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Falling for Gravity

Invisible Forces in Contemporary Art

Catherine James

This book begins with the observation that contemporary artists have embraced and employed gravity as an immaterial readymade. Necessarily focusing on material practices – chiefly sculpture, installation, performance, and film – this discussion takes account of how and why artists have used gravity and explores the similarities between their work and the popular cultural forms of circus, vaudeville, burlesque, and film.

Works by Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, and Robert Smithson are mediated through ideas of Gnostic doubt, atomism, and new materialism. In other examples – by John Wood and Paul Harrison, Gordon Matta-Clark, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Trisha Brown, and Bas Jan Ader – mass and momentum, falling objects, and falling bodies are examined in relation to architecture, sculpture, and dance.  In performances, projects and events curated by Bruce Nauman, Santiago Sierra, and Catherine Yass, gravity is resisted in Sisyphean ordeals and death-defying stunts.

This account of contemporary art and performance, read through the invisible membrane of gravity, exposes new and distinctive approaches to agency reduction, authorial doubt, and redemptive failure.

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As I complete this book, Cornelia Parker has just been named official artist for the June 2017 election. On a visit to the House of Commons, Parker toured the building, examining and photographing the green leather seats with their creased imprints from the weighty behinds of various ministers and members, as if they were deflated whoopee cushions. She describes her temporary role within these seats of power, as being that of a court jester, who possesses the immunity to comment critically on politics. In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with Mishal Husain (1 May 2017), Parker talked about how she sees politics in everything, even the debris on her kitchen table. Her sensitivity to materials and the environment is ecological and alchemical, evident in the way she transforms objects and matter. Whether interrogating the link between cosmic and terrestrial forces in her work on meteorites, or dropping lead words from clifftops, Parker captures and freezes gravity through different processes and materials. Gravity has been consistently and consciously evident in her sculptural practice. As she explains: ‘My work is consistently unstable, in flux; leant against a wall, hovering, or so fragile it might collapse.’1 As Parker starts to travel across the country during the election campaigns, I draw on her sculptural practice as a useful guide with to summarize the main ideas in this account of gravity’s role in contemporary art.

Parker’s sculptural imagination connects detailed, speculative approaches to material combined with concepts of...

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