I recently attended the opening reception for the exhibition Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem at the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati, Ohio. This is the German Sailstorfer’s first major solo show in the United States and the CAC is the perfect place for his large-scale sculptures and installations.
Sailstorfer’s work is characterized by unusual sculptural interventions that investigate the clash between technology and nature. I too am interested in this intersection and was pleased to see an artist taking on this theme using such a massive scale. The most prominently displayed Sailstorfer work at the CAC is a collection of four large live trees hang upside down. Each tree is slowly rotated on a motor so that the branches sweep the floor. The effect is mesmerizing. Robotic motors whir and needles bristle and break leaving traces on the concrete ground in quiet circles. In the graceful airy space of the CAC this strange situation feels almost natural and somehow calming.
Sailstorfer’s other works include a microphone is encased in a block of concrete, picking up subtle vibrations as visitors walk by. Many pieces simply document past events: a cabin being completely burnt down using its own wood and wood-burning stove, a young tree exploded using air pressure. and a tire mounted in such a way that as it spins it screeches, leaving a rubber mark on the wall and a burning smell in the gallery.
Sailstorfer’s art is undeniably provocative. The CAC exhibition evokes surprise and even glee, as visitors are confronted by unlikely and curiously dramatic, almost playful situations. But while Sailstorfer’s works are consistently memorable and powerful, there lingers an undercurrent of unsettling darkness that may not be initially recognizable.
The CAC website describes Sailstorfer’s trees as “dancers of a melancholic ballet”. After think exhibition sunk in a little, I am now more inclined to view them as victims of execution by hanging–an inverted lynching. There is nothing new about upside down trees. Take Natalie Jeremijenko’s permanent installation of living upside-down trees at Mass MoCA, Tree Logic. Jeremijenko built a system which nourishes the trees despite their unusual position, asking viewers to contemplate the possibility of naturalness as thee trees respond over time to an unexpected environment. Sailstorfer, by contrast, slowly kills his trees using decapitation and mechanical torture.
This interpretation is not metaphorical–Sailstorfer’s trees are indeed, actually, slowly dying. It is possible to become so enamored with the art-ness of Sailstorfers works that the reality of these destructive acts is overlooked. But Sailstorfer is a materialist. The essence of his art is material; it is reasonable to take his interventions at face value. Of course, most contemporary art installations, performances, and actions are generally presented as symbolic provocations even as they are “real”. The problem for Sailstorfer–and indeed much contemporary art–is that he seems unable to articulate the symbolic part.
Dying trees, exploded trees, burning cabins, burnt rubber, a microphone restricted in concrete and an obsession with the idea of “expansion”–Sailstorfer is a contemporary futurist. Like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and friends in the Futurist manifesto from 1909, Sailstorfer sings the “love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness…” perhaps even a “contempt for women”–but does all this abstrusely. Unlike the Futurists, who were transparent about their wholehearted embrace of destruction, machine-power and even fascism, Sailstorfer puts the responsibility on the viewer. This to me is even more unsettling.
In another arena, Sailstorfer’s works could pass for entertainment or spectacle. Fireworks, Game of Thrones, the NFL, Nascar–sports and entertainment media are awash in images of male power and violent destruction. When pressed, however, Sailstorfer describes his art as being solely about nature, technology and art history.
Perhaps the author has died and surely the artist’s hand is missing a finger or two. But in contemporary society ideology has never been more prominent. For Sailstorfer–and all artists–every piece is indeed a new problem; solving them may require an element preservation, modesty, contraction, compassion and sensitivity. How do you solve your problems?
Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem
Now through September 14
Contemporary Arts Center
44 E. Sixth St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202