Smoke Signals and Muffled Drums: Terry Adkins at the Venice Biennale, 2015

by Tom Csaszar

The loss of Terry Adkins to the art world – specifically the New York, Washington and Philadelphia art world — is still being calculated. Some of the force of his works can be seen in the context of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Here, Adkins’ shifting visual paradigms operate against a backdrop of various levels of context, both regional and international: the African American community in the United States and the broader communities of contemporary visual experience. Adkins’ works in the Biennale, along with those of Harun Farocki, Chris Marker, the Egyptian painter Inji Efflatoun, and others, remind us of the importance of works by artists who have died recently, works whose impact and relevance have not yet been fully explored and responded to by others.

Many of Adkins’ sculptures seem at first to have undergone a complete transformation, one that not only makes them unrecognizable as objects in our common world, but also one that seems to make them belong to an unrecognizable world. Plinth (2004) and Solemnis (2004), both from the “Black Beethoven” Series, belong to a surreal architecture and sense of place that turns conventions inside out. In Plinth, a base supports a closed-off interior. In Solemnis, sculptural events frame the brass structural elements, placing borders and grids in the middle of the work and relegating the drama and narrative to the two wings of the piece. At the same time that these works transform their materials into formal and social dramas, they also, almost in contradiction to this, truthfully reveal how they do this. As much as they are transformed, they remain a literal statement of their process. It is as if we see the magic trick both as a trick and as a revealed slight of hand at the same time. The series of sculptural statements which define Plinth contains mystery, and at the same time strips this mystery away. It becomes an odd drama in which the ordinary is rearranged and explored without losing its familiarity.

Adkins’ sculptures remind us that provocation and consolation can both take part in the same work, and that they can connect to private and public experiences – that is to say to personal and to social histories.

Consistent with this, Adkins develops different modes of revealing drama and relevance in the easily recognized. Muffled Drums (2003) from the “Darkwater” Series is comprised of a stack of marching band drums, presumably objects found and collected. And yet the improbable levitation of these round forms, resisting gravity and physical collapse into a heap remains a testament to the mute heroic persistence of common objects. Through their appearance as found objects pulled from real histories, they go on to speak clearly of their social and political references to music, the history of African American marching bands, and the power of continuing forms, like Brancusi’s Endless Column. African American marching bands emerged following the war of 1812 in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York, and were evidence of both the military and the musical presence of African Americans in the developing United States. As much as Brancusi relied on transforming folk elements into classical Modernism, Adkins relies on retaining multiple references in the ordinary untransformed elements of a work, simultaneously using these elements to refer to a complex history and a unified aesthetic reflection.

Another type of Adkins’ works does this in more metaphoric terms, but still with a material and formal rigor. Single Bound (2000) is a semi-circular metal structure, hinged out from the wall, one half covered with feathers, the other with a type of netting. It is a prototypical form for a wing or a shield, which is neither fully transformed nor fully formed, but remains a powerful statement of materials in transition between two – and probably more – images and references. The initial recognition of ordinary materials here is subsumed in their sculptural and aesthetic transformation. Likewise Smoke Signal (2012) is a dialogue between two materials and processes. The tall (roughly fifteen feet) metal structure is made of stacked Eames chair skeletons set in a concrete base, with black strips draped on the top. As usual, Adkins moves back and forth between several different worlds and references, from modernist commercial production to ceremonial ritual, and from solidity to a smoke-like matrix of lines.

Some have complained that Adkins’ works at the 2015 Venice Biennale in the Arsenale were placed in sort of a hallway, somewhat in between galleries, which is a justifiable objection. However they were well placed in relation to the sequence of viewing works; at the beginning of a huge section of the exhibition at the Arsenale, which struggled to show works that plugged into various parts of the world culture and its futures.  In the words of their curator, Okwui Enwezor, these works focused on liveness, gardens of chaos, and a Marxist notion of labor and value in contemporary societies. Adkins’ pieces are in the second and third spaces following the multi-edged works of Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed. Nauman’s works here are the neon signs of trite but resonant aphoristic clichés, like store signs realigned to either private fears or public slogans, such as Eat Death (1972) and Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983). One comes around a corner after seeing these and encounters Adkins’ Last Trumpet (1995), Off Minor (2004), and Muffled Drums (2003). Rather than provoking a nervous response, they quietly start to speak their stories of social histories and cultural locations. Only after the viewer takes the time to be engaged by their slowly disclosed references and narratives does one find one’s own response and place in relation to their disquieting transformations.

Ultimately these pieces connect to at least three ongoing dialogues in contemporary culture. First is that of objects from the everyday world repositioned to resonate with new meanings, such as those of Duchamp, Cornell, Rauschenberg, and more recently Rachel Harrision and Isa Genzken; second that of a conversation of visual works referring to the relationships of space, form, music and sound, such as those stretching from Kandinsky to Terry Fox, Keith Sonnier and others, including the Nigerian artist who also showed this year in the Venice Biennale, Emeka Ogboh; and third, Adkins extends the dialogue of works that explore African American experience, such as Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, and David Hammons. The full resonance of Adkins’ works is in their ability to take part in multiple cultural conversations. They do this by being simultaneously presentations of ordinary experience and unique, strangely charged transformations of these recognized narratives.

Tom Csaszar is a painter, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. He has a recent essay on other works at the 2015 Venice Biennale on Art Critical.