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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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Chapter 1: On Shaky Ground


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On Shaky Ground

In this chapter, I explore how artists have used gravity, examining a range of performances and works, from tightrope walks to mock flights and other dramas of the lost footing. My context is sky-high architecture and the urban setting. Rising vertically, the skyscraper is a potent counter-gravitational image in which load is transmitted through foundations to the ground. Pillars and caryatids were traditionally part of the architectural syntax of gravity, exposing weight and load; however, with the nineteenth-century introduction of steel frame construction, architecture’s language of gravity was sublimated into sheer walls and vast planes without externally articulating a building’s load bearing. With the application of new technology and engineering, the daunting skyscrapers of New York altered the body’s relationship to height fundamentally, inspiring dreams of flight and nightmares of falling. As the quintessential image of urban modernity, the New York skyscraper induces spine-tingling vertigo and intimations of the suicide’s fall. Vertiginous buildings are not just mesmerizing symbols of power, they also provide passage to imaginative and subversive play as revealed in the art and performances that follow.

It is the very meaning of the word, ‘skyscraper’ that carries particular clout; less the architect responsible for a design that scrapes sky or clouds, but more the artist or performer who disrupts the tall building by daring to scale its heights. If modern skyscrapers sublimate architecture’s language of gravity through hidden steel construction, then the contemporary artists...

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