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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 3: Heavy Stuff


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Heavy Stuff

In this chapter, I investigate how contemporary artists have interpreted a cultural imaginary of weight in shifting configurations of work-as-art or art-as-work. Weight is a profound condition of being. Our physical repertoire stems from the gravitational field in the way it forges the ‘up’ and ‘down’ or ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ of language and experience. Gravity shapes how the body connects with ground and how it confronts heavy lifting and the exertions of manual work. Represented as part of a larger machine, the factory body is a crucial link between mass, gravity and mechanical function. However, there is a corrective to the work of the manual labourer found in forms of leisure with cultural affects of lightness evident in new media experiences, such as cinema. It is as if the mass of an object, its inertia and resistance to lift and movement in the factory is evaporated under the widespread impact of mass entertainment.

After 1960, artists seem to assume identification with the manual worker making art out of the scrapyard, steel factory or shipyard. Richard Serra’s process art and the minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre appropriate the obtuse neutrality of factory production or steel mill production. Even the physicality of painting might be said to assume a work-like quality. Leo Steinberg argues that to the American artist, ‘art’ was guiltily connected to ideas of artfulness or artifice. Instead, Steinberg notes the invocation of honest, heavy...

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