A few weeks past, I attended an eloquent artist’s talk by sculptor Christine Tarkowski centered about her striking exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center— Last Things Will Be First and First Things Will Be Last. It brought to mind a favorite poem, “The Monument” by Elizabeth Bishop:
* * *
An ancient promontory
an ancient principality whose artist-prince
might have wanted to build a monument
to mark a tomb or boundary, or make
a melancholy scene of it…
“But that queer sea looks made of wood,
half-shining, like a driftwood sea.
And the sky looks wooden, grained with cloud.
It’s like a stage-set; it is all so flat!
Those clouds are full of glistening splinters!
What is that?”
It is the monument.
--Elizabeth Bishop, from “The Monument”
* * *
Tarkowski began the talk by reciting some evocative lines relating to governance, liminality, eternity: “Pioneers circle the wagons to protect the women and children”; “Any point on the circle is the beginning and the end.” The motif of the circuitous path in Last things Will Be First And First Things Will Be Last abounds: the beginning of the exhibit is the end—you must pass through the first room again to exit the gallery space); it is unclear if the double helix in her massive ship is ascending or descending;
the final room in the exhibit is filled with images of cyclical objects; the excellent lp Tarkowski made with founder member Jon Langford of The Mekons spins in “eternal return” on the stereo.
She sees the first works—the ship and the textile print—as symbols of western wreckage along a historical/global timeline. Ben Nicholson proclaims her massive ship “a tippy cardboard hulk held together with stringy bamboo staves and shiny aluminum scaffold shackles. One thing is for certain: This thing is going nowhere, except in our dreams” (excerpt from Nicholson’s vibrant essay “The Feral Cosmos of Christine Tarkowski”).
Textiles wildly printed, superimposed images of the ceiling of the Pantheon and a tortured landscape.
(Photograph taken just before a rainstorm.)
In the sails of the ship, motifs from the floor of the Pantheon— her thoughtful reference to the Pantheon in these works which concern the reinvention of cultural spaces—the Pantheon, with its columns native to Egypt, initially a temple to the gods, later a place for Christian worship and congregations of tourists.
The curator noted pseudomorphism here; a happy accident: the view from the window—the Frank Gehry bandshell—outside echoes of Tarkowski’s ship.
The self-referential quality of images of the clothesline and flags printed in the fabric itself.
The cast-off assemblage; once-utilitarian objects, now the junk of the world.
And the human figures—a man plaintively looks back at a woman on the boardwalk. They are suspended over an existential realm of cast-off things; they are headed anywhere else— “True life is elsewhere” (Rimbaud). (Also, a sort of military figure hangs about in the murk.)
The second room in the gallery space is permeated with the terrific Langford/Tarkowski call and response gospel album Thirsty Woman if You Drink this Water You’ll Never Be Thirsty Again! (it is wonderful and, hey, the 45 is only 5 bucks in the gift shop!)
Lyrics taken from the displayed screen-printed text. O, wooly mammoth (my favorite part of the gospel song)!
Tarkowski spoke about commodity—whale and whale oil; whale as metaphor for immigration; the relationship between fuel and faith.
Imitating God. An implied steeple-needle threatens to “pop” the blue sky.
* * *
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to bloom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
--John Ashbery, from “The One Thing That Will Save America”
* * *
Tarkowski reads work as “live rituals enacted on a negative space,” and an exploration of the way we create our own micro-faiths.
The geodesic “chapel” made me feel a tenderness towards even the wires and textured cement with its pebbles and glistening gems all lit up. The rote materials speak to us, reminding us that the chapel is a constructed thing. The sacred elements are in place, in a traditional religious sense and in a sort of ode to the devotional in the art culture—as Tarkowski related, her use of the geodesic dome references Buckminster Fuller, and the “god” he became.
Illuminated chapel “stools.”
In the words of Artschwager, “Furniture in its largest sense is an object which celebrates something that people do—or sanctifies it’” (Collins 120).
Imitating God relates a modern mythos—a 21st century conversion attempt. Tarkowski’s car broke down in Indiana, and an Amish woman took her in. As the woman related her ideas about God and faith, she attempted to convert Tarkowski, and the artist experimented for a number of months to see if the attempts would “stick.”
The experience for Tarkowski became an attempt to create a “faith-based system.”
My best friend Suzanne, visiting from New York!
(This is me, with writing notebook.)
Fellow art devotees.
Tarkowski inverts what she frames as the typical process for formalizing religious intent—to “receive revelation,” then to attract congregants, finally to construct a space for worship, etc. In an artist’s statement, Tarkowski explains, “I’m building my system in reverse order, starting with only a fragment of the architecture, propaganda, and music.”
Tarkowski as Bishop’s “artist-prince”:
* * *
The crudest scroll-work says “commemorate,”
while once each day the light goes around it
like a prowling animal,
or the rain falls on it, or the wind blows into it.
It may be solid, may be hollow.
The bones of the artist-prince may be inside
or far away on even drier soil.
But roughly but adequately it can shelter
what is within (which after all
cannot have been intended to be seen).
It is the beginning of a painting,
a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument,
and all of wood. Watch it closely.
--Elizabeth Bishop, from the final stanza of “The Monument”
* * *
Tarkowski reads the “first” room in the installation as a “bombardment of sense material”, and the “final” room as sort of deathish space, which ironically addresses formal art-historical tropes—the iron sculptures in Methods of Egress—which become for Tarkowski kin to “models for future development” found in an architect’s office; here, in her words, is her version of spirituality—the models—“laid out as commodities.”
The vacuous-type third room, with bisecting table.
The table, constructed from former beech wood bleachers, is interesting to consider—in terms of reconfiguration—in relation to Rita McBride’s Arena, “both an autonomous sculpture and functional wooden seating unit like that found in sports arenas” (Collins 125).
Rita McBride, Arena
In Last Things Will Be First And First Things Will Be Last, we witness the gorgeous inherent defunctness of the sculptural works in the realm of practical human “progress”; the sail is “frozen”—it is going nowhere; the geodesic dome is heavy and “earth bound”, a meteoric event, says Tarkowski; we see the “perpetual purgatory” inherent in the photo etchings and sculptural models—ramps, cul-de-sacs, tires, traffic roundabouts. In fact the aesthetic of “parking lot egress” so permeates the space of human reality, Suzanne and I didn’t need to walk 15 feet from the exhibit, and she noticed another; here is “Niebs” as a human inhabitant of the ramp:
* * *
“The whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins” (Bachelard 57, Rilke, Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Fr. Trans p.33).
* * *
I think it is appropriate to consider Tarkowski in terms of what Siah Armajani terms “archi-sculpture” and Anthony Caro identifies as “sculpitecture” (Collins 130, 131). Perhaps of all the arts, sculpture, particularly in relation to large-scale installations, is the best-suited to philosophical inquiry. Indeed, when we walk through a building, we are in a sense walking through the canals of the human mind, as buildings are born there; and, further, these human-created spaces transform us: “The cosmos molds mankind, that it can transform a man of the hills into a man of islands and rivers, and… the house remodels the man” [my italics] (Bachelard 47).
In the words of Tarkowski: “For most, architecture invokes a utilitarian structure with a defined knowable program; house, church, garage, prison. I think of it in terms of the abhorrent program; the house is Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, the church Jim Jones’s compound, the garage abandoned in the back alley inhabited by squatters, and the prison across the border in Mexico where the US out-sources incarceration services… It makes sense that architectural design should be driven by the future program of its inhabitants.” In the vein of works by sculptors McBride and Pernice, the manner in which Tarkowski’s ship overwhelms the gallery space creates a fruitful type of discomfort in the viewer. Constructed with little thought of human “use” in the realm of practicalities, and more a meditation upon liminal cultural structures, “swarming-still” (Bishop), I admire Christine Tarkowski’s impressive, menacing architecture, built metaphorically with some of the same deathish/restorative volcanic pumice found in the upper realms of the Pantheon.
* * *
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
--John Ashbery, from “The One Thing That Can Save America”
* * *
Tarkowski’s installation runs through May 2nd, jubilantly closing with what is sure to be a raucous and lovely ”sing-along” performance/choral event with Tarkowski and Jon Langford at 2pm.
The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.—mere steps from the Chicago Cultural Center— seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers.
Written and Researched by Jessica Savitz
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Poems 1927-1979. New York: The Noonday Press, 1983.
Hoover, Paul., Ed Postmodern American Poetry. Ashbery, John. “The One Thing That Can Save America.” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994, pp.178-179.