Indistinguishible From Magic: Conrad Freiburg’s Weird Science

July 29, 2011 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine

I first met Conrad Freiburg in what must have been the Spring of 2008, while I was living out in Belmont Heights (about as far west as you can go and still be in the city limits) and working at an Ace Hardware in River Grove. A friend my wife Stephanie Burke had made while we were living in Baltimore was dating a guy from Chicago, a friend of Conrad’s. Unfortunately, I had to work at the hardware store while the rest of them went to visit Conrad’s studio, but when I got home from work, Stephanie described to me what she had seen: a big wooden roller coaster, down which one rolled a bowling ball. She said it was awesome.

Conrad Freiburg, "The Slipping Glimpser," installed at Linda Warren Gallery.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the piece Stephanie had described to me was “The Slipping Glimpser,” its name taken from a quote by de Kooning, apparently famous although I hadn’t heard it before Conrad told me about it, fairly recently: “…When I’m falling, I’m doing all right; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me: I’m not doing so good; I’m stiff. As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping, most of the time into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.”

The Slipping Glimpser is a 160-foot track roller coaster, made of ash and hickory.  Conrad’s carpentry skills give a level of high craft and polish to everything he makes; at his recent exhibition It Is What It Isn’t at the Hyde Park Art Center, I was amazed by the precision and craftsmanship that he put even into the wooden bracket which held the camera with which he was documenting the operation of the Self-Contained Unit of Entropy. The Slipping Glimpser’s track is designed to accommodate a bowling ball.  Conrad had some custom-made clear bowling balls, like the one that Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) used in Kingpin (with the rose inside), only instead of a rose, the balls used in the Slipping Glimpser contained fragments of a previous sculpture: The Ball Dropper.

The Ball Dropper (2006) was a simple ramp in which a bowling ball was loaded into one end, rolled down the ramp to gain velocity, then hit a “ski jump” at the end to launch it over a short trajectory onto a pre-sighting target landing zone. Objects to be destroyed were placed in this landing zone, and were destroyed by the impact of the ball. The Ball Dropper was put to work as a busking device, audience members paying a small fee to have an object of their choosing destroyed by the machine. This kind of performative panhandling fits into Conrad’s work ethic, which he described to me (when he was the
visiting artist at Co-Prosperity School) as “Everything I do has to provide me with food, shelter, or art.”

Conrad has a weird, frugal humility, living simply and downplaying the significance of everything he does, which really comes across in an essay he wrote for Studio Chicago, called “The Great American Loserdom.” Many months ago, Stephanie and I visited Conrad’s studio to see what he was working on; it was a prototype of his drawing machine, a “harmonograph.” He showed us the rough prototype, about the size of a sewing table, pendulums weighted by coffee can-sized chunks of concrete, which when set to moving created spirals or more complex shapes, bow ties and butterflies of line.  Conrad fed us dinner, an unexpected combination of rotisserie chicken (inexplicably, he had a rotisserie cooker in his studio), chickpeas which he had sprouted himself in a Mason jar, and oatmeal. It was strangely satisfying, and a perfect illustration to what he had been telling us, about a life in which he made do with very little, in order that nothing be allowed to get in the way of his making art.

Cut to this May, an event called Drink, Draw, and Destroy. I was running a drawing workshop and drinking martinis, but afterwards I was free to go see what Conrad was up to. He was the “Destroy” component of the event. The Self-Contained Unit of Entropy used a dropped weight to destroy small wooden sculptures that had been made by visitors to the event. I sat down at a vacant station to make one; a wooden “sled” served as the platform that would deliver my sculpture to the machine to be smashed. I went with a classic “log cabin fire” type setup: a pair of sticks (balsa wood being the material provided) laid parallel, then a second pair laid across them, and so on, each set getting slightly smaller, until the whole thing had the shape of a step pyramid. I saw another visitor making a very similar arrangement, and I must admit his reached a far more impressive height. But mine would serve, and so it was delivered to the machine.  The aforementioned digital camera documented its “before” state, and then the weight was dropped, smashing it. An “after” picture was taken, and the work was complete.

This destructive device has a precedent, not only in the Ball Dropper, but also in the first work of Conrad’s I ever saw in person. A few months after we met, Conrad’s show “A Great Daydream” opened (on Friday, September 5th, 2008). “A Great Daydream” refers to Gore Vidal’s description of the Declaration of Independence. That document is central to the work in this exhibition: thirteen (as in original colonies) wall sculptures each illustrate a passage from it, and the large, central sculpture consists of a table and suspended concrete weights with their aspect ratios derived from the Declaration. The sculptures were interactive in many ways, for example in one piece the viewer can pull a cord which causes a hammer to strike a block of concrete, chipping it away very slowly.  The centerpiece, though, was the large table containing fragile wooden sculptures. A crank on the wall lowered (very, very slowly) a massive concrete weight, which if lowered far enough would destroy the sculptures. Stephanie and I, after having a few
glasses of Linda’s trademark vodka punch, took turns working the crank, desperately trying to lower the block enough to destroy the sculptures, and every once in a while Linda would come out, shoo us away from the crank, and work it the other way, seeking to delay the inevitable destruction of the sculptures. It added a fine sense of drama to the whole affair, and by the time Steph and I called it a night, the sculpture was still standing.

Conrad recently had another show at Linda Warren, this one called “The Blind Light, The Pyre of Night.” The Blind Light is an eleven-sided form (an undecagon) which serves as a performance chamber, concealing a musician inside. The form of the structure is intended to suggest a space capsule such as Apollo or Gemini, bobbing in the ocean after returning to earth. The performer (when I saw it, it was Conrad himself, although he had several guest musicians perform in it as well) is concealed from the audience’s view, simultaneously eliminating the visual distraction of the performer’s appearance from the
musical experience while creating a “what’s going on in there” kind of fascination. The other works in this show include a sculptural representation of the amount of fuel it takes for a spacecraft to reach the moon, and “Burning Stars” which are incense burners with constellations of holes drilled into their aluminum covers. The whole affair, like all of Conrad’s work, has a mystical, spiritual, pseudoscientific feel to it, a cross between 19th Century Spiritualism and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Conrad Freiburg, "A Catapult For The New Millennium," installed in a soybean field in Paris, IL.

When I think now about Conrad’s career, I keep coming back to a piece which I’ve never seen, but which he old me about during his presentation at Co-Prosperity School:  Catapult For A New Millennium. Built during what must have been Conrad’s last semester of Undergrad at SAIC (Fall 1999), this project was a catapult installed in a soybean field in Paris, IL on New Year’s Eve, on the border between the Eastern and Central time zones. For one hour, it was after midnight in Indiana but before midnight in Illinois, and the catapult could launch objects across the time zone and into the new millennium. He describes the purpose of the catapult as having been to launch his career through time and space, into the future. His great modesty aside, it seems to have succeeded.

Jeriah Hildwine is an artist, educator, and art writer for Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

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