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Review: Tectonic Shiftlessness

Art Review & Preview, v1.4    Spring 2008
By Jay Gabler

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late February, the Danish-Minnesotan artist Lars Jerlach stood in a dark gallery surrounded by sixteen flickering televisions, holding his infant daughter and talking about the frustrating paradoxes of modern life. “Nobody has time anymore to invest anything in anything, but everybody wants everything.” Jerlach is partnered—in art and in life—with Helen Stringfellow, a native of Great Britain. Since 1999, Jerlach and Stringfellow have created art together under the name tectonic industries (the lack of capitalization is very deliberate). Their work evidences a persistent concern with the construction and deconstruction of narrative, and though they don’t consider themselves “video artists,”— said Jerlach at the gallery talk—they often “utilize video as a medium.” Recent works have documented viewers’ varying reactions to Rachael Ray’s cooking program and the Jack Nicholson classic Five Easy Pieces. Their most recent work, The desire to stay versus the inevitability of change, constitutes an inversion of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The desire to stay, on view at Franklin ArtWorks through March 29, runs on the aforementioned sixteen televisions. The televisions show, simultaneously, views of sixteen men and women trading lines from The Birds in real time as the film’s two hours elapse. The participants— each of whom speaks for one character in the film—are sitting or lounging in domestic settings, as if watching the film on television. The film itself is otherwise absent from the work: it is neither visible nor audible save through the near-emotionless line readings. At their gallery talk, Jerlach and Stringfellow made clear that they see the work as a meditation on “the assimilation of information.” The work’s beguiling but obscure title, explained Jerlach, refers to the tension between our desire to achieve a stable understanding of the world (“the desire to stay”) and our being constantly reminded that the understandings of others vary from our own (“the “inevitability of change”). The artists saw The Birds as ideal for their purposes because most of us are familiar with the film’s general premise (scary birds arrive in flocks), but fuzzy on specific details of plot and character. By emphasizing precisely those details and disconnecting them from the film itself, the piece is meant to challenge our tidy notions of what exactly The Birds is about and, by extension, our tidy notions of what anything is about.

Got it?

If not, you’re probably in the company of most of the work’s viewers. Except, perhaps, for those who are familiar with tectonic industries’ previous work and can appreciate this piece in the context of the duo’s favored themes, gallery goers are likely to see The desire to stay as a lacerating critique of television itself. Although the participants’ gazes don’t quite meet your eyes as a viewer, you have the distinct impression that you’re looking out at sixteen particularly indifferent viewers of a late night movie special. Without exception, the participants seem almost suicidally bored. Each sits without human companionship (some have pets, who seem as blasé as their owners), and some actually get up and leave for extended periods. To achieve this perfect vacuum of stimulation, the artists explained, they didn’t even allow their participants to watch the film’s visuals: each participant saw only his or her own lines of dialogue flashed on a blank screen. The resulting effect is cruel to The Birds specifically (Stringfellow told Twin Cities METRO magazine that she finds the film to be “crap”) and to television and its viewers generally. The artists set out to critique contemporary society by challenging us to question what we think we know: we routinely act like experts, complains Jerlach, about things—like, say, the plot of The Birds we understand only superficially. This particular swing at modern life may have glanced off the chin, but in the unsettling state of weirdly attentive boredom the artists have captured in their participants, they’ve landed a punch right on the kisser. +

the desire to stay versus the inevitability of change
tectonic industries
Franklin Art Works
February 1 –March 29

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