By Evan Berkowitz | eb[email protected]
If a concept or story is initially factual, but its facts are obscured, intentionally or not, by each retelling, is the new story any more or less true?
If we all agree on one angle or one fact or one story, does it really matter what that story might obscure or falsify or ignore? In other words, if a critical mass of people say an apple is an orange, doesn’t that become the reality?
These are the heady questions that artist and art historian Sarah Nesbitt explores, but does not answer in her first-ever solo show, a superb but difficult offering that opened at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery July 13.
It’s all very night-is-day and black-is-white, and while Nesbitt may not have meant to go so “1984,” we’re lucky that she did.
Historical revisionism — at its core, the idea that truth is a moving target, rarely hit and never viewed objectively — is key to Nesbitt’s work. Even the venerable New York Times is shown to be a vehicle susceptible to Father Time and its readers’ humanity.
In “The Breakdown of Language,” Nesbitt slowly deconstructs a laminated 2010 front page. The big features — the masthead, a centerpiece photo of Haitian schoolgirls — remain intact as in our memory, as do headlines only starting to disintegrate.
Slowly though, in zig-zag slices mimicking readers’ eye paths, the articles fall apart.
A paragraph or two lasts here and there, but the lines slowly stretch to oblivion as readers’ attention and memory wanes.
The predicament is even starker for yellowing old pages Nesbitt tucks behind this top layer. Photos are still etched in our memory, but given malleability by age, the cut-up text of newspapers past falls floorward, unreadable and unrecalled.
Along with “Migration” (a photo of a site-specific installation at an Ohio paper mill wherein Nesbitt transposed a Times front onto dripping dilatant silicone), the work is a sobering reminder of how one day’s major truth falls by the wayside in an instant.
All the news that’s fit to print today will be all the pulp that’s fit to trash tomorrow, its truths irrevocably
marred by the passage of 24 hours.
Nesbitt’s most viscerally successful pieces are those, like “The Breakdown of Language,” that pop out of their two-dimensional planes, spewing paper fragments onto the surrounding floor or, at the very least, pouring out toward viewers.
In “Relying on Memory,” an old notebook is cut open, revealing deep layers while great leaves, held fast by t-pins, billow outward.
The scrawlings on its surface are Nesbitt’s evolving thoughts on art, fueled by each lecture, book or article she encountered and noted.
By their intimate nature, they are the purest possible version of “the truth,” or at least the
truth of Nesbitt’s thinking. Unintended at the outset for public consumption, they were, as Nesbitt notes in wall text, originally “for my eyes only.”
When she decides to make them public, as an artwork, this purity is distorted.
The work acknowledges this in its rips and tears, showing that, while the words written may be physically the same, by transforming into art and becoming an object for public view and purchase, their context changes.
They go from what may have been idle jottings to scrutinized fragments eyed for each sentiment as if it is some deep commentary on Nesbitt’s mind and oeuvre.
By doing so, they may enter the cadre of art historical misconceptions Nesbitt chronicles in her most ambitious work, “The Whole of Our History,” which annotates a stitched photograph of hundreds of art history slides with new facts about key artists.
They weren’t necessarily not deep insights as private notes, but the change in context ensures that while content may stay exactly the same, interpretations of the truth differ wildly.
To borrow from the motif Nesbitt explores in “Evidence of Existence,” making the notes public as an artwork flips the light switch, illuminating her thoughts.
In a group of works that often grapple with a truth distorted by public discourse, that unifying photograph of a forlorn light switch mounted on a wooden post provides a conceptual anchor for the process Nesbitt finds fascinating. It’s the unassuming key to her whole endeavor.
If a person is unable to see something, if the light is off, is that object truly there? If it is, is it any truer in this hidden state, unmolded by public eyes, than it would be when illuminated?
Does it even matter?
Nesbitt seemingly remains mum, choosing to instead discuss the magic of it all in her earnest Midwestern voice punctuated by dropped ‘g’s and “yannos.” But by quietly reveling in the magic of the question, she tacitly confirms that no, it emphatically doesn’t.
With Nesbitt’s artistic queries, as with Schrodinger’s cat or trees falling in forests or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we simply don’t know.
And that, in itself, is the fun part.
“Sarah Nesbitt: Making Sense of What We Have” runs through Sept. 3 at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery.