Tim Silver

Thu, 20/06/2013 - 21:59 -- damien
The Art of Falling Apart

The history of Tim Silver's work is a history of destruction. Over the past five years or so, he has made a lot of work, but not much of it has survived. Either by accident or design, his small cast sculptures and installations have smashed, melted, crumbled and rotted, enacting a gentle anarchy, albeit bounded by the rituals of exhibition display. The show must go on. Yet it is this slightly showbizzy aspect to Silver's work, its apparent frivolity and celebration of surface, which gives it its particular edge. Like many artists of his generation, Silver's works are made for exhibition, a result of pragmatism as much as anything else (limited storage, the high costs of production, and so on). More than most, however, Silver's approach and media makes this situation abundantly clear. The temporariness of his work relies on the exhibition for its very existence, able only to last as long as the few weeks of the show, and often not even that. His fragile materials--crayon, chocolate, fairy flossare by nature to be consumed, and quickly. Furthermore, the playful, tactile qualities of his objects demand to be handled, with consistently disastrous results.

The directness of Silver's sculpturesstraightforward casts from 'boy's toys' for the most part-builds on this sense of lightness and play. At odds with the more allusive, slippery sculptures of many of his peers, which till the fertile field between representation and non-representation, they follow the contours of their source material closely. The shape and scale of the guitars, toy cars and motorbikes, Action Men, skateboards and, most dramatically, the full-size Vespa, are not transformed by the artist in any major way. Indeed, the precise detail and similitude of surface enabled by such unlikely materials is often surprising. While the casting of generic objects in this manner offers the potential of endless reproducibility-filling the world with more useless stuff-Silver generally avoids creating numerous copies, keeping the numbers low, or merely replacing those pieces that have been damaged during the exhibition. After a certain number are made, the mould is destroyed, and the damaged pieces may well be melted down for re-use in another work.

The process of casting not only locates Silver's work within a historical sculptural tradition, but also connects it to artistic investigations of entropy, as highlighted by Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois in their 1996 exhibition and publication l'lnforme: mode d'emploi. As one of four 'operations' that cut across the conventional precepts of Modernism - described, in short, as 'the vertical, the visual, the instantaneous and the sublimated' - entropy, alongside 'pulse' , 'base materiality' and 'horizontality' , enabled the curators to trace a lineage of anti-form tendencies in twentieth century art. Set by Bois and Krauss against the Modernist tenet of structure and totality, entropy is the deterioration of an ordered system, or an ebbing of energyover time, leading eventually to a stasis or a kind of death. One of the key artists in their argument, and the most eloquent on the subject of entropy, Robert Smithson, provided the succinct example of Humpty Dumpty as a demonstration of entropy's irreversibility.1 It is also an apt metaphor for Silver's fragile objects, which once broken can only be recast, or left to lie like eggshells on the floor. Casting provided Smithson with a way of theorising entropy, particularly in its natural forms: rocks and fossils. As tectonic forces gradually compress and wear down signs of life, everything is subsumed within layers of strata, their differentiation reducing over time. Fossils, as casts of long-lost species and vast forests, lie withinremnants of ancient mountains and lakes: 'Inert, all slides into a lost moment'.2

Another artist included under the entropy banner in l'Informe was Alan McCollum, who in the 1980s utilised casting to analyse the relationship between the generic and specific. Working with the industrial world rather than the natural, McCollum proliferated casts of unique objects - be they fossils or artworks - as vast, ominous fields of idealised, potentially endless copies. Silver's specific casts of industrially produced objects, made in a labour-intensive and less than seamless process, might suggest a reversal of this approach, although with a similar destination: an acknowledgement of art as part of a voracious cycle of commodification and consumption. The 'closed system' of exhibition and commercial sales requires of art a certain reliability and self-containment, something Silver's work explicitly evades, as desirable as the objects may be. Their ephemeral nature, replaced during the show or left in situ, mirrors the transience of life, with its little accidents and fading certainties. In casting his objects, Silver retains the flaws and bubbles as traces of the process, retaining the imperfect roughness of 'reality' . However, like the rash of post-Dogme Steadicam films that purport to gritty realism, it only serves to heighten the artifice.

Silver's belief in art as part of life, and his desire to evoke the speedy nature of contemporary culture, is also encapsulated in his choice of subject, and its direct representation in his sculptures. Smithson stated in 1973 that 'Pure science, like pure art tends to view abstraction as independent of nature, there's no accounting for change or the temporality of the mundane world. Abstraction rules in a void, pretending to be free of time'.3 In this light, the directness of Silver's work could also be seen as locating it squarely within time, its forms part of our everyday world, in styles subject to the vagaries of fashion. While his skateboards, Vespa and motorbikes allude to various aspects of street culture, this is perhaps less interesting than his evocation of movement and flux - and therefore, the passing of time - within these fragile, static objects. As vehicles, they suggest travel, freedom, escape; and their allusion to adolescence indicates a moment of great change, between childhood and adulthood, from one physical and social state to another.

The temporal aspect is compounded by the artist drawing crayon skid marks on the walls and floor, as if the vehicle had driven in just previously. It is a campy, theatrical gesture, particularly as the marks are self-consciously wonky (the turning circle for the Vespa, for example, was far too tight, and far from accurate). These gestural elements highlight both the materiality of the works (cast from drawing materials) and their fragility, with the suggestion that the scraping to create the marks has simultaneously worn the sculptures down. This suggestive act, collapsing drawing with driving, of moving at speed while making one's mark, is a concise illustration of our youthful motivations to make art: that is, to leave something behind, cast a trace, while at the same time being free of constraint, on a path of our own. The corresponding destruction of the object is again a process of transformation, driven by the properties of the material.

The incorporation of physical deterioration within the work is of course another illustration of entropy. For his work Untitled (leaving on a jet plane, don't know when i'll be back again) (1998), Silver constructed a large model of a biplane, and suspended it dramatically from the ceiling. Coated in fairy floss, which hardened and crumbled over the course of the exhibition, the plane hung forlornly above large pink chunks that had dropped onto the gallery floor. An image of longing and desire, from its sickly pink candy coating to its whimsical title, the work also conveyed a sense of fading potential, as its glitzy surface gradually slipped away. In a later work Untitled (viole(n)t crumble) (2001), Silver presented a more eroticised scenario, consisting of a field of Action Man figures climbing toward the ceiling on strings. Cast in chocolate and filled with honeycomb, the figures, with their bulging crotches and straining fatigues, formed a fantasy tableau of munchable men, with a sweet, heady aroma that filled the room. As various figures melted and crashed to the floor (in reality, Silver had placed most of the pieces there himself), they formed an obvious yet compelling portrait of masculine fragility.

The erotic charge that runs through Silver's work could be seen as a function of its celebration of surface, from its camp/ kitsch objects to its theatrical evocation of fleeting moments. The incorporation of consumable sweets and the use of powder-blue crayon in his sculptures hark to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who brought an emotional sensibility to the forms and ideas of Conceptual and Minimal art. Perhaps Silver's most evocative work is Untitled (jeans) (2002), a blue rubber cast of a pair of denim jeans dropped onto the floor. Here Silver references Gonzalez-Torres closely, evoking the Cuban artist's overtly sentimental yet deeply moving billboard images of empty beds bearing the imprint of two absent bodies, their rumpled sheets expressing love and loss with piercing clarity. What Silver borrows from Gonzalez-Torres is not only his ability to represent the passing of time with rare economy and power, but his strategy, as noted by the curator Gerardo Mosquera, of 'introducing kitsch into the most refined of artistic discourses' .4 Silver's 'jeans' work is flamboyant, yet still rigorous sculpture, a detailed investigation of materials, form and its relationship to space. The rubber resembles denim to look at, yet holds its shape in a solid, flabby mass; its sexual connotations are clear, yet the suggestion of flaccidity and ennui is also palpable. This work is built to last, its frozen moment made durable. Some things need to be held on to, after all.

notes: 

1. Robert Smithson, 'Entropy Made Visible' (1973), in Jack Flam (ed .), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p.301.

2. Smithson, 'Strata: A Geophotographic Fiction' (1970- 71 ), in Flam (ed .), p.73.

3. Smithson, p.302.

4. Gerardo Mosquera, 'Remember my name', Artforum, Vol. 34, no. 9, May 1996, p.20.

Tim Silver lives and works in Sydney. Russell Storer is a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. He co-curated the exhibition Objection with Tim Silver in 2001-02.