GUEST POST BY HEIDI NORTON
I live in Humboldt Park and as of lately I am way into observing, assessing, and mentally noting changes in the trees. The seasons have me thinking about cycles– nostalgia is creeping in. As the lush green turns to yellow, and the yellow to red, my mind wanders back to Rob Carter’s stop motion video and installation of the Nest. Rob’s solo exhibition Culte was recently on view at EBERSMOORE (relocating to 350 N Ogden, Suite 100, January 6, 2012) earlier this fall. I was mesmerized by Rob’s show so much, I saw it twice (see why below). He was gracious enough to give me some of his time to talk plants, architecture, and crowds among other things.
Heidi Norton: Architecture seems to be an important focus within your practice. Within “Culte,” you create an architectural hybrid of the tennis stadium in Queens, Flushing Meadows, the site of the US open and the facade of a Gothic cathedral. Talk about the significance of the actual space – the interior architectural and exterior architecture – that these pieces reference. Why this particular stadium? Does the ground around the stadium play a role? Does it have a historical reference? Why Gothic architecture?
Rob Carter: Frequently my work begins with an architectural juxtaposition and this video has several. The stadium seating is indeed composed of a series of shots I took from each quadrant of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens. However there is little significance to that fact as I have made the playing surface, and therefore the game, very ambiguous: it is an elongated octagon of perfectly mown grass or perhaps Astroturf. The idea is that this is a fairly universal stadium for a universal unspecified sport – the video’s audio track uses the sounds of chanting fans from all over the world representing the theatre and community of sport. Likewise, the outside architecture is made up of Gothic architecture from a variety of European cathedrals, though most are from England and France. All the elements are photographic prints that have been resized to fit on one architectural model structure – they form a building that is fractured (sometimes the outside is made of interior images) and complete – almost believable. To some extent it represents the mega-churches that have formed a significant part of the development of Christianity in North America. These buildings and their ‘organizations’ naturally draw interesting comparisons with the entertainment, fervor, and ritual of sports stadium events. I have been interested in these overlapping cultural themes for several years – how the need for sport and religion divide and unite our cities, both architecturally and as a communal experience.
I chose to unify the exterior of my stadium with one style of architecture. Gothic architecture is not specifically religious architecture, but it has become most closely associated with Christianity through the Gothic cathedral masterpieces of the 12th–15th century. I have a longstanding relationship with these types of buildings – family summer holidays always included multiple visits to cathedrals and churches all over the UK and Northern France, so I have a strong personal connection with it and despite all those church visits I also still love it. Plants and the natural world have many associations with Gothic architecture and carving which makes a coherent juxtaposition with the plants that surround this particular building in my video. Simplistically the representation of nature in Gothic architecture, as it evolves over the centuries, shows the natural world in all its detail formed in solid stone, as well as an emerging order and purity that attempts to stand above the baseness of nature. Though the style evolves into the more rectilinear forms of the Perpendicular style, the association with nature, with plants, flowers, trees and foliage is always imbedded and celebrated within the buildings. The ground around the stadium did have other incarnations but I felt it worked best as a void or barren earth that isolated the building from the reality of urbanism (no roads or car parks), but that also tied the architecture to the ground. After all soil is essentially broken up particles of stone.
Heidi Norton: In graduate school, I made a piece about spectatorship and crowd power. I was very interested in the idea of absorption and the spectacle–the crowds and the event and/or the thing being consumed. I investigated groups of people of varying sizes within sporting events, church congregations, cheer leading competitions, etc. Please talk about the parallels between this type of absorption and the plants growth mediated through the camera and stop motion. Are these people chanting “mantras” or life to the plants?
Rob Carter: The plants are literally absorbing and consuming in order to survive and grow (the audio track also suggests this), so I am interested in this parallel with spectatorship. The subconscious need to belong – to engage, worship or be entertained en masse is a fascinating and important part of our societies. Your Graduate School piece sounds like an interesting project – I am most interested in ideas of the power of the crowd especially in connection with architecture and urban planning. To me the seedlings in “Culte” might refer more to the homogeneity that the crowd creates – how we lose our individual identity in the mass of a stadium crowd, and how despite their uniqueness the seedlings never have individual identity in our eyes. They are simply ‘programmed’ to absorb, nourish themselves and grow. In the circumstances of sport or religion the experience of singing, chanting or just shouting becomes an empowering experience but also one that, like plant growth, relies on order and timing. The voices are chanting many things in different languages, for varying sports and religions, but the auditory sensation is supposed to be something like a series of mantras – one that suggests physical and spiritual transformation – perhaps asking for the plants to burgeon.
Heidi Norton: Why zucchini? Was it important that the plant be a producer of something edible?
Rob Carter: There are a variety of species used, but the soil was predominantly sown with zucchini and pumpkin seeds. When I embarked on this 8-month process I was unsure what I was going to get but the idea was that the vegetables should simply symbolize two architectural motifs – the column and the dome. In my wildest dreams I hoped that a pumpkin might emerge and put a dome on my stadium and probably crush it (the seedlings growing through “The Nest” are mostly pumpkins for this some association). Given the very restricted growing area it was not surprising that this did not happen and as it turns out the zucchinis totally overwhelmed the pumpkin seedlings – so I created a kind of vegetable survival of the fittest arena. It was, as you suggest, important to have something edible produced because the video is partly about sustenance and human needs – about our desire to connect with others and to be ‘nourished’ spiritually. It also attempts to make reference to the religion of food as I see it today – the evolvement of food ‘movements’ (Locavorism, Organic, Slow Food etc) and their influence on the way we live and the fanaticism that often goes along with them. For some, it has become a quasi-religious basis for the way they live their lives, affecting the choices for daily life in ever more complex and sometimes contradictory ways.
Heidi Norton: “The Nest” was also on display at EbersMoore. My perception and understanding of the space was completely displaced when I saw the scale of the actual plants and model. I enjoyed this experience very much. Discuss the importance of exhibiting “the nest” and the significance of the camera’s point-of-view.
Rob Carter:In the course of making “Culte” I transformed my studio into some kind of bio-lab. It quickly became apparent that the apparatus of constructing the work was interesting and did something quite different from the video. This in itself has led me to a new work which will open in New York next year that will have all the apparatus of such a production in the gallery space including a larger scale seed-bed with plants growing and being photographed throughout the course of the exhibit. “The Nest” is something of a mini pre-curser to this. It is a remnant of the process of making the video – a relic of all those hours of growth; it also relocates the scale of the video for the viewer. What especially interested me in the remains of my studio garden was the way the plants had fused with this miniature piece of architecture – they now form a tangled web of plant matter that is both sinister and protective of the little paper sculpture. The new growth in “The Nest” represents both the beginning and end of the evolution described by the video. New pumpkin seedlings replace the evergreen playing surface and they are set-up to grow throughout the course of the exhibit. Here the seedlings grow in real time, but if you were to revisit the show the sculpture would have evolved and the architecture would be a little further obscured than on a previous visit. The sculpture asks the viewer to consider the camera’s point-of-view, and interpret how they have perceived the video. Having been seduced by the movement and sound, it should be something of a mental leap to then look at this pile of dead leaves, observe what is in it and consider the frustrating difference in the sense of time it suggests. The seedlings may feel even more static than they might otherwise – as ‘dead’ in time at the yellowed leaves that surround them.
Heidi Norton: Does nostalgia play a role in these works? Is the idea of youth, memory, and lived experience of relevance? The longing for life? The POV of the camera, the stop motion, talk about all of the things in relation to the work.
Rob Carter: I don’t think I had considered it as nostalgic. That said, there are many personal ways it connects to me and my ‘lived experience’. Stop motion and time-lapse photography has the ability to make the mundane uncanny and often wondrous. Many experience this (first) as children so the adult experience of viewing work using such techniques can be mediated by such memories. My videos tend to use stop motion/time-lapse in a fairly ‘pure’ form – “Culte” uses the techniques of the nature program, but shows more than the highlights – we never see the flower open, but we see everything else.
Heidi Norton: Was the nest a self-sustaining system? Why was it important to add an irrigation feature? How does the space and idea of the stadium change when the plant dies? For me, in the beginning the exterior appeared overgrown and at the end it was barren.
Rob Carter: I don’t think that the lushness is unattainable but it is fleeting. “The Nest” has a very basic irrigation system that required a simple collaboration between artist and gallery – they had to keep my sculpture alive for the course of the show. The surrounding dead plants reinforce how temporary and futile this is; the new seedlings are exposed as an effect and a symbol of potential without the possibility of reward. They themselves represent the true narrative – the story that none of us can escape from. However, I tend to look at this work in terms of cycles of life… cycles and overlappings of culture, community and tradition too.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She lives and works in Chicago. Norton has presented solo exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Group exhibitions include How Do I Look at Monique Meloche Gallery, The World as Text at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Snapshot at Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Knitting Factory in New York. Norton was published in My Green City (Gestalten) in 2011 and her spring show Not to See the Sun, at EbersMoore was reviewed in Frieze, September 2011. Currently she is collaborating with writer Claudine Ise in a seasonal column for Bad At Sports called Mantras for Plants. Norton is represented by EBERSMOORE gallery in Chicago. She is faculty in the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.