Dane Nester: On View
Through March 8
Redux Contemporary Art Center
136 St. Philip St.
Dane Nester hasn’t bathed in five days.
You can tell.
While pushing a hand through a matted mop of dirty brown hair, he jokes about how busy he and friend Ben Crawford have been since arriving in Charleston. For the past few days, they’ve done little but troll the city, fueled by coffee and an environmentally-minded vision of art, in search of materials to make a new interactive exhibit at Redux Contemporary Art Center.
By the time I visited them a day prior to the exhibit’s opening, the concrete floor at Redux was littered with their findings: steel pipes, empty fire extinguishers, glass jars, a bevy of new and used planks and two-by-fours, rusty horseshoes, strips of foam molding, a broken rake, a sawhorse, a wooden stool, a basketball hoop, the bottom half of a rocking chair, a pair of drum sticks, a vinyl recording one of Beethoven’s piano concertos, and opaque glass globes for lighting fixtures.
It was a riot of stuff — disorganized, dislodged, incoherent, meaningless.
With nothing in its right place, the effect of seeing it scattered was unsettling. And that, as Nester and Crawford explained, is part of the point.
Trash with ‘baggage’
The exhibit, which opened Friday, was a last-minute addition to Redux’s normally well-planned event schedule. So Nester and Crawford weren’t sure what they going to do when they arrived.
What they did know was a desire to address certain themes — reuse, participation, and interactivity — and a method of expressing those themes in assemblages made from objects found in dumpsters, at junk yards, and on roadsides.
By taking objects out of their normal habitats, as it were, and assembling them in novel configurations (a bunch of steel conduit cut and arranged into a whole tone scale, for instance), Nester and Crawford are attempting to find new meaning among the objects’ myriad connotations. When a handful of empty fire extinguisher cylinders are hung like chimes, and then engaged as if they were musical instruments, they take on an entirely new function.
Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, William Carlos Williams and other early modernist poets did something similar when they attempted to strip words clean of their 19th-century romanticism and sentimentality. But unlike the modernists, Nester and Crawford know you can’t disconnect entirely an object from the meaning we apply to it, not as long as there are people around to interact with the object and give it meaning. All they can do is arrange and rearrange what’s already there.
“You can’t escape the symbolic aspects,” Nester said.
Some objects are so symbolic that they avoided using them altogether. An example? The vinyl recording, broken in half, of a Beethoven piano concerto.
“Too much baggage,” Crawford said.
Like the modernists, though, Nester and Crawford are aiming beyond the aesthetic and into the political by calling into question the rationale behind 21st-century American consumerism. Why throw this stuff away if it can be used for something else? These objects were discarded not because they were void of value, Crawford told me, but because they no longer served their prior function.
So after being given a new function, is it still trash? And if it’s not trash, what are the environmental implications?
“We are creating a new purpose with these unwanted things,” Nester said.
Bonding people together
I got an idea of what he meant by “new purpose” when I went to the opening Friday night. Gone was the riotous feeling of stuff being scattered everywhere. Instead, I found nearly a dozen “sculptures” that had been turned into “musical instruments” to be banged, tapped, stuck, and plucked.
The room was a cacophony of clamor. Members of the New Music Collective were there exploring the range of unique sounds made by empty fire extinguisher cylinders. Another guy, who perhaps enjoyed too much of the complimentary wine, was having a grand time whacking an old cardboard tube that’s normally used as a mold for pouring concrete.
Giggling wildly, he moved to the piece that featured a basketball hoop screwed to the top of a vertical piece of wood. The artists had stretched a handful of nylon cords from the hoop, over the bottom end of a garbage can, and to a knob at the base, where the cord was tied.
It was now a stringed instrument that the giggling man plucked impishly. But why the hoop?
“A hoop is inviting,” Crawford told me earlier. “A pick-up game of basketball is open to anyone who wants to play. It invites people to participate. It’s inclusive.”
By making these objects into instruments, the artists made tools for people to bond with each other. If the riot of sound was any indication Friday, they succeeded in their aim. Instead of being something that’s to be discarded, sent to the margins of society, this trash is something valuable, something to be central to the life of the community.
As for Nester and his matted hair, did he shower and shave yet?
“No,” he told me. “I haven’t had the time.”