Artwork from the Estudios de Tension exhibit in the John Hartell Gallery.

Courtesy of Rafael Cañas

Artwork from the Estudios de Tension exhibit in the John Hartell Gallery.

April 8, 2018

Cartographies in Suspension

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Before entering the space, it is as if the exhibit still has yet to be curated. A space that is normally bursting with artwork appears startlingly bare to the passing gaze from the exhibit’s periphery. Yet examination is almost always a generative process of exposure and uncovering — in terms of both the viewer as well as the viewed. The exhibit in question, Estudios de Tensión, meaning “studies of tension,” is a study of the relational and symbolic interactions that shape and constitute the world. A product of the artist Nicolás Robbio, the works can be found in the John Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall until April 19.

The installations are largely constructed from string and their intricate arrangement is directed by means of an elaborate system of hooks, pulleys and rings which serve beautifully as both a physical mount as well as a conceptually integrated component of the works’ aesthetic projection. As the exhibit’s title implies, the works are all unified physically and conceptually by the forces of tension.

A particular piece bearing the same title as that of the exhibition is mounted on the westernmost wall of the gallery. Occupying the entirety of the wall is a piece of string making its jagged course through and around the various mounted implements that guide it. On either end of the string is a weight — while one is of a conic shape, the other is amorphous. The string’s trajectory, while mostly angular, is nuanced and the sharp bends are often flanked by radiating alignments around points of contact. The linearity that is normally associated with notions of path and duration is strongly questioned here as points of convergence simultaneously assume the parallel roles of diffusion and divergence.

An additional dimension is added — and if perhaps not of an additive quality, certainly a multiplicative one — upon aligning the gaze along the plane offered by the wall. This is especially visible through the parallel illumination from the north-facing windows. In keeping with the rest of the exhibition’s overall narrative, the idea of the one-dimensionality of a string being channelled into a three-dimensional installation is particularly compelling. The skeletal nature of the work in question is, in a certain way, reminiscent of architectural blueprints and in this way, the work provides a species of cartography, a reflection of an underlying instinct to map experience and existence.

In this sense, this piece, as with many others of the exhibition, is a realignment of our notions of horizontality and verticality. Through the questioning of these two notions, directionality reveals itself to be constructed and reconstructed along the (re)channeling of tensile forces. In the same vein, there is an overall divergence from the conventional tendencies of linear trajectory. Thus, spectatorship is likewise submitted to the overlapping functions of reflection, refraction and reformulation.

As a more spatially subdued interlude in the midst of Robbio’s stringed installations, the exhibition also offers a glimpse into the illustrative dimensions of the artist’s repertoire. The drawings can be found placed upon a shelf extending from one of the centrally-oriented mobile walls of the gallery’s space. They can almost be compared to a visual form of a vignette. The geometric forms detailed on the pages show a remarkable parallel to the angularities mediated by the spatial trajectories of the exhibit’s works as a whole. In this way, the assemblage represents a larval constellation of creative loci. Through their intriguing simplicity, they constitute both narratives yet at the same time something just short of that. Or it could be very well that the viewer is seeing that which has yet to materialize past the point of artistic departure, an almost spectral glimpse into an aesthetic future.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that the most spatially expansive of the exhibition’s installations also happens to have the longest title. “La fuerza que tira abajo es la que permite subir” (The Force that Pulls You Down is the One that Allows You to Ascend) is not just confined to one wall but bisects the mobile partition in the gallery’s center. The directionality of force on both the west and east facing sides of the partition rejects the installations’ overall tendency to mediate tension by opposing weight with weight. Rather, the hammer’s downward weight is thrust into a dynamic dance of aesthetic and mechanical acrobatics which ultimately culminate not with a complement of downward weight but rather with an almost palpable upward tensile force by the strings’ attachment to a base.

In essence, tension is not only negotiated in a fundamentally distinct manner, but there is a bisection of the gallery space by the installation. It is this in particular which fundamentally challenges the underlying assumptions of the assumed territorial sovereignty of the individual art piece within the broader framework of the overall exhibition. At its core, the latter is a dialogue, and the work in question represents a sublime testimony to the ongoing intertextualities that are essential to the projective and generative capacities of art.

Varun Biddanda is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at vdb22@cornell.edu