John Thompson:Holding Our Own

By Olivia Jia

at the Napoleon Project Space


John Thompson’s Holding Our Own at the Napoleon Project Space deals with our society’s enduring, nostalgic fascination with historical calamity. As ancient cultures turned to gods to justify the inexplicable phenomena of the natural world, we are likewise fixated on understanding the unknowable. Through sculptural woodworking installations, Thompson builds an environment for the personal contemplation of contemporary legend, addressing different mythologies in popular culture.


In 1971, an unidentified man (referred by the media as D. B. Cooper) boarded a Boeing 727, notified the flight attendant of a bomb in his briefcase, demanded $200,000 and four parachutes, and successfully escaped. Despite a futile manhunt and the unlikelihood of Cooper’s survival, the case file remains active. Four years after the disappearance of D. B. Cooper, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior with a crew of 29. No distress call was issued, and the final communication from the Fitzgerald’s Captain were the words, “we are holding our own.” Though the wreck has since been discovered, the cause of the disaster remains unknown. What joins these unrelated incidents is the mystery surrounding their fates and the subsequent public obsession with decoding them.


Thompson’s pieces are personal investigations of these two events. The show is comprised of two vitrines, tentatively titled D.B. Cooper’s 727 (which contains a model of an airplane) and The Mighty Fitz (which contains a model of a ship), as well as a backlit, perforated wall installed at the far end of the gallery. The work represent both the intimate act of the artist’s crafting of the models and the relationship of the individual viewer with history.


D.B. Cooper’s 727 is the most spatially and visually complex piece in the show. The viewer peers through a small window to find a hovering model plane lit with red and green from the port and starboard lights. By bisecting the model plane with a mirror, Thompson transforms the interior of the capsule into a cavernous and illogical space. The spatial trick removes the model plane from the context of the room. The mirror has a double function – it at once extends the space and it allows the plane (only half of which physically exists) to suspend magically in the center of the vitrine. Staring back at the viewer is his or her own reflection, yet the reflection appears much further away than the physical structure would allow, and the relationship between interior and exterior becomes uncanny.


Creating the installation within an airplane window presents ambiguity. The viewer cannot access the reality of these histories except through conjecture, yet the generalized shape of the window and the mirroring of the viewer’s face could place them either outside or inside of the plane. The gulf between the self that observes and the self that is observed becomes as wide as the viewer’s inability to solve the mystery of D.B. Cooper. By placing the viewer in front of the airplane window, they are entered into the myth itself.


The Mighty Fitz is equally rich in layered meaning, though it does not contain the sharp optical wit of the D.B. Cooper’s 727. It is immediately less intimate, with windows that stretch across the length of the model ship, making the interior of the vitrine visible to more than one person at a time. The success of this piece lies in the deeply rooted iconography of the ship itself, rather than in Thompson’s facilitation of an individualized experience. A model of the Fitzgerald rests atop a sheet of frosted glass that glows beneath eerie red and green glow from the port and starboard lights on a vessel. The same lighting that creates starkness in D.B. Cooper’s 727 becomes atmospheric in The Mighty Fitz.


The bird’s-eye perspective and the dark, shimmering light remind me of Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting Aurora BorealisThe Mighty Fitz pays homage to the artistic tradition of romantic renderings of the terrifying sublime. Dwarfed within Thompson’s constructed environment, the ship becomes a reminder of the insignificance of human beings on the face of a vast, unknown world. Without a mirror, the piece becomes the opposite of D.B. Cooper’s 727 – the viewer is excluded from The Mighty Fitz, not an integral element of its composition. Thompson celebrates the public perception of these disasters and recognizes the romantic impossibility of solving the unknown.


The final piece in the show is the pegboard wall entitled Search. The backlit boards become a grid of lights that reference the map and the process of searching, an element at the core of all three works in Holding Our Own. In this vast field of lights, three tiny colored LED lights stand out – a red, green, and white lights mark the tiny blip on the massive search map where the plane might be. They are frozen through time with the promise of an answer forever lingering on the horizon.


In each dimly lit vitrine, the holes in their pegboard exteriors allow the light of the gallery to filter through in bright pinpricks. These lit, gridded dots become a reference to the context of the larger gallery space. They reminds us that the realities of The Great Fitz and D.B. Cooper’s 727 are constructed. If these pegboard holes function in such a way, then perhaps Search mirrors that function. Ultimately, are we as mired as the imaginary wooden passengers inside the model vessels? Perhaps Search’s glowing grid of lights tells us that we ourselves are within a vitrine, prisoners in Plato’s cave, staring at our own shadows.


John Thompson’s installation places us within an alternate space that is simultaneously contextualized by history and by our own experience. Some of the complexities within the work depend on the viewer’s knowledge of the two events Thompson references. Information is provided in the exhibition essay, although the show seems to be dependent on a deeply rooted, culturally imbued memory of the Fitzgerald and of D.B. Cooper. Learning about the subjects of Thompson’s work through an essay or through a quick Wikipedia search likely lacks the romantic and nostalgic impact the show would have on one who grew up with these strange and mysterious stories on the news. Despite the fact that the impact of Thompson’s historically and culturally intense references may be lost on younger generations, the pieces in this show successfully function on many levels that transcend generational and cultural gaps. References to the sublime, to the relationship between self and other, and to recent aviation disasters (Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 immediately come to mind) provide more than enough context to make the experience of Holding Our Own relevant and layered with symbolic value.


Olivia Jia is a painting student at the University of the Arts. She is interested in aesthetic philosophy and writing, and hopes to integrate these pursuits with her studio work.