From April 20 to Sept. 30, “Sculpting with Air,” an exhibition featuring two site-specific sculptures by Ian McMahon and Jong Oh, is on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass. The exhibition is a collaboration by McMahon, Oh and the curator, Martina Tanga.
McMahon’s sculpture, “Tether,” embodies the dynamic tension between industry and humanity. Representative of McMahon’s signature sculptural structure, “Tether” consists of plastic-bag-shaped plaster molds that seem to be trapped and bound by black scaffolds on their sides. McMahon created the plaster molds by blowing air into giant plastic bags, and then entering the bags himself to spray plaster on the inner walls of the bags, which are then left to dry and harden.
Upon first sight, the sculpture seems to present a violent scene in which some soft, white, pillow-like items are squeezed and smothered by scaffolds of black steel. The specific colors of the scaffolds and the plaster also render the two structures, respectively, powerful and vulnerable. The combination of the black scaffolds and the white plaster is reminiscent of the process of conventional writings, and sometimes drawings, in which a black pen moves freely across and through a piece of white paper. The pen is full of agency, whereas the paper is entirely passive. The sculpture seemingly indicates that industrialization is slowly draining the organic, improvisational aspects of humanity.
However, the sculpture may also be interpreted to show the equality between the scaffolds and plaster and, as a result, between humanity and industry. Scrutinizing the sculpture up close, the audience discovers the hard texture of the plaster molds, which may seem like puffy pillows from a distance. In fact, in parts of the sculpture, the plaster molds even lift the scaffolds up from the ground. In the end, the plaster molds are not soft at all, and the scaffolds are not entirely unmovable. Neither of the two completely dominates the other — instead, they struggle against each other, which indicates a somewhat mutual, equal relationship. Likewise, humanity and industry constantly adapt to one another in their race of coevolution.
“Between Two Rooms (Monochrome) #1” by Oh presents a very different relationship between black and white. Oh’s installation spans across two rooms. Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewers are blinded by the overwhelmingly white gallery walls. Only after adapting to the novel environment and carefully searching for Oh’s installation is the audience able to detect the fine black strings that Oh had hung in the rooms. The humility of Oh’s installation forces the viewers to look at the gallery space: On searching for the promised artwork in the rooms, the viewers have to concentrate wherever their eyes pass, therefore inadvertently paying attention to the bumps and subtle smashes on the wall, and even the light and floating substances in the air. Oh’s installation overturns the traditional dynamic between the artwork and the gallery space, shifting the viewers’ attention from the figure to the background. Oh had created a meditative space for his audience, asking them to contemplate upon parts of life that have always been assumed and taken for granted.
Tanga sees striking similarities between the two artists in their inventive tendencies, the ephemerality of their artworks, their dependency on intuition and the interactive nature of their art-making processes. Tanga characterized both artists as avant-garde sculptors.
“These two artists really pushed the boundaries of sculptural practice, materiality, space and formativity,” Tanga said in an interview.
Specifically, Tanga indicated that there is an unconventional sense of casualness in McMahon’s use of material and art-making process.
“He sprays plaster, it’s a specific type of hard plaster,” she said. “It’s a kind of unique material that is not specifically sculptural; it’s architectural. His technique has been a process of trial and error and experimentation.”
Meanwhile, Tanga sees Oh as an original successor of well-known contemporary minimalist masters.
“I see Jong’s work as pushing the boundaries of traditional minimalism,” she said. “He has some references to Richard Tuttle, Fred Sandback. And I see Jong as evolving from that, that it’s less about fixed geometrical forms in space, and more site-specific and more working with the space that is given and heightening dialogues with the space.”
According to Tanga, the site-specific works of both artists will be destroyed by the end of the exhibition.
“[The artists’] main goal is really to shift the audience’s experience, rather than to create something that lasts forever,” Tanga said.
The curator noted that prior to “Tether,” McMahon had created a series of works that had been publicly destroyed.
“He sees his work as very ephemeral and transient,” she said. “He sort of sandwiches the short-life existence of the piece between the process of creation and destruction.”
McMahon also explained the origin and reason behind the public destruction of some of his sculptures.
“At one point, I had destroyed a piece that I just filmed for myself,” he said. “I kept watching that video. There was something very potent, very poetic, very powerful and very revealing about that moment. So I set off on a journey to make a piece wherein the destruction was the work.”
Both Tanga and McMahon intend “Tether” to not be destroyed publicly but instead in the basement of the museum building in which the exhibition takes place. A video installation at the exhibit shows the public destruction of other McMahon sculptures. Tanga believes that exhibiting such reserved allusion to destruction of “Tether,” instead of its physical destruction, would present the audience with an enigmatic sense of mystery.
“I want to show some of [McMahon’s] other works that have been destructed in a public way, as a way for the visitors to project and imagine what that might look like [for ‘Tether’],” Tanga said. “In a way it’s almost like a leap of imagination for visitors, which is more intriguing than having [the destruction] be available in reality.”
McMahon believes that publicly destroying “Tether,” with its physicality as an end to itself, instead of a means to its destruction, will not only interfere with the power of the public destructions of his previous sculptures but also undermine the purpose of “Tether.”
“‘Tether’ is designed for you to consume it as a sculpture in that place. The destruction doesn’t, visually and physically, do anything to it,” McMahon said.
Tanga agreed that a public destruction works against the piece and exhibit.
“The potency and poeticness of the other [works that had been publicly destroyed] just worked so well that if I tried to do that with [‘Tether’], it wouldn’t do that,” Tanga explained. “And therefore it will belittle the potency of [the previous] pieces. I think it will also belittle what [‘Tether’] is doing in that [exhibition] space. I need to leave you with something to continue thinking about. And I like that you have to deconstruct ‘Tether’ in your mind.”
According to Tanga, intuition was a significant driving force behind both artists’ creative practices.
“[Oh’s] work really developed on site,” she said. “And he is constantly thinking about the space around him, about how he’s intervening and how one thing will intervene another. He started with this very keen observation of what is already there, like cracks and blemishes. It is a kind of philosophy of acceptance of any kind of blemishes in the space. His work counterbalances and amplifies the elements that he finds. He never wants to dominates the space … With [McMahon], his relationship with materials is really driven by intuition. There is no guidebook for how to make this. He has intuitively developed this way through really building this solid foundation of knowledge of how materials work.”
According to Tanga, both artists seek to foster an intimate and physical relationship between their works and the viewers.
“It’s hard to experience their works in mediated forms,” Tanga said. “Because [Oh’s] doesn’t photograph very well, and with [McMahon’s], you don’t get that sense of tactility that you get with seeing it first-hand. And you don’t get the embodied, physical experience of moving around and getting close the piece, so the presentness of the viewers is very central to both of their works,” she said.
Notably, both Oh and McMahon installed their works publicly, meaning the viewers were encouraged to see the artists working in progress and talk with them. This exhibition design not only breaks the wall between the viewers of art and the artwork but also the one between the viewers and the artists.
Both artistically profound and public-friendly, “Sculpting with Air” epitomizes the philosophy of the deCordova Sculpture Park itself. Both works seek to promote the merger of the conceptual, practical, academic and mundane through the connection of the interior gallery space and the exterior world.