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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 5: Critical Mass


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Critical Mass

If my rage at the impoverishment of ideas, narcissism, and disguised sexual exhibitionism of most dancing can be considered puritan moralizing, it is also true that I love the body – its actual weight, mass, and unenhanced physicality.1

My exploration into the role of gravity in contemporary art has focused on a number of areas: I have questioned how contemporary artists have responded to architecture and the space of the fall; how they play with gravity in terms of the agency lodged in animate and inanimate matter; and how they have made work in response to the history, spaces, and labour of heavy industry. In the previous chapter, I have explored how gravity relates to vertigo and ideas of industrialized entertainment as configured through Robert Smithson’s interest in gravity and vertigo. The essential modality of how we seize gravity is captured in states of falling. This final chapter takes account of how gravity has been invoked through the body in forms of dance, sculpture, and performance against a narrative of agency reduction and enlarged possibilities for participation. In contrast to ballet’s light flourishes, dance takes on mass and momentum with new variations of uninflected movement in space, dictated by gravity’s imperative more than its illusionistic sublimation. This submission to gravity is matched in the way sculpture moves off the plinth and acquires a softness that reminds us uncannily of the body. The forms of manufacture and industry discussed...

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