Thursday, March 18, 2010

John Gerrard at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

by Michael Dotson.

John Gerrard has three pieces on view at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC that present many interesting intersections between the real/virtual and the effects of human consumption on our environment. The three works depict an oil rig, a pig processing plant and a dust storm. Although the works are made using video game technology, they uphold a high level of realism.

One of the more striking aspects of Gerrard's work is the dichotomy between the spaces depicted and their physical presence in the gallery. We have become accustomed to viewing video work either on monitors - flatly mounted on the wall - or as projections directly on a wall. Both of these modes of presentation allow the viewer to enter a work of art unencumbered or view it without consideration for the space it inhabits. This mode of presentation is associated with the metaphor of the window, a framed view of a world created by the artist, which dates back to the renaissance. Surprisingly Gerrard's work does not meet this architype. His two pieces Sentry(Kit Carson, Colorodo) 2009 and Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma), 2008, are shown on minimally white framed monitors which sit diagonally on white tables. The piece Dust Storm appears to adhere to conventions at first, but upon further examination the piece is projected on a free standing wall that is angled in the gallery. His work appears more as a hybrid between a "window" and a physical object. This is reminiscent of the work of Frank Stella in which the width of the stripes corresponds to the width of the stretchers, thus giving the physicality of the picture a heightened presence.

Perhaps displaying the work in this manner is a way of taking it out of context; we have become accustomed seeing these kinds of simulations on monitors (with our tv, video games, etc.) and projections (cinema). Gerrard highlights the separation between the viewer and the landscapes by emphasizing the frame. This makes the viewer question what their relationship is to the images, which are in fact real places. He creates the environments by taking hundreds of photographs of the sites then puts them together in real time 3-d to create seamless rotating views of scenes that actually transpire in real time.

The content of Gerrard's work is undoubtedly about human consumption and its effects on the landscape. His use of a medium which is typically employed to create fantasy is particularly poignant as it relates to our relationship with such acts. Our culture has an immeasurable disconnect with what we consume and where it comes from. We believe that products come from the store where everything is sterile and neatly packaged, like Gerrard's work. Rarely do we consider where the articles we are purchasing originated and by what circumstances they came into existence. The dust storms of the 1930's, as seen in "Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas), 2007", seem like something more of myth than reality. In fact the dust storms were real, and caused by humans' insatiable greed and consumption. Years of over farming without crop rotation left the American prairie fallow, resulting in near apocalyptic dust storms. The photograph on which Gerrard based the work has a note on the back that reads, "Darkest Dark I ever experienced."

Sentry (Kit Carson, Colorodo) 2009, is another great instance of the convergence of fact and fiction in Gerrard's work. In this simulation an oil rig pumps endlessly. In the piece the machine can pump oil indefinitely, as indeed many wish that it could or thought that it would. In reality, oil is a limited resource that will indeed run out one day, rendering these machines useless.

Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma), 2008 also deals with issues of consumption. It depicts a pork processing plant, which appears pristine and sterile. It creates a beautiful scenic view with the buildings being reflected in a nearby pond. In fact the water is really the waste from the plant, and having the plant reflected on the waste brings out its true character.

John Gerrard's work at the Hirshorn Museum presents our complicated relationship with the products we consume everyday. Although the images represent real locations and events, they are displayed in a constructed, surreal manner. This presentation is appealing to the viewer's senses, as most people are accustomed to their own ideas and constructs about the production of consumables. In effect, Gerrard is highlighting our destructive and unsustainable way of life by mimicking our own delusional constructs of it.

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