May 3, 2014

BLASTA! - a thought about allegory in immersive art

Vlasta Volcano, Signs Along the Road, at Art in General, 1993
A good friend who is Serbian brought to my attention early this year, a piece made by Vlasta Volcano some 20 years ago for a show at Art in General about Yugoslav identity. I must say the "Yugoslav identity" dimension of the work was lost on me when I first encountered it in photos. Volcano was a member of the Immersive scene in Williamsburg, and so my initial response to this work of his was from that perspective. Here’s what I wrote about it almost a year ago:
They are figures, like Rodin or Giacometti, except they appear in abject material in a desolate place. Out of the bubbling coils of melting rubber, phantoms peel out and spring to life ... on a ghetto beach, oh brave new world. From an artist's hand light of touch, comes a first rate exposition in Vlasta's work of a certain ... insouciant minimalism of warehouse art of the time. A very simple process, burn rubber tires on the waterfront. A regular fine art foundry. And why not. Everyone else is doing it. If you can have machine shops and fabricators making your art, it stands to reason that you should make art at the ass end of industry as well. Off the schmelting rubber come leaping lords and hipstresses. Vlasta did not draw or paint, he lit a fire, and he caught our shadows all the same. 
— Ethan, January 6, 2014

1992-93 was a very dark time in Yugoslavia, and there were a number of Serbs and Croats in the local art scene. As it happened I fell in with that crowd for a while. My friend Jelena Tomic is Serbian by way of Paris, I introduced her to my old friend Ivan Kustura, who is Croatian and a painter whom I knew from a circle of Greenpoint artists in the mid-80s. And soon we were drinking at Teddy's with eight or nine other Yugoslavians.

Vlasta Volcano, from photos taken between 1990-93.

Volcano is Serbian, and I knew him the way people in close art communities know each other. That is to say, like family, even though we rarely ever spoke to each other. Though I do recall one funny exchange with him at El Sensorium some 20 years ago. Volcano was wearing a strip of duct tape over his mouth for most of that evening. At some point I caught him without the tape, and I asked him if he thought the phenomenon of fame and celebrity might be an evolutionary precursor to some form of social telepathy that might become highly articulated in another 40 thousand years or so.

“Could be” he said.

Volcano was in the group Floating Point Unit for a while, a principal branch of Immersionism, and he always struck me as a most chill and immersive dude indeed. I called him “Blasta.” But I am only now connecting with this artist’s interesting work and its position in the Brooklyn movement.

I gather this work is made from burnt or unravelled automobile tires. I do think it is Rodin-like, in the sense that it is form achieved in a release of energy and raw materiality. It is exemplary immersive sculpture. A calculated event in material. He uses no arty trappings or skills known to the genres. A process will be deployed, upon such material as is readily available. No rules of the minimalists are broken. But a completely different world from theirs is revealed.

In 1998 Craig Owens located the “allegorical impulse” within minimalism and material art, and extended it to the postmodern art that followed. The immersive artists are also allegorical, but they absorbed this irritating chestnut from the history of art in a different way. They turned away from the analytic approach that was prevalent in the 80s, and used a synthetic approach closer to the materialist aesthetics of an earlier era. But instead of being denuded of allegory or approaching it in a measured and astringent manner such as in the work of Robert Smithson or Robert Morris, we have in immersive sculpture an art that is saturated, bloated, impregnated with senses of allegory and narrative. This may be one reason why this movement was at once so seductive to so many thousands who experienced it as entertainment, but maybe not symbolically explicit enough for many people in the art world at that time.

When Lauren Szold was making her seminal immersive work in Williamsburg in 1990-91, and when I interviewed her at that time, she spoke about the meanings embedded in raw material, and that she tried to avoid obvious cultural references; objects and symbols plucked wholesale from the culture. It is characteristic of a lot of immersive work that narrative is ingrained in the material and the process, but not forced through symbolism. Dennis Del Zotto's polystyrene structures come to mind, as does the “plastic fog” of Frank Shifreen at the Flytrap in 1991. And of course many of the the schemes of Lalalandia are exemplary in this regard.

The only catch here with using the term “allegory” in this connection, is that this term has a precise meaning in literature and art. It means to tell one story by means of another, and usually this means to recover some aspect of the past, of history usually, and pitch it as a new “story” that can be comprehended by a present-day audience. Napoleon as Caesar for example. But when we get into modern speculations about allegory, the term can be conflated with other concepts about language and signs. Still, even if we take liberties with the definition, allegory is a resilient attribute of our relationship to aesthetic experience. It may not appear in present-day art in a literal “this-for-that” formulation, but allegory may be mixed in with the aggregate, so to speak, of a concrete and material form of art.

Volcano's work here is an example of allegory in immersive sculpture. It clearly suggests a lively narrative space, but it just as easily can stand for nothing but process and material. And it's funny!

Volcano, early- to mid-90s, with friends. Brooklyn or lower Manhattan. Photo by Megan Raddant
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