Julian LaVerdiere, installation view, Forbidden Aspirations for Ascendancy, 1999. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery
ANDREW KREPS GALLERY, NEW YORK, USA
First published in
Issue 51, March-April 2000
by David Hunt
By dimming the lights in the gallery to a funereal glow, employing the martial rhythms of Wolfgang Voigt’s Wagnerian dirges, and setting his objects in vacuum-sealed tubes atop cold, grey sarcophagi, Julian LaVerdiere sought to eulogize what linear time, interface culture, and the Nasdaq celebrate in the Long Now as an embryonic seed. That is: the march of history and hysterical faith in information and hyper-connectivity to deliver us from the normalizing effect that was always technology’s ‘progressive’ intent—and underlying promise—from the beginning. LaVerdiere’s objects are sleeping pieces of history, but it is a fitful, narcoleptic sleep, constantly waking to inertia.
Using historical models that are flash points in the annals of 20th century progress, LaVerdiere creates a constellation of free-floating forms lodged in an ever ascending, ever accelerating spiral of signal densities. A rocket, a ship, or a simple bed are orphaned artifacts, rather than anxious, static objects wrapped in the precious, vertiginous consciousness of the artist. We don’t so much recoup LaVerdiere’s miniature tableaux through any sort of cathartic drama, but stand back and admire them from afar, content to bask in their spectral charms.
While the mood is decidedly crypto-Gothic, the exhibition is thankfully free of the faux-dread trappings and theatrical morbidity that clings to so much late-90s art. LaVerdiere’s cylindrical urns are like cryogenic time capsules, sealed with tight valves as if the murky glow inside them were some form of hissing preservative impatient to escape. Gently cradled on monochrome plinths, each tube has a soft-focus sheen, which adds a heightened, looking-glass veneer through which we peer in on the shifting terrain of history. Dreams of transcendence and release are LaVerdiere’s focus, rather than the blasted remnants of a lost civilization collapsing in on its own entropic packaging.
The cornerstone of this idea, and the fulcrum around which all the other pieces radiate, is Light Bed (1999), a WWI collapsible cot constructed out of Vectran, the material used to make the landing airbags for the Mars Pathfinder probe. A wave of pulsing blue light undulates along the surface of the bed, inducing a deep REM sleep, which is claimed to mirror the dreamlike state of the fallen, heroic innovators referenced elsewhere in the show. While updating the Icarus myth to accommodate technological hubris seems a bit simplistic, the notion of cosmonauts and early aerospace pioneers as collateral damage in the race to blanket the globe in fiber-optic cables plays as a distracting sideshow to LaVerdiere’s eerily wondrous innovations.
Still, 19th-century Romantics exaggerated the sinister menace of nature, deluding themselves into thinking that their bucolic straw man was a worthy opponent. In LaVerdiere’s reconfiguration of the Sublime, the artist and his sepulchral objects seem frustrated by the inadequacy of the pastoral mode to express a sufficiently poetic reverie. But he need not up the theatrical quotient (which he doesn’t), or buttress his exactingly designed scenarios with tragic historical narratives (which, superfluously, he does).
LaVerdiere’s First Attempted Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable Crossing (1999), a two meter model of a wrecked clipper ship commemorating New England industrialist Cyrus Field’s failed attempt in 1854 to lay the first trans-Atlantic cable, is - at first glance - a mutinous machine set free by the artist to fulfill its own private trajectory. Captured in suspended animation, the flask that houses this doomed vessel is rendered with absolute precision, evincing a monastic immersion in virtuosity. Viewed close-up however, the obsessive detail of the ship’s broken masts, pockmarked deck, and crushed hull, reintroduces a narrative that threatens to overwhelm the viewer.
First Attempted Manned Space Flight (1999) is a model V2 rocket that similarly carries a weighty backstory involving Werner von Braun, US intelligence propaganda, misused funds, and a host of other Le Carré tropes that prove truth is always stranger than fiction. LaVerdiere refers to this gloss as ‘historical hyper-texting’ and at times I wished that I could click back to the formal body of the text. Still, if galactic ambition coupled with painstaking attention to detail was not a tautological formula for visual pleasure, it is now.