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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 2: The Cosmic Cage


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The Cosmic Cage

Who dares to think you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke …1

Gravity is a sliding door between everyday experience and mysterious force, between the simple acts of getting up in the morning to recent advances in the understanding of that particle that gives matter, mass, the Higgs boson.2 My subject in this chapter is how contemporary artists have navigated the space between the subjective experience of our basic force-sense, gravity, and its inexplicable, occult quality, unconsciously shadowing the scientific thought experiment. In contrast to assaulting or disrupting the orthogonal rectitude of architecture in its Newtonian law-giving variant, the artists in this chapter play with understandings of gravity as a force of dark agency, whilst examining assumptions about human will and agency. The artist most explicitly seized by the phenomenon of gravity, Bas Jan Ader, reflected on profound questions of its relationship to causality, metaphysics, ethics, and will by submitting to gravity’s mastery in a series of falling events until his early death in 1975.

There is a counter-intuitive doubt abroad in the following artworks and performances, by which things, objects, and matter play with the artist, ← 47 | 48 → rather than the reverse, in the manner of Montaigne’s cat.3 By imparting the effects of gravity to inanimate objects and enlivening inert matter, artists such as Fischli and Weiss, Wood and Harrison, Rodney Graham, and Richard Wentworth often delegate...

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