TBA Festival 2011 : Jesse Sugarmann – Lido Installation Review

On a broiling afternoon at Washington High School, a crowd of people stood around and watched a very slow, deliberate car accident. Three beige Chrysler minivans, perched on a pile of slowly inflating blue air mattresses, raised their boxy rear-ends to the sun. By the time the chorus of laboring fans had done their work, the vans were resting on their front bumpers, like three rotund synchronized swimmers diving out of a plushy blue fountain. I can’t say that sublimity abounded, but it was present and pervasive, like the smell of the thing at the back of the fridge that you still can’t find even though you’ve thrown away everything.
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I’m going to be a jerk and position this piece as the Oregon response to Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2008 flying exploding car installation, I Want to Believe, in which a series of identical cars were suspended from the roof of a Guggenheim gallery with neon explosions emanating from them as they appeared to flip in stop-motion, as though excerpted from the middle of an action movie. The cars in Lido are non-identical, as are the air mattresses, but the menace of the car as a thing that would just as soon crush you and blow you up as take you to the store for groceries is as undeniable as it is invisible. A car that is not positioned parallel to the ground is an inherently strange object, and while the vans in Lido are not going to snap their incredibly expensive Guggenheim cables and come crashing to the ground, you really hope that they have their parking brakes on, and that Sugarmann won’t bump one of them too hard as he scrambles among the bulging, wobbling mattresses to release the bulky vehicles from their cushiony stress positions.

The Oregon-ness of this piece cannot be attributed to its do-it-yourself cost-effectiveness alone. The creative use of camping gear, which somehow has avoided remark in everything written about the work so far, despite the ubiquitous display of costly outdoor lifestyle paraphernalia as a touchstone of Northwestern identity construction that far outweighs the social (and even monetary) value of many Portlanders’ cars, is also only part of the picture. I am uncompelled by this work as a reference to the hubris of the American auto industry; the “nosedive” metaphor is a bit banal, although things that are supposed to move themselves being laboriously moved by many tiny exterior engines is undeniably pretty funny.

What I really like about this piece, however, is the problem that is proposed, and the resulting solution. How do you half-tip some minivans, and keep them half-tipped? At the performance, the artist remarked on the expense and difficulty of righting a car that has fallen on its top or side, and it became clear that this piece is as much an engineering challenge as anything else; I also had a very interesting conversation with another attendee about artists who have been grievously injured or killed by their projects. Sugarmann is looking forward to the later stages of the performance, when he can stop being careful and really fuck some shit up. This is how we do it here, people, take note.

(Photography by Jamie Marie Waelchli)

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