Many people are not receptive to contemporary art, deeming it too cold, somewhat elitist, and rather inaccessible. In some ways, the conceptual nature of a sizable fraction of contemporary art does not bode well in a society that is used to instant gratification. We live in a world where a meal can take less than a minute to make, numerous forms of entertainment are available at the click of a button, and a question that used to take hours to answer by pouring over books and archives can now be obtained instantly via the Internet. By extension, art that denies instant aesthetic pleasure often raises suspicion and lends itself to being overlooked or dismissed altogether. It could be argued that some artists today are making art only for the informed audience who are well-versed in philosophy and art historical discourse. However, many artists, like Deb Todd Wheeler are finding new, innovative ways to directly involve, rather than shut out, every type of viewer.
Wheeler’s art is concerned with human interaction with the environment, often using technology as a lens to investigate ways in which we affect our planet. Wheeler is an inventor who creates machines for many of her works and often references the nineteenth century, a time when science and art were more closely linked. Projects like Live Experiments in Human Energy Exchange engage the viewer in the most literal sense. Wheeler explains:
“Central to the installation is a modified bicycle, which is hooked up to a generator and various rigs, gears and pulleys. By pedaling the bike, the rider (a gallery volunteer) activates the installation, generating light, wind, sound, and motion to fuel a series of kinetic studies on the fraught relationships between nature and technology. In one piece the bike powers a DC generator that in turn powers fluorescent lights embedded in hacked ant farms, in which worker-ant tunnels are dug beneath looming silhouettes of 1964 World’s Fair pavilions. In another work, the same bike turns gears that transfer energy to wind power by turning a windmill-like form with sails made of recycled plastic grocery bags.”
The current work on display at the NBMAA in the New Media alcove in the Batchelor Gallery for Contemporary Art is another work by Deb Todd Wheeler, an HD video entitled So She Floats. The video is a documentation of a performance, and is displayed with a part of the dress and the oar used in the performance. The video depicts a woman in an inflatable polyethylene dress walking along with an assistant who wears inflating devices as shoes, constantly pumping air into the dress. So She Floats references a very specific environmental problem that occurred in 1988 when a patch of accumulated plastic debris larger than the size of Texas was discovered in the North Pacific. Sewn from the plastic used to encase millions of newspapers before they are delivered to our doorsteps (the very same plastic that collected in the ocean), the inflatable dress is a relic that serves as a reminder of the human imprint on the environment. In addition to drawing attention to a grave ecological issue, this performance video also creates the mood of a contemporary fairytale, and shares an underlying theme with much of Deb Todd Wheeler’s other work, namely, the human desire for power and the importance of interaction and collaboration.
So She Floats does not directly interact with the viewer per se, but the overall theme of Wheeler’s work is summarized in the final scene of the video, in which the woman in the dress arrives at a round raft, detaches from her assistant and begins to paddle out into the sea, alone using an oar full of holes. The raft ends up going nowhere, spinning and spinning endlessly. The message? Humans need each other; an individual is likely to think him or herself into circles without new influences and experiences in the world.
Deb Todd Wheeler manages to find a balance between the scientific, the technological and the poetic, and makes the viewer understand her art through participation. Like most conceptual art, it is not easily grasped upon first glace, but the beauty that traditionally has been expressed in a painting, now subtly lurks behind the process of marrying ideas with poetic innovations told through visual means.
What do you think about the forms of art that are created taking today i.e. performance, video and computer-generated art? Would you want to actively participate in an art installation? What do you think can be gained from artists directly involving the viewer in their work?
So She Floats is on view at the NBMAA through October 9, 2011.