from Yale is one fact among many. It doesn’t mean he’s a good artist. The work itself is primary.

I am not a fan of work that seems to breathe only when surrounded by an iron lung of commentary. But some artwork requires a knowledge of the immediate facts. And any work with a large conceptual component tends to stimulate thoughts that branch in different directions, like internet searches. That’s one thing that is interesting about it. So I personally welcome any helpful commentary, from the mundane to the metaphysical. The problem comes when the commentary seems like a prosthesis for a feeble work.

I don’t find Strachan’s work to be feeble in its materiality. But it operates outside even the liberal notions of beauty that now prevail, so I can understand that some people would not take to it. My own response is that beauty is important, but it is not everything.

Anonymous said...

thank you, bob, for your consciousness on describing this work, i enjoyed reading it very much.

I am preparing guided tours for kids, youth, elder and everyone, for the exhibition ny state of mind at the hkw in berlin. tavares work is to be seen there, and i already heard him and shaheen merali, the curator, talk about it.

but as you say, with every (verbal) exploration there remains more to discover. I find it quite difficult to "mediate art" by words, and find the way you guide awareness to interesting aspects of the work very helpful!

greetings form berlin,
stephanie hanna