Project Series 31: Katie Grinnan
“Katie Grinnan: The Rise and Fall” includes five loosely related works of art: the book Rubble Division that focuses on Grinnan’s three-part project of the same name spanning 2005 through 2006; two videos—Rise and Fall and Rubble Division Interstate that document different components of Grinnan’s project; and two interconnected sculptures—Tower Story and Crane.
An interest in space has always been at the forefront of her work. Her sculptures involve the collision of physical, photographic, psychological, public, private, and political space. In her work, Grinnan collapses structure and surface, merging interior and exterior space into one material, where boundaries and parameters are defined yet fluid. Her sculptures evoke the effects of photography—often precariously balanced and fragile, her work seems to be frozen in a moment. By using photographs as sculptural material, Grinnan deconstructs and complicates representation to resonate beyond imagery into kinesthetic realms.
In the first stage of the Rubble Division project, Grinnan was commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum to create a float for the Fourth of July Parade. The float divided ruined and built space, partitioned the sounds of the band Cacophonous Sarcophagus, and manipulated the spectators’ experiences so that the perception of those on one side of the street would be different than those on the other. The second stage reversed the constructs of a typical parade, with the panels of the float fragmented and dispersed along the side of the road and the spectators moving through space in a 15-person van. The piece, aptly titled Inverse Parade, happened at the High Desert Test Site in 2006 and operated as a stop frame animation where the van served as a moving camera aperture for the audience—framing the panels and the sounds of the band The Meat Bees.
The third phase of the project, Rubble Division Interstate, was part of the exhibition “Interstate: The American Road Trip,” curated by Andrea Zittel of the High Desert Test Site and Allyson Baker and Robyn Donahue of Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. The panels from Inverse Parade were reconfigured into a road worthy, high velocity, nomadic sculpture that was broken down and reassembled daily. The Rubble Division, a seven-person army including Grinnan, two musicians (The Meat Bees), and several friends embarked on a journey across country beginning at Joshua Tree and ending at Socrates Sculpture Park.
Rubble Division emphasizes movement, transformation, renewal, and ruin. Consistent with this idea, the piece now exists in multiple forms and perspectives, proliferating its own mythology sculpturally, through video and through language. The artist book Rubble Division is an outgrowth of Grinnan’s body of work as a whole and compresses all the components of the project into one moment, acting as a photograph of the time period. The videos complement Grinnan’s project—Rise and Fall depicts the breaking down and building up process, while Rubble Division Interstate conveys the scope of the interstate journey itself. Tower Story and Crane represent examples of Grinnan’s earlier investigations into memory, perception, time, and space. These two sculptures were some of the first that Grinnan made that began to explore issues of breaking down and building up, and processes of destruction and reconstruction.
Katie Grinnan’s exhibition is the thirty-first in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Ruins in Reverse, Allegory on Wheels
by Michael Ned Holte
In the summer of 2006, Katie Grinnan’s Rubble Division left California’s Mojave desert and headed east, implicitly invoking, if strategically reversing, the path of Manifest Destiny. Towed behind a big, tour-worthy passenger van, Rubble Division traversed a prescribed route across the American landscape, navigating through Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Crawford, New Orleans, Knoxville, and the District of Columbia before “landing” at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. The work—including Grinnan and a costumed collective—is, at once, a sculpture, a parade float, a bandstand for an experimental/improvisational duo called the Meat Bees, a public art project, a political platform, a ruin on wheels. In other words, it frequently travels just beyond description.
Like its prototype, which was an award-winning entrant in the 2005 Fourth of July parade in Aspen, Colorado, Rubble Division is constructed from panels of Sintra—a thin, hard plastic material—upon which large photographic images have been printed. These source photographs were taken from two distinct sites: one, near the artist’s Los Angeles studio, is a demolished building supply store which was knocked down to be replaced by a Home Depot; the other is a playful contemporary commercial building—perhaps a café—in Rotterdam. While Grinnan’s photos of the former document literal destruction, images of the latter building—which uses structural timber in an off-kilter, cartoonish manner—hints at collapse, somewhat metaphorically, and only through the cool remove of second-generation, Pop-inflected architectural deconstruction.
Images from these opposing sites are brought together on each of the various two-sided Sintra panels which then fit together in a carefully-orchestrated assemblage supported by a sculptural framework of twisted and welded rebar. From one side of the float, one sees a fragmented image of the building in Rotterdam; from the other side, a faceted image of the demolished building—the latter undoubtedly a loaded image in the present moment.
Playing off the title of the piece, casual observers will be “divided” by different perceptual experiences of the same object, depending upon which side of the road they are standing. One could easily read this perceptual divide politically, particularly as the rubble traverses a string of Red states between its Blue state origin in California and destination in New York. Although the project is unabashedly didactic in its totality, it is unlikely anyone beyond Grinnan and her six companions will get a real sense of the whole because the whole takes many forms and unfolds over the course of two weeks. Near the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, for example, the secret service abruptly ended a parade and questioned the participants. Unwilling to accept Grinnan’s declaration of the work as “sculpture,” the authorities finally let the group go when somebody admits the work is intended as a “protest.” Whether intentional or not, the work is surely a quiet protest against ontological certainty.
In a very literal sense then, Rubble Division is a vehicle for change—or if not exactly for change, then of change. See also: the definition of “interstate.”
Throughout its tour the Sintra panels were frequently removed and stored below the flaot’s wooden platform, while leaving the barren rebar support structure exposed, like skeletal remains. As such, the repeated, ritual deconstruction and reconstruction of the sculpture (a process Grinnan captured on video) recalls Robert Smithson’s observation of building construction in suburban New Jersey: “That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
Such a fluctuating, ruinous existence challenges any notion of sculpture—this sculpture, in particular—as a dumb, static object. Yet, despite the obvious fact that Rubble Division is mobile by design, intended to be tugged cross country by a 15-passenger van, it is ultimately tempting to think about the work as site-specific—as a perpetual, ruinous fragment that finds its larger context in the desert(ed) remains of the Nevada ghost town Rhyolite, the abandoned Wapatki dwellings in Arizona, and the sprawling urban devastation of New Orleans. As a repetitive ruin, Rubble Division finds a structure that is nothing if not allegorical. Craig Owens, guided at least in part by Smithson’s example, wrote: “Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete—an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin, which Benjamin identified as the allegorical emblem par excellence. Here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay…” While Rubble Division follows directly from many of Grinnan’s earlier, gallery-bound investigations into the perception of space—whether actual, implied, psychological, social, etc.—as allegory, it also foregrounds the artist’s significant interest in the perception of time.
On May 6, 2006, on a dirt road somewhere east of 29 Palms, Grinnan stages what has been billed as an “inverse parade” in the baking sun. The float is dismantled into component parts, creating a series of individual band shells for the Meat Bees. Behind the band shells—which are also inverted, facing the desert, not the road—sits a cache of instruments, from exotic and “traditional” string, brass, and percussion instruments to various electronic devices, including, if I’m not hallucinating, a partial Darth Vader helmet. There is also a weird, plastic cooler designed by Grinnan that contains lukewarm bottles of her homemade Wizard’s Brew. At the end of the line sits a popcorn machine as a reminder that the inverse parade was pitched as an attempt to animate the float—like a movie.
The Meat Bees perform in vaguely cultish costumes designed by Grinnan. These robes feature printed images that match the sculpture, suggesting that the group is explicitly part of Rubble Division, and therefore an additional allegorical layer. The robes immediately remind me, more than a little, of the eccentric, extravagant, Egyptian-influenced costumes worn by Sun Ra and his Arkestra.
The passenger van, which will later transport Rubble Division cross county, drives forward, then backward along the road, parallel to the disassembled sculptural fragments, with Grinnan videotaping from the shotgun seat. Riding in the darkened hull of the van, passengers are able to watch the inverse parade through angular portals Grinnan adapted to the vehicle’s windows. (Imagine Jean-Luc Godard’s relentless tracking shot from Weekend in a chance collision with Smithson’s “ruins in reverse.”) Moving back and forth, one’s sculptural awareness of space blends with a cinematic perception of time, echoing what Owens describes as “allegory’s hopeless confusion of all aesthetic mediums and stylistic categories” by blurring the experiential boundaries of film and sculpture. In this sense, Rubble Division grows out of Grinnan’s germinal 2002 sculpture Film, a low-slung, floor-hugging work that incorporates photographs of holes and cracks in a demolished sidewalk. Grinnan made multiple exposures of these voids in the darkroom and then used the negative spaces to create photograms. These images were combined with an actual piece of the sidewalk to imply a sense of movement, evolution, animation while operating simultaneously in real and virtual space. According to Grinnan, “Film was about film but also about the idea of a sort of molting of space, like when a snake sheds its skin.” This complex interweaving of media—and space and time— clearly predicts the paradoxical strategy of Grinnan’s Rubble Division. Just as Grinnan shapes the perception of space by cutting, dismantling, repeating, and rearranging the fragmented images on Sintra panels, the inverse parade implies a similar plasticity—one inherent to the cinematic medium—by using sculpture to shape the perception of time. This formal strategy expands beyond the boundaries of medium to the condition of allegory, renewing “the irreversible process of dissolution and decay” whenever the ruinous Rubble Division hits the road.
Michael Ned Holte is a writer living in Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum, and his writing has appeared in Afterall, frieze, and other publications.