The Icebox, Crane Arts
By Jacob Feige
Timothy Belknap’s 72 Years to the Moon began with an action that I could only hear, my eyes not yet adjusted to a bright field of light in an otherwise dark room. I searched for visual confirmation as the sound of objects plopping onto a brittle surface filled the large Icebox space. A metal object clanged. My first clues seemed to be false positives: brief threads of shadow shooting through the intense brightness, framed by a scalloped rectangular cutout in a wall façade. As the shadows became clearer but still barely discernable, the blurred silhouette of an archer formed on the wall to the right of the façade. Someone was shooting arrows. I was equally relieved and disappointed to have a concrete reference for this experience on the edge of the sensory threshold.
Belknap’s performance occurred four times in March for small audiences in neat rows of chairs about thirty feet from this intensely lighted cutout—essentially a screen—through which audience members peered. Viewers were led into the space, told to keep quiet, and informed that the duration would be about twenty minutes. Essentially a work of performative sculpture, the quality of this work can be separated from interesting questions raised by its format: how can artists direct the attention of their audiences? Have we arrived at a crisis point in the visual arts, in which viewers take only cursory glances at art amidst the social din of openings and fairs? Before these questions can be addressed, 72 Years to the Moon deserves a careful exploration outside of its social context.
This was a raw sensory experience, an affair of everyday materials made inexplicable and abstract. Harsh light flickered as rolls of clear plastic (at least that’s how I saw it) zigzagged through the frame of the screen. Streams of liquid formed unexpected patterns in stark light and shadow. The speed of the action seemed at times faster than my eyes could perceive; other times, it slowed nearly to a stop. For a time a bright orange disc undulated uncomfortably in a corner of the frame as a red ball bounced abruptly in and out of view. Many of these gestures had the subtle rhythm of a human action; others were clearly the work of machines. In the most engaging and mystifying moments, events floated in an ambiguous perceptual space between human and machine, the relationship to the performers’ bodies uncertain. At its best, 72 Years to the Moon explored the liminal spaces between automatic and deliberate abstract action, the two often intermingling and losing distinction.
References abound to machine aesthetics in modernist art, most notably Ferdinand Leger and Dudley Murphys’ Le Ballet Méchanique (1924). The latter film is both a critique of modern, urban life as an assault on human consciousness, and an affirmation of machines as subjects. Nearly a century on, no such ideology remains in mechanical gestures, and we are left to explore the often funny, whimsical interaction between human and machine movement in 72 Years to the Moon. In the wake of John Cage, awkward timing can be a meaningful pause, comedic shtick, or both.
In the final moments of the piece, a performer revealed herself by climbing to the top of the façade. In a series of slow movements, she appeared ready to take a swan dive onto the cement floor but in the end simply lay on the edge of the wall. In a work that used conventions of theater but lacked actual theatricality, this final insertion of the performer into the external space of the viewer seemed a pointless distraction, separated from the appealing rhythms of the work. Within seconds of this overly precious gesture, Belknap broke the tension, walking out from his hidden workspace and saying bluntly, “okay, that’s it.”
The format and the context of the piece, with its expectations for a quiet audience and a finite duration, set this work apart from other performance in the art gallery context. Few people could be part of the audience, and surely some would-be viewers balked and left. Those who remained had the opportunity for singular focus. Philadelphia in particular, where many see art only during opening receptions, is a town of art seen at a glance, phone and drink in hand, for a few seconds at a time. Belknap’s format was a logical fix to this dilemma.
The artist broke with convention in another way, by holding the performance at the Icebox, a space where he is co-curator. Is this legitimate opportunism, or should the traditional separation between curatorial and artistic roles remain in place? Numerous artist-run spaces in Philadelphia exhibit both member-artists and shows curated by those artists, though the Icebox has not been administered this way in the past. As curatorial roles expand to encompass artistic gestures, artists who are also curators should be allowed similar freedom. Certainly for non-commercial spaces in Philadelphia, the artist as artist-and-curator is a norm. Belknap’s curatorial projects at the Icebox, organized with Ryan McCartney, have verged on artistic gestures, with artists’ works variously placed in pickup trucks and made in response to bags of trash supplied by the curators.
In 1859 American painter Frederick Church put his large romantic landscape painting The Heart of the Andes on display in his studio building in New York. Twelve thousand people visited over the next month, and the artist made three thousand dollars from admission. The piece was well regarded by critics. Today, a commercial gallery would typically organize such a viewing on an artist’s behalf, if such a thing were to happen at all. The reputation of an art venue often authenticates or ruins the work shown there in the eyes of a public eager for signifiers of status and shortcuts for thought. Circumventing that system removes important filters in the artist-exhibition complex, but it also removes the snobbish tendency to judge art based on context rather than a well-informed or deeply felt personal opinion. For Belknap, time at the Icebox was available, so he made use of it, showing an experimental piece outside the scope of his existing practice. This would have only been a bad idea if the work itself was bad, and it wasn’t. 72 Years to the Moon, with its mix of sit-down formality and gestures on the threshold of perception, made me conscious of my senses in a way that few works have. In another setting I might have typically wandered off, missing this twenty-minute foray to the edges of my own vision and hearing.