June 7, 2006

Dennis Del Zotto's Starry Night

Dennis Del Zotto, Starry Night
polystyrene with holes and back-lighting

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder - über'm Sternenzelt*
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.

— Schiller, Ode to Joy, 1785

* Sternenzelt: literally, star tent

This sculpture by Dennis Del Zotto has a good story to tell. An inflatable was installed outdoors on the street at a neighborhood festival on South 11th Street in 1996 (The Human Fest). A crowd of local children entered the inflatable and were dancing. The groundsheet portion, between the dancing feet and the coarse pavement, incurred little holes.

The next day Del Zotto installed the same sheet of plastic at his studio in Greenpoint. This time he installed the piece "upside down" — that is, as a canope´ rather than as a drop cloth — and consequently "discovered" the pin holes. A night sky was caused by the small punctures now back-lit from above. Even the slight undulation of the plastic, from the oscillations of the fan keeping the plastic aloft, was an uncanny effect. The sculpture imparted the feeling of being out under the night sky. It is a characteristic of Del Zotto's work, the immersive experience that they create. It is well known that accident is often a crucial part of authentic works of art. The "stars" in this sculpture were an authentic accident. The result was riveting and uncanny.

Two years later the piece was installed as the ceiling of the chapel in the Inflatable City at the Federation of Ongolia on North 11th Street. And so this sculpture progressed from South 11th to North 11th, first as a floor, then as a ceiling.

The piece is to the Williamsburg Immersionist movement what the Duomo in Florence is to the Renaissance. No less inflated a comparison will really make the point. For like the Duomo it is a patchwork of different events from a certain span of time. Not, for example, a single coherent work such as Brunelleschi’s Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence, or for that matter one of Del Zotto’s many inflatables conceived and built for a single place and time.

Del Zotto's Starry Night originated on what was once a tucked-away corner of industrial Williamsburg, on a street already known for some bizarre events (hurling live TV sets off of rooftops and such). The banal sheet of plastic, whose aesthetic value is nil by many standards, contains the stamp of a time and place in the history of a local artistic movement. That is, the history of a certain demimonde. But it also contains literally the stamp of the feet of children, of innocent "locals" from the culture that precedes the artists.

In this way Del Zotto is a natural storyteller in material, who maneuvers a slice of social history through a sheet of polystyrene. Later he unfolds the damage that the local children have done to his sculpture, and even grumbles as he does so, with his famous testiness that endears him to his fellow artists. He now exposes the substrate for a second time to a different social chemistry, a nightclub. And the stars come out.

Allegory is a "sticky" attribute of concrete art; it has long vexed concrete and conceptual art. The argument has been made that the “allegorical impulse” of postmodernism began in the work of earth artists such as Robert Smithson ruminating on the meaning of ruins and other features of landscape.

Local children dance upon the shrine of bohemia, mocking it, puncturing it. And then, when the sheet is unfolded later in a nightclub, the same children laugh at us again as "stars.” They mock our hubris, our own aspirations to stardom. They turn the scene upside down, as it were.

But it is also possible to dismiss any corny story in connection with a work like this; that is, we don't have to receive the piece as symbolic. It is a concrete work, and as such also lends itself to the modernist suppression of allegory. Who are we to say it tells a story. We should appreciate it in the stoic spirit of minimalism, and not impute a narrative to the piece. For in essence it is a plastic sheet processed by an event, and revealed to another event. Orientation is involved, up and down, the floor and the ceiling, and the light and darkness of space.

Ethan Pettit, June 2006

Also see Dennis Del Zotto and the Williamsburg Scene