More Distant Objects / Ultra-Deep Field exhibition essay

Exhibition page and images found HERE

Exactness is a mirror; not of the world,

but of the ideology of the world.

 - Susan Stewart, 1993 (1)

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image was assembled over four months of rigorous and highly technical data mining, image capturing, and compositing in a small and extremely dark region of space. The image reveals approximately 10,000 galaxies spanning back about 13 billion years. This technological feat flattens space and time to a digestible medium: an image. For three years a poster of the HUDF image was taped over a desk in my workspace – a $14 cultural commodity, a wrinkled and taped souvenir of nature squeezed into human order, a constant reminder of the limiting experience that I have with universe it represents. Over time the poster became self-evident. The associations with the cosmic became subdued as the white creases of the paper became just as apparent as the glow of a small galaxy. The 11 x 14 inch window into the universe was quickly becoming a piece of paper. It was experiencing its own time. It was a time of dry adhesive, dust, water spots, wrinkles and sagging. Though the image represents the grand (billions of years), the poster was experiencing time with me, locally.

The poster became a metaphor, an exaggeration, and a relation of scale. The distress of the poster merged the image and paper into an aesthetic object, but the process revealed a sense of limits and desire. The kitschy sublime of the image was transformed into a tangible souvenir, not of technical progress and the human need to search the endless, but of the very hours, days and years that I have owned it. The artwork on view in Ultra-Deep Field focuses on the tension between the experience of “the grand” and “the local”. The exhibition addresses the representing of desire, time, and scale that sometimes results in, not failure, but re-contextualization. The idea of the grand is romantic, but when experienced locally it offers a different sense of poetry. Consider an excerpt from one of Edward Hirsch’s poems about the death of his son:

Like a bolt of lighting in the fog

Like a bolt of lightning over the sea

Like a bolt of lightning in our backyard (2)

The lightning (or death) can be romanticized if we separate it from ourselves, far away in nature’s hazy fog or over nature’s endless horizon of the sea. When the lightning strikes in our backyard—where we mow the lawn, put up fences, where the dog defecates and the children play—we are reminded of a power that blatantly exceeds us. When we are forced to deal with nature in “the local” it is disorienting. Ultra-Deep Field focuses on this disorientation and how to reorient one’s body with the world that is acting upon it. Bill Conger’s coming dark is an invitation for this lightning strike, this disorientation from the everyday. The 48 inch tall vintage lightning rod waits on the gallery floor for a strike that will never happen. The lightning rod’s life and history are about waiting and anticipation. It peers to the sky with its sharp tip as if to tirelessly threaten and entice nature to strike. Its aged posture seems desperate to once more feel the momentary ecstasy of fulfilling its use, to show the worth of the wait and the might it possesses as the volts pass through its metal body. Are we to identify with the lightning rod? Conger’s Proustian undertones in his work suggest we do. That time is loss, and life is insurmountable despite some interwoven ecstasies.(3) The lightning rod may share the same predisposition of Roland Barthes as he waits in anticipation for his lover:

“Am I in love? — Yes, since I’m waiting.” The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.(4)

 As I poetically personify Conger’s lightning rod, I want to make it clear that it is objectively a tool. It is a tool that is used to bring the natural world closer to where the human being exists.(5)

Daniel Baird’s Proposition can be considered a curated collection of objects and tools. The piece is comprised of marble dust, aluminum, grey glass, flint, rapid prototype of the Venus of Willendorf, emergency blanket, bird wing, ejection seat handle, meteorite, and iridescent diffraction foil (a bird deterrent). The pieces in Proposition have a scale that not only fits on a shelf but—like the lightning rod waiting for lightning—depends on what is absent. This absence heightens Baird’s proposition of desire. Now that the meteorite, bird wing, ejection seat handle, and so on are taken out of their natural context, the collection replaces history with classification. A classification where the “context is not one of origin, but of metaphor to the relation to the world of everyday life”.(6)

This classification is cultural, and the metaphor is poetic. One may look at the meteorite and imagine it violently burning through Earth’s atmosphere towards our homes to share our gravity, to finally rest at our feet – locally. Then turn attention toward the ejection seat handle and imagine the thrust upward, the attempt of the technological feat to reach the heavens (the grand) and subsequent failure. Thus, only the handle is present, the souvenir of our limits, the tool we use as an extension of our body to jump upward. Tools, as Marshall McLuhan points out, are all extensions of our bodies: legs, fingers, eyes, hands, etc., and like the ejection seat handle “they extend the reach farther into the natural world and tear objects from it more powerfully and more quickly than the body could do on its own.”(7)

If the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image is a way to orient ourselves with all that exceed us, the photograph itself poses as the mediation. The photograph, perhaps more than any other tool, reaches far into the natural world and tears objects from it. Holly Murkerson’s Hidden Pond accentuates the inadequacy of the photograph as mediation and Laura Davis’s Fontania relates a necklace charm in a fashion photo to an image of Lucio Fontana’s painting. Murkerson’s folded photographs stop the viewer from falling into the referent that they portray. Like the creases in my HUDF poster, Murkerson’s folds create a boundary between the viewer and the image. The experience becomes local, painfully limiting one’s desire to think of the image of the pond as a place one can authentically experience in a gallery. Davis uses the scale of the necklace charm to suggest an uncanny relation to an image of a famous Fontana painting. The Fontana image is also taken out of a magazine. Davis cuts what Fontana would have cut out of his painting. The cut void becomes a tangible void in the image, prompting the necklace charm to seem more tangible than it is. This raises questions between associations of image and material, or the Modern and Post-Modern. Though both images are seductive, Davis offers a active comparison while Murkerson address the images’ failure, forcing the viewer to resign to a sort of truth that can be more poetic than projecting into a representation: You are here, now.

The concept of experiencing the world locally in the exhibition can be found in the work of Bob Jones and Adam Farcus. The reference of humble and ordinary materials from a hometown populates seven descending triangles of text on the gallery wall in Adam Farcus’s Abracadabra. Local materials such as hometown dirt, whisky, hawk feather, sunlight, and Epsom salt seek transcendence from the everyday through a potion or spell. The ordinary can become “a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure.”(7) The potion references a collection of the local. Through formal manipulation of the letters, the language becomes physically textual, opening the door to, perhaps, the structure of desire by way of something that cannot be demonstrated but can only be read and experience by each viewer. Abracadabra invents itself as an object on the wall. This, in turn, distances the objects it references, creating confusion between the signifier and the signified, generating a sort of magic; a mediated relation to nature from the artist.


Bob Jones’s Trunk unassumingly sits on the gallery floor. Made of a photograph of debris washed ashore from Lake Michigan (a block from his residence) and debris from his studio, Trunk’s form is held together with tar. The piece sits only 11 inches high, suggesting it is only the base of a small tree. The size is informed by the materials, though it is hard not to wonder where the rest of the tree is. Trunk, like most of Jones’s work, has dual existence as a sample and example. Trunk is a sample in the way it is comprised of smaller representative parts (a photograph and studio debris) of nature. When Jones snaps a photo or picks up debris, he is, in fact, sampling the natural world that is local to him. This sampling also implies the absent. If one takes a sample of water from a lake, one may imagine the lake. This sampling makes a direct connection from the sample to the whole, or the local to the grand. To that end, Trunk also exists as an example because of its formal imitation of a natural structure, citing a tree trunk. The example is not a one-to-one ratio as the sample is. It is a characteristic of nature, one that is based on the viewer and cultural relations. Like the absence in the samples used, the trunk also points toward the whole that does not exist. Comparable to Farcus’s Abracadabra, there is an awareness of lack and an inadequacy of representing the whole of nature and the experience the artist has with it.

Sarah and Joseph Belknap and Erin Washington use documentation as another form of investigation of the grand, the local, and the body in the exhibition. In the video Joseph Lights Sarah’s Cigarette with the Sun, Joseph Belknap does exactly what the title implies. The Belknaps’ video is reminiscent of 1970s video art, documenting a simple action, looped, to be experienced as a temporal metaphor. Like Conger’s lighting rod, Joseph uses a tool, a magnifying glass, to extend farther into the natural world and harness the power of the sun to simply light his wife’s cigarette. The Belknaps’ video examines a manipulation of nature: to literally concentrate the grand, through a magnifying glass, to a very specific local point, the end of a cigarette. In other words, the sun touches the cigarette. This gesture speaks to the ease in which we can manipulate nature into human time and order causing an orientation with the body and a complex system.

Erin Washington’s After Zeus documents a return or a change in, perhaps, who she knows herself to be. Washington badly injured her drawing hand and required sutures. On a black acrylic panel with white chalk, the piece documents the process of Washington’s hand healing by using her injured hand to draw itself. The first drawing was drawn right after the incident. It is a ghost on the panel, but still visible. It is clunky, awkward, and smaller than life size. The more prominent drawing was drawn after the sutures had been removed. It is larger than life size, more defined and pronounced, but like previous drawing, it risks being replaced. Because the drawings are produced with chalk, the act and the medium itself are just as temporal as the documentation. This representation of time literally comes from Washington’s hand. The hand gestures, reaching, as it is hung on the gallery wall. It is hard not to make a connection to the handprints found in Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Spain. Both the cave and Washington’s piece demonstrate both an awareness of limitations and a historic existential gesture: I am here.

The locality of which Katie Bell produces her work recontextualizes the history of the material she uses. Similar to Jones, Bell’s studio is a place of investigation, where she compiles source material. It is easy to link her small pieces in the exhibition to painting, but they are also self-aware objects. The materials inform and guide the process. The materials set aesthetic limitations and produce very tangible objects guided by the history of painting. Though they may be guided by such history, they are void of the devices of painting. Without these props the works become self-evident, more concrete; they desire to be “more real” – by way of abstraction.

Ultra-Deep Field tests not only the artists’ but also the viewer’s relationship to the exterior universe through cultural and artistic devices. The work in the exhibition shies away from the grandiose and excessive in an attempt to focus on what is tangible. The tangibility in each piece offers itself as a tool in the gallery that can be used to think about the grand through negation. The work is a tool as the stars in the sky are a tool. Though one cannot feel the ground moving, one can use the movement of the stars (the grand) to understand the rotation of the Earth beneath us (the local). This type of reorientation of the body to the natural world is at the heart of Ultra-Deep Field. The poetics stem from the limitations of inadequately representing a relationship between the body and the natural world. Ultra-Deep Field is about scale and relation, not about exactness. Exactness is too absolute to come by way of hand.

- Jason Judd

 

1 Stewart, Susan. "On Description and the Book." Introduction to On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 5. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

2 Hirsch, Edward. Gabriel: A Poem. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 6.

3 Judd, Jason A. "Other Investigations: Bill Conger." Make Space. 2012. Accessed October 18, 2014. http://make-space.net/2012/01/03/other-investigations-bill-conger/.

4 Barthes, Roland. "Waiting." In A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, 39-40. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

5 McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.

6 Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. 153.

7 Flusser, Vilém. "The Apparatus." In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 23. London: Reaktion Books, 1983.

8 Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. 34.