Fern Wiley at The Littman Gallery: Participation
Fern Wiley’s Participation invites viewers to relate to the installation through common experiences of relationships, work, and emotional dedication. These themes are expressed in the ambiguous symbolism used in relation to her performance and the shattered white sculpture as the centerpiece of the exhibition. I am reminded of the emotional and mental dedication of those working in the creative field and the investment and sometimes disappointment felt towards the creative process. Wiley provides a space to contemplate and acknowledge the spectrum of emotions related to the creative process in order to find relief in destruction.
In the center of the gallery rests a shattered sculpture with its broken pieces basking under a spotlight creating an altar to the act of destruction. The plaster sculpture crumbles across the floor in a circle of shards that range from large chunks to particles of dust. The placement of each remnant from the sculpture speaks to the act of destruction almost as if the performance occurred in the gallery. While the installation recreates a violent process the fragments are arranged meticulously. The viewer is also forced to navigate the space in a circular fashion and step gingerly around the piece so as not to disturb where the particles have fallen.
Two videos play on perpendicular walls documenting Wiley’s performance. One video depicts a woman dragging a sculpture to the center of the screen and meticulously examining it. The relationship between the box and the woman becomes intimate as she strokes, kneels, listens, balances upon, bows, and crouches within the box. The intimacy between the two demonstrates a level of dedication to or relationship with the object. After careful examination, the performer drags the box repeatedly across the screen fully expressing the exertion of the physical task. She heaves the block back and forth, breathing heavily with each pull and resting occasionally to catch her breath.
The second video plays simultaneously while the audio overlaps. As the woman breathes deeply with exhaustion, the audience hears banging and crumbling stone from the other video. This video portrays the development of the relationship between the woman and the sculpture. The exertion from continuously moving the box eventually breaks the performer’s dedication. She returns to the room with a sledgehammer and crashes it down upon the sculpture. Each blow brings a thrill of relief and satisfaction with the destruction. It’s cathartic to watch her destroy the sculpture while simultaneously watching her struggle as she drags the box across the screen with anguish in the other video playing across the room. Once the woman is satisfied by her accomplishment she sets to work picking up the broken pieces. She maintains her methodical practice even as she picks up the individual fragments. Each particle, no matter the size, has equal importance and is retrieved with care. A quiet sadness follows as she sweeps together the shattered fragments and lovingly recollects their original shape. The performer’s work continues and her relationship with the sculptures remains intact as she pulls the block across the screen once more bringing the video to an end.
The ambiguity of the performance and the installation provides a space for the viewer to fully connect and build associations with their own experiences with the emotional turmoil and development of the relationship between the performer and the sculpture. She suggests an intimacy with the object as strokes the box and kneels against it with every inch of her body. She became the box as she dragged it with her and she worked tirelessly for the box. Eventually, she heaves the sledgehammer with a fury that suggests an exclamation of, “Fuck the box.” With each blow that she lands there is a sense of relief through destruction.
The work in Wiley’s Participation presents an emotionally relatable experience between the viewer and the artist. The viewer is offered an environment to observe and contemplate relationships, emotions, and challenging experiences. The artistic experience is fraught with work, dedication, and self doubt and Wiley uses this experience as a platform to explore the varied emotions that occur during the artistic process and finds healing in destruction. Wiley’s installation presents a shrine- like environment to the spectrum of emotions associated with challenging experiences. The work also acknowledges and honors the process of destruction.
Participation is on view at Littman Gallery through May 26, 2016.
Images courtesy of the Littman Gallery.