The Hidden Viscera of a Life
What's Behind Art Made of Exposed Pipes and Disembodied Soldier Heads
Courtesy of the artist and platform gallery
U prising is a series of interlocking pipes that look like they've sprung up through the floorboards and out of the walls at Suyama Space, a nonprofit art gallery situated in a former auto body shop downtown. But that's like saying that a person is situated in her body. Every artwork that appears at Suyama Space is inspired by the building. Artists are given a time slot and the open room of the converted, charismatic century-old workhouse. The art ends up being a natural conversation with the timber trusses high above it, with the text of the faded ghost sign on the walls, with the slick petroleum still deeply embedded in the floorboards despite the cleaned-up commerce of the building's daily life (it's the office of Suyama Peterson Deguchi Architects, who live with the changing installations of art).
Uprising, by Seattle's Rick Araluce (a scenic designer for Seattle Opera, and also a miniaturist known for his sculpted dioramas) and Steve Peters (a sound artist known for his work with the Seattle Phonographers Union), is an industrial séance with Freudian overtones. It excavates the hidden business of the building and puts it back on tangled view. Freud coined the phrase "return of the repressed" to describe neurotic symptoms that he saw as subconscious elements refusing to stay down. This system of pipes is a symptom that has belched back to the surface, replete with bellowing sounds that emit from the gaping holes where the pipes have been left open-ended. Put your ear up and hear the building hum, wheeze, moan—all the sounds were recorded on site and are played back, cranked way up, through an elaborate hidden system of small speakers inside the pipes wired to a computer.
Uprising is a documentary grotesque, too. Its deception has two levels. The first level is simple and obvious: That these are not actually pipes from the building. But you know that instinctively—these are art pipes, conduits for metaphor, and the real ones are humming along just fine under all the other surfaces. The second level of deception is more unnerving: Uprising's pipes are trompe l'oeil. (They don't give it away, but the wall label does.) They're actually lightweight white PVC piping painted to look like the heavy metal living in the walls and floors. What appear to be giant cast-iron fittings, flanges, bolts, and screws are pieces of foam and wood Araluce painstakingly hand-shaped then aged with paint.
Once every fake inch was constructed, assembling the puzzle (including the inner sound system) was a laborious semi-improvisation driven by the dictates of theater—of working so hard that nobody sees how hard you worked. Knowing this, you realize that Uprising is not just the roaring neurotic symptom it at first purports to be. Uprising is an actor, not a singer. And it is both the return of an already written history (provided by the real life of the building) and an entirely new hybrid of fiction and nonfiction. Its title has the same dualism built in: An uprising can be any natural swell, or the word can signal the moment when somebody decided that a previously unclassified swell should be called an "uprising." It's a good moment for considering the relationships between theater and history, between fiction and projection, natural motion and social change.
Uprising also takes the art-specific approach of pitting surfaces against depths: walls embedded with pipes, pipes embedded with sounds—or walls and pipes embodied with innards. A few miles away, there's an unrelated but resonant art exhibition to Uprising. It's Suzanne Opton's series Soldiers, of photographs of the heads of soldiers recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, driven by the tension that beneath the expressions on their faces are unseen scenes of combat, carnage, boredom, days, and nights—scenes that form the invisible backdrops of these photographs, like the hidden viscera of a building's life in Uprising.
Opton framed the soldiers simply, isolating their heads, each one laid on its side. There's a twin association there; the soldiers appear to be resting or even daydreaming, but in context they also look shot down.
Opton had trouble finding soldiers to shoot. She was turned down by several military bases before Fort Drum in northern New York allowed her to come on and take pictures of soldiers recently returned from tours of duty. The titles of her portraits include their names and the length of their most recent tour: Williams - 396 Days in Iraq or Pry - 210 Days in Afghanistan. Pry has his eyes shut; he looks blissfully grateful to be back. Another title is Mickelson - Length of Service Undisclosed. Mickelson looks worried, like he's not going to get comfortable in front of the camera, or maybe for a very long time.
Of course, the truth is that there is really no specific information at all in these photographs, or none that's conclusive in any way. Pry may never have had a single moment of real blissful gratitude; Mickelson may be perfectly capable of relaxing. You cannot compare one soldier's 210 days in Afghanistan to another soldier's 255 days in Afghanistan by looking at their faces on film, any more than you can really compare them at all. Events have slipped into the folds of their memories; some will never come out again. And what is one day in combat compared to another?
But taken as a group, the series provides an impression of a moment—which is, again, only a construction: the moment between being over there and being back home. Opton took the pictures on a view camera, the kind of contraption—with an accordion bellows separating the lens and the film—that, by adding even that small accordion of space and extra steps in the process of shooting, seems to slow down time. The soldiers had the chance to get used to their position, to get out of their heads, to let their minds wander. The posed heads in the pictures look like screens where thoughts and feelings are in the midst of crossing, but with her choice of the shared time frame of her subjects, Opton is also capitalizing on the eventful here-nowness of conventional war photography. The absence of the war is a palpable presence in these visually simple images.
In 2008 and 2010, the Soldier photographs were seen as billboards in nine American cities. Here, at Platform Gallery, they appear much closer to life size, as if the soldiers were there in the room. The more you feel you know them, the more you know you don't.