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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 4: Vertigo


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A spaceless limbo on some spiral reels.1

If many material practices of art from the 1960s onwards were forged in the crucible of labour history, then what other artistic ideas flow from industrial processes? Robert Smithson took a different path in wresting meaning from the post-industrial landscape. He was drawn to disused industrial landscapes to make his art, such as oil sumps, obsolete mines, ruined factories, and old quarries; places latent with the drag and lift of mass, though lifeless as if abandoned by some hidden industrial demiurge. Smithson’s implicit call to gravity is configured through vertigo, a mixed condition of lightness and falling, but gravity is also considered here within his larger concern for entropy. The artist’s early interest in geology is expressed within his writings and practice, turned to a philosophical and artistic inflection of energy drain, loss of momentum, and deceleration, just as gravity slows time down. Entropy, for Smithson, is not just the collapse of a woodshed or decay of a site, but also an urban sprawl or the rust oxidizing on steel in contrast with the artistic fetish for steel and fabricated metal as found in the work of Judd or Caro amongst others.

In this chapter, I am concerned with the relationship of gravity to vertigo as mediated through Smithson’s response to cinema within the scope of his multi-faceted Spiral Jetty project, and as connected to his short 1971 essay...

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