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A train in a car: An exchange with artist Mark Brandvik
by Scott Dickensheets | posted May 6, 2014
Floating in the darkness of an unlit warehouse, Volume Control, Mark Brandvik’s solo show at VAST Space Projects, is both accessible and rigorous. It wouldn’t hurt, for example, to bone up on your Bernini before you behold its wooden phone-booth-style installation piece, though it’s not strictly necessary; I didn’t, and I still enjoyed its interplay of light and shadow. But it got me wondering — as I do with so many shows for which I neglect to bone up on Bernini — how a viewer whose brain hasn’t been finely calibrated in art-stuff can engage with works of serious intent. So I asked Brandvik about my own unschooled reading of a piece in the show.
SCOTT: I’d like to ask you about a single piece in Volume Control — “Ferdinand,” the rusty, busted Porsche with the train set circling inside. When I saw it, my first thought was that it dealt with time: the short-term human notion of time, as represented by the junky and now obsolete Porsche, set against a longer, perhaps cosmic sense of time, as represented by the train whisking around its infinity loop. I also wondered if it had something to do with beauty or desire — the decrepit Porsche demonstrating the shelf-life of culturally constructed notions of beauty vs. the purity of the train’s more organic, elemental circle. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it was possibly a visual koan on a more spiritual theme: finding traces of “the infinite” (whatever that might mean to a viewer) in anything — and therefore everything — no matter how broken-down or cast-aside, the way Bob Dylan, in his Christian phase, sang that he could “see the master’s hand” in “every grain of sand.” Further, if you think of the car as a metaphor for us — car body = human body — it suggests that if such a thing is true for a rusty old Porsche, it might also be true for a rusty old viewer. I’m not an especially spiritual person, but it didn’t take me long to arrive at this reading of “Ferdinand.” (Even the title sort of prompts a human-centered response from the viewer.) Lastly, dialing it back a little, I wondered if, more broadly, you had created a piece on the idea that everything contains its opposite and were content to let people read into it what they would. (Which I clearly have done.)
So, what's my question? This: Without asking you explicitly “what it means,” do any of my interpretations register anywhere near what you were thinking as you created this piece? What I’m really getting at, I suppose, is the process by which a viewer with a dicey grip on art history and theory — guilty!, though I often pretend otherwise — can still think his/her way into a piece, and the pitfalls, pratfalls and satisfactions that can result. (It was certainly fun for me.)
Your thoughts? (Don’t be afraid to tell me I’m dead-stupid wrong, either. Having raised three sons, I’ve heard it before.)
MARK: I’ve been thinking quite a bit about your interpretations and questions. You definitely touched on some ideas I was thinking about as “Ferdinand” came together.
My initial concern was about the overall installation. I already had the idea for the piece, but placement was a challenge. I wanted an element to beckon viewers across the space as they negotiated that large, dark volume. Lighting and sound were key. I was thinking of subtly cinematic but elusive lighting. Also, assuming ambient noise was at a low level, the kinetic element of the piece would create a barely audible metronomic heartbeat that might draw viewers through the space. (After the install, I couldn’t get “The Tell-Tale Heart” out of my head.) I thought of each piece in the show in a similar way — like planets in a galaxy, with magnetic pull and orbits of influence.
I was thinking of scale and scale-shift as the work was more closely encountered. The relatively small car in the vast space could be reimagined as a separate universe against the scale model. Horton Hears a Who, Powers of Ten-type of thing. The element of surprise was also in play. The train is a bit absurd. Maybe my early art-school fascination with dada and surrealism is resurfacing. I really liked your thoughts about spirituality and time relative to this idea. Finite and infinite. Temporal and eternal. Decay and life. Sort of like happening upon a dead animal, only to discover that it’s crawling with maggot life. (Thinking out loud here.) Perhaps those notions were somewhere in the deep recesses as the work was coming together.
I think the piece, as well as all the work in the show, is also somehow attached to memory. Not even sure if it’s my own memory. Fleeting, elusive. I still feel a sense of detachment from the show. An out-of-body type feeling. Not sure what any of it really means. I went with my intuition on much of this. I just had to see a toy train moving around in a beat up Porsche.
SCOTT: Indeed, the dada whimsy of a train in a car is definitely reason enough to see “Ferdinand.” I wonder if non-art-trained people grasp that — that you can skip the kind of heavy-duty over-reading I did (time, spirituality, all that) and just enjoy a piece like “Ferdinand” visually, as a previously nonexisting object that does an unusual thing, without having to probe it for meaning.
Still, when someone like me does read a bunch of significance into a piece, stuff you may not have intended it to have, how do you react?
Another question: You talk about the piece, and the show, having to do in some elusive way with memory, though perhaps not your own. Now, that Porsche belongs to VAST owner Sam McMackin. She remembers zooming around LA in it, her dog hanging out the window — she told me you could still see his drool stains on the side if the space wasn’t so dark. So a lot of pleasant memories reside in that old heap. Do her specific memories add anything to the piece, in your eyes? Or is it more diffuse and nonspecific than that?
MARK: It’s always great to have an astute observer make connections the way you did. The same is true for a viewer who has a purely visual or visceral experience.
As for intent, I think all of the stuff you read into the piece is completely valid. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it as heavy-duty over-reading. My intent and hope is for the work to resonate on many levels, and it’s exciting when it does so in ways that I might not have thought about.
The Porsche does belong to Sam McMackin, but I can't speak to her history with the car. Her specific memories don’t add much to the work for me personally. An interesting footnote, perhaps. My history with that Porsche only goes back a few weeks. However, its use in the overall installation seemed to evoke a much deeper but diffuse history and sense of time, as we discussed earlier. Even though I could imagine a similar work staged with a different vehicle and context, it would be difficult to rise to the level of serendipity present in the development of “Ferdinand.” Perfect vehicle, perfect place, perfect time.
For more on Volume Control, go to vastspaceprojects.com.
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