Leeza Meksin: Turret Tops
On ViewDecordova Sculpture Park And Museum
August 24, 2019 – October 26, 2020
Leeza Meksin’s installation Turret Tops is ending its year-long tenure at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. What a year it has lived! I encountered the piece on a visit last winter. As the seasons have changed, along with the very fabric of our lived experience, the piece has lived in my mind’s eye, asking what it means to reimagine the structures we inhabit.
Turret Tops plucks both the form and proportions of the deCordova’s distinct architectural feature: two windowless turrets, grounding and queering them, both spatially and socially. The result is two tent-like structures made of brightly-colored neoprene stretched over a steel armature. An outer layer of golden, latex-like glideskin is cut and draped over each “turret.”
Both the building’s turrets and their burlesqued doppelgängers toy with disguise. Masquerading as functional architecture, the museum’s turrets are fundamentally ornamental, inaccessible even from the inside. Likewise, Meksin’s carnivalesque, drag queen dervishes are disguised as decoration. However, they are not only materially porous, and thus penetrable, but also open, and thus potentially inhabitable. Both the deCordova building and Turret Tops are also distinctly out of place. Harkening to structures intended for the defense of castles, the museum’s turrets were built in a part of rural Massachusetts known for its farmland heritage, a stone’s throw from Walden Pond. The building is an outrageous expression of wealth and prowess, made to be looked up at by others who feel looked down upon.
Meksin’s pop-princess twinset sticks out like a sore thumb in its locale. The cheeky pair has set up proverbial camp between Jim Dine’s Two Big Black Hearts (1985) and Dan Graham’s Crazy Spheroid: Two Entrances (2009), tasteful-cum-kitsch bronze and glass sculptures both well at home in a sculpture garden. Immediately, Meksin’s placement for her work is a commentary on taste and place. Turret Tops’ brazen exhibitionism baits viewers, but refuses to uphold the refractive, hardened distance of its neighbors. Rather, it absorbs. At closer proximity, visitors become intimately acquainted with its queer[ed] material pliability, so un-sculptural—or un-roof-like—in its haptic responsiveness. Emerging from the undeniable erotics of its structural invitation—I’m open, come inside me—it becomes starkly clear that although some postmodern sculpture might be literally closer to earth, it is no more hospitable than the towering defense of the museum’s architecture.
This intimacy is not without traces of violence. The neoprene under layer doesn’t quite wrap fully around the structure, and is stitched with a Frankensteinian crudeness two-thirds of the way down, like a postpartum wound, as if the stitcher suddenly remembered that there should be a hole just about there. As George Bataille states in Eroticism: Death and Sensuality: “We cannot imagine the transition from one state to another one basically unlike it without picturing the violence done to the being called into existence through discontinuity.”1 The two tops open towards each other, mirroring each other and simultaneously beckoning each other into the void.
Becoming, and its relationship to unbecoming, suffuses Turret Tops. As the piece synecdochically and semiotically points to the museum structure, it invites viewers to imagine the violent and fantastical event that brought them to earth. Did some giant hand palm the tops to the ground? Or were they swept off their fat, brick necks by a great scythe? Images of castration, beheading, and radical mastectomy proliferate.
Such imaginings recall a filmic transition in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), where soaring overhead shots of Nuremberg’s medieval towers cross-fade into a sea of army tents. This cut seems to say, “See, we used to be great, now it’s time to clean house.” The eerie optimism of such a trade in—and its seductive simplicity—resonates in an era where simple messages of change are favored by the right as much as the left. While right-wing paramilitary groups are told by our president to “stand by,” guillotines accompany far left protests in Ferguson, Missouri and at Jeff Bezos’s private residence.
Does radical reimagining always require violence? If so, the multi-faceted mimicry of Meksin’s vibrant forms serve as a wry, gleeful inquiry: so, you really think the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house? In a somewhat literal metaphor, Turret Tops calls strategies of structural change into question. And what better place to do so than outside of—but also a part of—a museum. The way in which cultural institutions operate within capitalist, white supremacist and patriarchal systems is more widely understood than ever before. And, like it or not, art is part of these mechanisms, even when critiquing the institution. Both art and art institutions support systems meant to keep certain people out while protecting and elevating others, regardless of how they’ve fashioned their top-down rhetoric.
Knowledge of the limits of surface and superficiality is embedded within Turret Tops, offering a deep humility. Neoprene and glideskin fabrics are not weatherproof, and their aging process outdoors was unpredictable. Over time, the glideskin outer layers grew chapped. In late summer, the glideskin was removed completely by Meksin, revealing the neoprene’s “tan lines.” The result is a quivering photogramic imprint of the material’s original color on the otherwise weathered surface. This chromatic trace is much like a Byzantine vera icon, an acheiropoieta, “not painted by the hand of man.” Neither replica nor representation, it becomes an inscribed experience. This, for Meksin, herself Russian and also a painter, is another wink. Julia Kristeva has mused, “In truth, an icon is not viewed. It is taken in, it is absorbed, it is experienced: it translates an invisible world into its visible lines.”2 The inconvenient truths of time, environment, and the limits of the surface and superficiality become central contagions to the read of the piece. Revolution or not, desired or not, change will come.
As the final days of the exhibition approach, I imagine the grassless, round patches below becoming the final iteration of the sculpture. Will the museum provide the sod to erase its tracks completely?
- George Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights, 1957) p 17.
- Julia Kristeva, The Severed Head: Capitalist Visions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) , p. 41-42.