A tale of consumption: Artist creates first kinetic work for MOCA Jacksonville's 'Project Atrium'

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A tale of consumption: Artist creates first kinetic work for MOCA Jacksonville's 'Project Atrium'
Ian Johnston, The Chamber (detail), 2014. Rip stop nylon, computer-controlled fans, lights, audio, and objects from the banks of the waste stream, 7-minute cycle, 20 to 30 x 15 x 12 feet. Installation view at Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Ian Johnston.

JACKSONVILLE, FLA.- The shopping cart is a durable symbol of consumption. Created in the 1940s as devices to help consumers buy more items at one time, shopping carts now number in the millions. In an age of digital consumption, the shopping cart transcends physicality as a two-dimensional icon to hold our Internet purchases.

The shopping cart can also evoke sharply divided economic lines. Not only are the carts used for shopping, but at times people who are homeless adopt them as containers for their possessions. In this context, the cart illustrates the divide among socioeconomic classes— the “haves” versus “have-nots.”

Canadian architect-turned-artist Ian Johnston examines these dichotomies in his “Project Atrium” installation “Fish Tales” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, a cultural resource of the University of North Florida. He suspends approximately 25 shopping carts from the top of the three-story Atrium Gallery, shrouds them in an enormous white nylon ovoid, then inflates and deflates the fabric to conceal and reveal the shape of the carts it covers. The first kinetic work in the “Project Atrium” series is ever-changing—simultaneously a sculpture, performance, spectacle, and cultural commentary.

The sculpture is in a constant cyclical flux through the use of an elaborate mechanical system that allows the veil to “breathe” throughout the day. At once mesmerizing and captivating, at others sobering or uncomfortable, the “living” work looms above us to evoke the colossal scale of consumption today.

The installation required a year of invention and planning by the artist in close conversation with MOCA Jacksonville’s curatorial staff. Connected by chains and aircraft cables, the individual carts are strung together much like how a fisherman bundles a day’s catch with fishing line—a visual play of the fishes’ physical form. The work’s title “Fish Tales” is often defined as exaggerated stories or whopper recollections of otherwise normal events. By creating a 22-by-18-foot sculpture with carts at its core, Johnston exaggerates the global tale of consumption with a witty, tongue-in-cheek approach.

Responding to the verticality of the 40-foot high Atrium Gallery, “Fish Tales” is the sequel to Johnston’s earlier floor-bound installation, “The Chamber,” from 2013. After culling objects from the banks of the waste stream—or as he put it, “intercepting garbage on its way to the dump”—Johnston organizes the salvaged material on the gallery floor then veils it in nylon, leaving its form barely discernible. Mimicking a respiratory system, a mechanical vacuum process of fans and dampers inflates the nylon as “The Chamber” expands to fill the room.

While Johnston finds inspiration in discarded materials, he was once told “people don’t want to look at their own garbage.” As such, the performative element of “The Chamber” softens the reality of facing the accumulated waste. For the artist, breathing is a model of a coping mechanism, a powerful symbol he renders in three-dimensional form. When fully inflated, the piece evokes a state of blissful denial that allows one to cope in the face of adversity. Once it’s deflated, only then is the reality of the experience revealed. The assembled heap of refuse is a complex commentary on disposable goods and the complicity of consumers in their acceptance of the status quo.

In “Fish Tales,” discarded goods are replaced with shopping carts. The carts used in the sculpture were sent to a recycling and material brokering company in Jacksonville because they were no longer able to serve their purpose. In “Fish Tales,” the carts’ journey is paused—shrouded in nylon, they become ghosts of their former selves, foreshadowing their future at the recycling plant.

Johnston also is collecting and recording sounds in Jacksonville to produce a soundscape for the sculpture. Synchronized to its breathing cycle, each segment has its own track that climaxes in the middle when the piece is fully inflated just seconds before the deflation begins. Ranging in polar opposite recordings from the surf to the rubbing of Styrofoam, Johnston explained the audio component suggests “raw versus dreamlike [states] … the surf as being a dream and Styrofoam being raw.”

Leading to his arrival in Jacksonville, Johnston has been holding regular Skype sessions with a curatorial class led by Jim Draper at UNF. Their discussions have focused on how the students would approach creating their own installation at this scale. These students will visit Johnston during the installation of his work in the Atrium Gallery and see the sculpture take shape before their very eyes.

Inflated, the material seems soft, yet an immense physical weight—and the consumption it represents—loom over us. Deflated, the cart as a cultural icon and container of disposable goods is called into question as the handles, wheels, and baskets return to focus. The cart now embodies a new meaning subject to one’s relationship with consumption.

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