In the days after the capture of Saddam Hussein from inside a "spider hole" on December 13, 2003, reporters scrambled to go into the hole. They couldn't get an interview with Hussein and were in no position to discern how the capture affected the progress and meaning of a complicated ongoing war—especially since this war had been waged in large part on this one man—but the hole was there to be comprehended in full.
It was only six feet deep and had only two parts: a vertical box cut into the ground of a backyard and a horizontal tunnel leading off the box, large enough to fit a single man. The graphic artists of news organizations made colored drawings based on information from the military. Meanwhile, TV news sent journalists to climb down into the spider hole. 60 Minutes did this. The reporter walks through a gate into the backyard and up to the black square hole in the dirt under a fruit tree. He steps into the hole, lowers himself, and gets down on the dirt floor, scanning the camera in every direction. The floor and ceiling fade in and out of view like dark, dirty water, leaving no clear impression. The flaking concrete walls seem both close-up and far away. The shape and size of this space are more mysterious than ever. The opposite of clarification has just occurred. The report ends.
Given the insolubility of big problems and mysteries, we will always come up with a way to solve, in great detail, the very small ones. A hole in the ground turns out to be a bonanza of abstraction and distraction. But while reconstructing Hussein's spider hole started out a metaphor, it became a comedy. MSNBC built a model on its set in neat blond plywood boxes. Anchorwoman Contessa Brewer stood in the vertical box wearing a red jacket and pants while a retired general intoned, "This is a hidey-hole." She then lounged on her side in Hussein's tunnel spot, informing the viewer, "I'm not a grown man here; I'm a grown woman."
Leo Saul Berk nails all of this in a single sculpture. It is an obscene sculpture; in fact, it is the greatest obscenity to be made in Seattle art in years. It is bright yellow, covered in the tiny glass beads used in road reflectors (they reflect white and frosty depending on the way the light hits), and it reaches down from the ceiling where it is mounted.
The shape is recognizable as the same shape as Hussein's spider hole and the sculpture is called Spider Hole. But the tunnel that snakes off the entry box and comes at your face as you enter the gallery—the same tunnel that was so ineffable on the 60 Minutes camera—is muscled, tonguelike, and unmistakably erect. Oh, it's effable now. "Franz West fucks Martin Puryear" is how Lawrimore Project considered describing Spider Hole in its press materials for the show. The only thing to add is "while Jeff Koons watches."
And yet this bit of yellow gigantism (and yellow journalism) is easily identifiable as a Berk. Berk is a Seattle artist who has been creating sparkly, brightly colored topographical doppelgängers of actual landscapes using a CNC router (it stands for Computer Numerical Control) for years. The machine takes up most of his studio. He was able to buy it thanks to a commission, and he harnesses it for sculpture and drawing rather than for its usual manufacturing purposes. For sculptures, the machine cuts the materials, which the artist then hand-finishes in pigmented resin and hand-sands (apparently, the sanding is torturous). His newest exhibition consists of four major CNC-based sculptures and four CNC drawings using sparkle pens. Each piece maps an underground space that is connected to recent political events: Hussein's spider hole (the only one at full scale, which makes its absurdity even more pointed in contrast to its exactitude); Tora Bora, said to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden; the Quecreek mine, where nine miners were trapped and triumphantly rescued in summer 2002, in the same Pennsylvania county where United Flight 93 went down less than a year before; and Naj Tunich, the ancient Mayan cave in Guatemala that Berk happened to be wandering around inside during a Central American vacation on September 11, 2001. (This last work, called Rattling House, was seen at Seattle University's Lee Center for the Arts last year.)
The significance of the machine is its precision, in direct contradiction to the value of the information conveyed. Berk's solid, exacting model sculptures facilitate beautifully the desire to project oneself into unknown spaces for the purposes of discovery. But the discovery instead is about the limits of projection and the elaborate ways we ignore those limits. There is so much desire requited in architectural models, but famously little knowledge gained, and Berk's stylish, dazzling colors and finishes are like cocktails that reveal exaggerated truths and sustain pleasure at the same time. This is how political fictions are mixed and swallowed.
Berk's work has always been exquisitely made and often experientially satisfying. But not until now has it also been rooted in a series of ideas so far-reaching and clamberingly dendritic. The largest sculpture in the show, Quecreek Mine, is a flat grid cut from a sheet of glowing orange acrylic (several sheets, actually, puzzle-pieced together) that maps the giant mine precisely at an insanely reduced scale (the quarter-inch thickness of the acrylic corresponds to the actual height of the tunnels, and the 30-by-22-foot spread of the sculpture corresponds to its miles in length).
This true-to-life orange grid, which casts a crisp raspberry shadow grid on the gallery floor from light passing through the transparent acrylic, rests on boomerang-shaped U's made of dark walnut plywood that bring to mind spacey 1960s furniture design. It seems relevant to point out that Berk grew up in the quite groovy (and cavelike) Ruth Ford House by visionary architect Bruce Goff in Aurora, Illinois. Nineteenth-century conditions meet 20th-century style and 21st-century technology (the mine, the '60s design, the CNC), and where have we arrived? Inner space may as well be outer space. A little knowledge is still the best and most dangerous thing we've got.