Sun in an Empty Room, 2009
String Room Gallery, Aurora, NY installation
The Background of the World:
Installations by Rhonda Weppler + Trevor Mahovsky
In an object- and commodity-oriented art world, it is refreshing to encounter work that is decidedly ephemeral, especially when it weds conceptual rigor and careful labor. Sun in an Empty Room and Music of Chance are temporary, on-site installations that will be recycled at the completion of the exhibition. Rhonda Weppler + Trevor Mahovsky have convictions about the ideas driving their works, but are less concerned about the physical permanence or preciousness of their installations (though these works nevertheless live on in photographs and websites). “We are interested in things that become the background of the world,” says Mahovsky; it is fitting that commonplace, cast-off objects become their subjects and materials and that these, too, become thrown away.
In Music of Chance (2009), the artists foil-emboss forms from cast-metal objects. These “sources,” such as a silver vanity mirror or a stainless Eiffel Tower tsotchke, are all shiny, metal items that the artists overlay with aluminum and rub and burnish until the foil takes on their surface and volumetric characteristics. The resulting installation is a continuous chain of randomly accumulated, hand-embossed entities. The meticulously crafted links are functional and metaphorical; they suggest a will or force that brings together otherwise unrelated whatnots. It’s striking how we can take these ciphers for the real things, even when we know very well that they are shiny, hollow shells waving in the breeze. The artists seem to invite comparisons among these objects and ask, “What are the limitations of mimicry? Of believability?” Small embossings of safety pins and spoons are uncannily convincing in their flatness and solidity,
while the larger ornate boxes and
scissors start to bend, buckle and collapse like foil. Somewhere in between we find the threshold of plausibility, especially when we consider the tension among the careful articulations of surfaces, textures and hollows; and the rough edges, wrinkles and seams intentionally left by the artists. In contemporary culture we usually encounter embossing as a printing technique in which wet paper is pressed over a mold to create textures. Weppler + Mahovsky defeat this usual situation of embossing by refusing to anchor it to a flat plane or ground. Part of Music of Chance’s strangeness comes from the notion that the embossings we usually encounter as low-relief, here aspire to become robust, three-dimensional forms. These expectations and executions bring a paradox—surfaces that uneasily become volumes.
Music of Chance is the realization of an idea started in 2004 and has been most notably expressed in the series of “life-sized” foil cars that have been made and exhibited internationally. Again there is a perceptual conflict between the realism that is expressed in so many tiny details and the greater foil sheets that implode upon themselves. Photograph of 1989 Ford Escort 3, (2007) references this series—we might recall that photography itself is a kind of recording by which we often mistake the object in the picture for the “thing itself.” We often discuss people in this manner—“that’s Uncle John” or “here’s Princess Di”—we rarely say a photograph is a mere likeness or acknowledge the photographic medium. The photography references the foil insofar as both capture a likeness that is an inadequate replacement for the object depicted.
Sun in an Empty Room (2009), is another on-site installation. In this endeavor the artists fabricate a cast environment that references rocks, bottles and the gallery floor itself. This resulting work is an environment meant not only to be looked at, but experienced immersively by walking upon its alien surfaces. This installation dislocates Vancouver’s rocky shores to the edge of Cayuga Lake to create a “cultural wasteland” of sorts, a “natural” environment made up of cast-off Vancouver and Central New York newspapers (a decidedly low-tech mediascape). This rocky space complete with detritus evokes forgotten, vestigial spaces—those the philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls (as famously repeated in The Matrix ) “deserts of the real.” This environment represents the all-too-actual nether-spaces touched neither by development nor environmental upkeep.
But then we come back to reality to understand that this is a mere simulation of a polluted beach or the empty urban properties between buildings. The artists add a painterly touch by creating a fixed system of highlights indicated and manifested by reflective, holographic wrapping paper. They impose a difference between the black-and-white newspaper “objects” and “volumes” (rocks and bottles) and scattered rainbow “highlights.” The first version of this installation was made in a windowless concrete-and-white-wall gallery at the Darling Foundry in Montréal. A new level of complexity is added at the String Room Gallery as the prominent “illuminations” shift as they and are effected by the ever-changing light, especially the picturesque sunsets that daily stream through the gallery’s lake-view windows. The installation and vista invite other comparisons—just how natural or artificial is the college’s lawn, it’s lakefront, or the dammed and regulated Cayuga itself?
These installations are the latest entries in a long history of objects that ask us to think about how we make meaning from likenesses, symbols and abstractions. The lasting effect of Weppler + Mahovsky’s work is not that they make such inquiries about making, representation and meaning, but that they leave their audiences to experience these concepts for themselves. Looking at Sun in an Empty Room and Music of Chance is an exercise in which we constantly test the limits of how artistic forms carry meaning and how we may understand them.
—William V. Ganis