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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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I fell for gravity sometime in the late 1990s, whilst looking at an object of contemporary art that seemed to hover mysteriously in its own space without wires, strings, or support. I was left with the impression that this enigmatic floating object had more to answer for and, over time, I noticed how frequently many artists, from the 1960s onwards, stir something in their work by making materials, objects or bodies float, fly, lean, or collapse through the membrane of gravity. From Yves Klein’s ecstatic leap into the void of 1960, through Bas Jan Ader’s anti-heroic falling works of the early 1970s to the collapsing objects of Fischli and Weiss’s film, The Way Things Go, of the late 1980s and the tightrope walk in Catherine Yass’s High Wire of 2008, a subtle trope seems to hover across the field of contemporary art. If, as I suggest, gravity is more consciously arbitrated by contemporary art, sculpture, and performance, then what model of gravity is envisaged?

Gravity is a strange word and even stranger phenomenon, arousing both metaphysical wonder and feet-on-the-ground reality. Arbitrating both manifestations, Newton later popularized his unified theory of gravity in the Principia (1687) through the tale of an apple that fell on his head, whilst sitting in his garden at Woolsthorpe Manor. Relating this story to William Stukeley later in life, Newton’s apocryphal apple was said to have launched his research into a theory of gravity that equated falling bodies on earth with planetary...

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