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Jonathan Schipper: Irreversibility

The Boiler, May 15 - June 28, 2009

What a great idea. Artist Jonathan Schipper, with vital help from engineer Karl Biewald, manages to transform a car-crash into an observable work of art by slowing it way, way down. Two bygone muscle cars (a Camaro and a Firebird) are strapped to a steel frame outfitted with a sophisticated gear system that moves them imperceptibly toward each other, simulating a head-on collision in ultra-slow-motion. Thus, a violent crash that would ordinarily happen in an instant unfolds quietly over the course of the six-week exhibit. Thanks to movies and TV, we have become accustomed to seeing dramatic multi-car pile-ups, but Schipper invites us to look at a sudden and unplanned catastrophe in a new way by turning it into a gradual and controlled phenomenon.

Jonathan Schipper,“The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” (2007-2009). Top image taken at the beginning of the exhibition; bottom image taken several weeks later, toward the end of the exhibition. Courtesy of The Boiler.
Jonathan Schipper,“The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” (2007-2009). Top image taken at the beginning of the exhibition; bottom image taken several weeks later, toward the end of the exhibition. Courtesy of The Boiler.

Cars and “gearhead” culture have long provided fodder for American artists, both physically and conceptually. John Chamberlain famously made sculptures of twisted car parts in the 60s. Richard Prince’s 2007 Guggenheim retrospective included fiberglass models of truncated muscle-car hoods. Margarita Cabrera creates ironic soft-sculptures of Hummers. The cars depicted in Robert Bechtle’s photorealistic paintings provide subtle benchmarks of economic progress in America. Yoko Ono’s 1962 instruction piece told people to “Ride a coffin car all over the city.” Paul Villinski created a model for a solar-powered, mobile artist’s studio after Katrina devastated the New Orleans art community. In July, a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles by the West Coast artist collective OJO will feature two small cars and a choreographed game of Chicken.

The list is long, but Schipper’s project stands out for being clever, original, and conceptually resonant. Even after the gee-whiz, techno-geek factor wears off, Schipper’s installation scans as a poignant deconstruction of male rage and regret as well as a thoughtful—and playful—take on mortality. On each visit, we see that the crash has progressed a little further than it had on our last visit. We can walk around the cars, calmly marveling at the slowly bending hoods, only half aware of the calibrated chains turning quietly off to the side. “When we see an automobile destroyed, in a way we are looking at our own inevitable death,” Schipper writes about the project. “This moment is, because of its inherent speed, almost invisible.” By enabling the viewer to rubberneck bloodlessly and at leisure, Schipper asks us to consider our own mortality in the context of the grindingly slow process of life. From this perspective, death can seem less tragic than the workaday: the final outcome of industry.

“The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” is well-suited to the Boiler’s damp, dark, unrefined space, which has the distinctive feel of a crazy inventor’s workshop, or a grease-monkey’s home garage. Though he created similar installations in Chicago and Belgium in early 2008, well before the government bailout, Schipper’s piece seems particularly topical with the American auto industry on life-support. Owing to its conceptual depth, however, it avoids seeming banal or opportunistic.

In addition to the car project, the show includes “Measuring Angst,” a high-tech robotic gadget, installed overhead, that simulates throwing a Corona beer bottle and then, by an ingenious mechanical process, piecing the broken bottle back together. Unlike “American Muscle,” which has been programmed to finish its performance in six weeks, in this piece the motion, while slowed down and controlled, completes its cycle every minute or two. Furthermore, the action repeats itself in exactly the same way.

Whereas the car installation emphasizes the real irreversibility of movement and of life, the bottle piece postulates a surreal world of second chances and redemption. Although it is the smaller, less sensational of the two projects, “Measuring Angst” remains a potent exploration of the relationship between impetuous anger and enduring remorse. By enshrining the action of hurling a beer bottle against the wall and then creating a machine to piece it back together, Schipper has at once isolated a quintessential manifestation of macho male swagger and provided a countervailing metaphor for the bravura but delusional conviction that the American can-do spirit (and perhaps technical know-how) can fix even the most unfixable mistakes. As the robot replays the primal episode over and over, a combustible moment becomes a memory that refuses to fade, putting the lie to any wishful notion that the existential tape can be rewound. What a great idea.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


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