Out of the trash, into the tank — Re:Purposed and Holoscenes at Ringling

Two exhibitions at Ringling yield intriguing ecological perspectives.

Runs through May 17 Lars Jan: Holoscenes
Wed., Mar. 25, Fri., Mar. 27 and Sat., Mar. 28, 12-5 p.m.
Thurs. Mar. 26, noon-8 p.m.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota

Glance at the label next to a Vanessa German sculpture, and what you won’t find is a snippet of vague art lingo like “mixed media assemblage,” but rather an exhaustive and poetic list of all that combines into her sculptures. The white buttons, toys and cell phone chargers that fuse into the dress of a small black figure are also “white things to quell the rage, to clean up the bones, to speak for the already-gone-to-dust ancestors.” Using the most trivial of stuff, German conjures a charged history of racial oppression. Along the way she illuminates how human relations are shaped in part by the junk we live by and the meaning we imbue it with.

Through May, German’s work is part of Re:Purposed, an exhibition at the Ringling Museum of Art that showcases 10 artists who use cast-off materials as the substance or inspiration for installations, sculptures, paintings and video. Along with German, they include Nick Cave (who will be fresh in the minds of Tampa residents following his appearance at Lights on Tampa 2015), El Anatsui, Matt Eskuche, Emily Noelle Lambert, Mac Premo, Aurora Robson, Daniel Rozin, Alyce Santoro and Jill Sigman. The artists make up an excellent cast, but the exhibition suffers somewhat from theme fatigue and a light-handed approach to providing information about the art that seems intended to make the experience kid-friendly but deflates its critical punch. Americans represent 5 percent of the world’s population but produce 25 percent of its garbage, so you’d think an exhibition about trash would occasion some real soul-searching about the politics of throwing away, but Re:Purposed doesn’t push far beyond a formal delight in art made of junk.

Still, the exhibition offers a chance to see artwork of a caliber that only rarely touches down on Florida’s Gulf Coast. El Anatsui is widely known in the art world for his tapestry-like wall hangings made of foil wrappers from liquor bottle tops, debris that links back to colonial trade in rum, sugar and slaves; a pair of glimmering examples are included. Three of Cave’s “soundsuits” incorporate found objects into colorful, noise-generating costumes that offer the wearer playful power, protection and disguise. (Here’s a place in the exhibition where where more context would have been nice — Cave was initially inspired to create the suits by the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, after which he wrestled with feeling that society both devalues and ascribes menacing power to black men, to a degree unhinged from reality.) But the concept of elevating garbage into art begins to feel belabored by the time one arrives at Mac Premo’s Dumpster Project, a collection of knickknacks hoarded by the artist and arrayed in a walk-in container, a display only marginally more exciting than a trip to your own garage. Santoro’s textiles and garments, woven out of a mix of fabric and brown-black audiotape, also feel like a reach. The concept is cool and the results look interesting, but the “sonic fabric” does little for the ears, as evidenced by an interactive test swatch on display.

This week marks the debut at Ringling of a project related to but distinct from Re:PurposedHoloscenes by Los Angeles artist Lars Jan. Last year Jan, who specializes in live, multimedia-augmented performance, raised more than $40,000 via Kickstarter to realize a daydream vision: a larger-than-life performance aquarium that fills with 12 tons of water in about a minute. Inside the tank, which debuted at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche Festival last October, specially trained performers take turns carrying out everyday actions such as reading a newspaper, sleeping and mopping the floor as water envelops them, discombobulates their motions, and drains from the tank in time for the next performer. Jan intends the sudden deluge to evoke the impending effects of global warming; Ringling, in publicizing the project, notes that the museum’s waterfront complex will likely be impacted by rising waters in the next few decades.

Comments out of Toronto say the performance, which runs Wednesday through Saturday in Sarasota, doesn’t disappoint. Thursday evening, when Ringling visitors can watch the performance against a sunset backdrop on the waterfront until 8 p.m., should be special.  

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