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Not even close to an empty nest: Martin Kersels’ Dionysian Stage.

The Gravity of Things

By Nadine Wasserman


Martin Kersels: Heavyweight Champion

Tang Teaching Museum, through June 17


Spinning, whirling, tripping, rolling, tossing, smacking and falling—Martin Kersels throws himself and others around like keystone cops in his photographs. The photographs, most of which are displayed salon-style in one corner of the gallery, embody the kinetics that underlie and animate the entire exhibition of mixed-media works from the past 13 years. One of the central themes of the exhibition is the effects of gravity on the human body. Kersels’ own body, as evidenced in several of his photographic pieces, is undoubtedly large, and it clearly influences how he experiences the world. Anais Nin once wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” While all of us are subject to the whims of gravitation, Kersels’ height and weight make his experiences all the more eventful.

While the exhibition begins with the dramatic Dionysian Stage, a giant whirling nest originally made for the Pompidou, the best place to start is upstairs with the video Pink Constellation. This piece is a perfect example of Kersels’ perspective. It is dramatic, funny, agonizing, sensitive, unnerving, magical and inventive. In this piece Kersels and dancer-choreographer Melinda Ring, who also collaborated on the performance Huh? for the Tang exhibition, alternately perform in the space of a bedroom that appears to be that of an adolescent girl. The bedroom is actually set up as a “tumble room,” much like the one in which Fred Astaire dances on the walls, floor, and ceiling in Royal Wedding. The video is a perfect study of different bodies in space and of the grace and frailties of the human body in general. Ring is more at home in the space as she effortlessly transitions from floor to wall to ceiling, often dreamily paging through a magazine. Kersels, on the other hand, awkwardly inhabits the space and in the end is ultimately attacked by the furniture which, once unbolted, spins about the room until it shatters. Here is Kersels’ genius: He uses physical humor and slapstick to evoke the pathos of human existence.

Back downstairs and to the left of the exhibition entrance is Heavyweight Champion Banner. Made of felt, this piece is Kersels’ cartoony and self-mocking version of Goya’s Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Kersels is depicted knocked out with golden-throated birds flying out of his head. To the right is the colossal spinning nest. Like a slow tornado, the nest, which is taller than the viewer but not intended to be overwhelming or threatening, appears to have gathered within its branches a variety of household items and furniture. As it turns, the objects constantly shift in a slow progression of nostalgia and memory. Used furniture has what Kersels calls a patina of memory and use. Each piece has a story and shows the scars of its utilitarian nature. For Rickety, a sculpture built specifically for this show that functioned as a stage for the performance of Huh?, Kersels put out a call to the Skidmore community for used household furniture. Kersels explains that the furniture had to be from homes because “home” is where it all begins. It is where we are formed and where we begin to formulate our opinions of the outside world and it is, as he describes it, “the stage on which we play out our extravaganzas.” Home may be mundane, but it is nevertheless filled with memory and emotion. Rickety encompasses many of the themes that Kersels explores, such as scale, space, memory, experience, and emotion.

Kersels began making sculpture in 1993. While some pieces are static, others are kinetic and auditory. One early sculpture, called MacArthur Park, is both humorous and poignant. It represents things collapsing and coming back together. Here, Kersels uses sound and movement to evoke the entropic tendencies of the natural order. Is the universe collapsing or expanding? Can a person come back together after completely falling apart? As the mechanism repeatedly expands and contracts, it is accompanied by Kersels singing “Mac Arthur Park,” “I Will Survive,” and the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” Also on the verge of falling apart is Jerry, a shortened ladder that is tentatively and awkwardly glued back together as a metaphor for a friend who went to pieces. While this piece is about a specific person, it is also representative of anyone or anything that is jerry-rigged together and could easily break apart with the slightest force.

Physical forces are explored throughout the exhibition. At tempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It is exactly what its title suggests. Buoy is a kinetic piece that shifts about as if battered by waves while a soundtrack plays of blowing noises made by the artist. Sputterer is a large pot filled partially with water that ripples and broils based on noises made by Kersels and his wife—he emits a growl while she produces a raspberry. While there is most often a comedic ele ment, there also is an attendant darkness of emotion where the threat of violence and bodily harm linger, and anger and dismay take hold. A dark cloud called Charm (Black Cloud) hovers from the ceiling next to Charm (Little, Little Boy) shaped like the atomic bomb. In Wishing Well, Kersels takes an object that is often associated with both good fortune and bad and mediates a surreal encounter in which the viewer looks down into the well only to be confronted with his or her own image. It is both startling and amusing and reflects the tone of the installation as a whole. Through a wide range of mediums, Kersels helps us grapple with the predicament of our delicate balancing act of existence.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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