In a famous phrase that's usually considered elegant, Goethe said that architecture is frozen music. But think about frozen music for a moment. It would be a constant, decontextualized tone, droning on. Inelegant and inhuman, it would fill one's ears and mind, forcing one either to flee or to figure out how to deal with it. Rebecca Ward declares this active, decision-making human presence as essential to architectural space in "thickly sliced," her installation at CAM Raleigh through Halloween.
Ward has striped the walls, marked the floors and swathed the concrete columns of CAM's Independent Weekly Gallery with lines, grids and hanging swoops of electrical tape, gaffers tape and masking tape—in all the colors of the Lego bin. Following Naoko Ito's calming debut installation in CAM's Emerging Artists Series, Ward's work might seem confrontational to the eye. But it's not about one's eyes; it's about one's body. Specifically, one's body being in the space.
Site-specific artwork usually responds to its space in some deep way, but even with that consideration, a viewer doesn't often feel a part of installations. They use scale to dwarf their viewers, or number to overwhelm them. It's as if one is expected to become a ghost to view an installation, floating into the space to see how the artist has transformed it, then floating out.
In order to mean anything, Ward's work requires the viewer's presence; her lines need someone to react to them. The same line that one person finds to be a controlling boundary may welcome the next visitor. A taut barrier will provoke one viewer to recoil, while another might laugh or dance. Ward has carefully considered all the human paths and flows through the space, and taped them off to open them up. It's really an event, not an installation—and the museumgoers are the performers.
In itself, a line means nothing. But if it's a cordon at an amusement park, it builds anticipation for the upcoming ride. If it's ground lime on grass, it causes an athlete to do a balancing act to get an extra yard before going out of bounds. And if it's paint on an airport tarmac, it marks the difference between being hit by a 747 or not.
Even when there are no lines in sight, people draw them mentally, obeying remarkably consistent psychological rules regarding where they sit when they enter a theater or classroom. Ward's lines are visible abstractions of the intuitive behavioral possibilities in the gallery. Various installation features carry individual titles that offer clues to the possibilities that Ward considered.
Angled grids covering the long facing walls lend the setting a slightly disorienting depth. Along the front wall, against the grid, a series of paint-striped canvases seem caught mid-flutter in an updraft, the messiness of their lines bleeding into the fabric to contrast with thick swaths of floor tape that crisply run the wall's width beneath.
Centrally, Ward locates "The Triangle"—the dominant feature of the installation—by wrapping yellow and red bands from McDonald's around three concrete columns. One can't walk between the columns, nor can the tape bands be safely ducked underneath. Viewers have to go to one side or the other. But this neat, striped belt lies in a ribbony pile on either side of the main walking path through the gallery, seemingly recoiled from the force of a moving object breaking it, like the first sprinter across a finish line. The narrative implied is: Someone defied this boundary.
In the far, cavernous corner of the gallery, "Richard Drew II" comprises hanging swoops of thin white tape. This is the name of the inventor of masking tape and Scotch tape, as well as the photographer who captured one of 9/11's most striking (and horrific) images: a man plummeting through space against the white vertical lines of one of the towers. Ward has made an uneasy, weblike area, signifying entrapment. There's the unshakable awareness of the exposed sticky side of the tape, as well as the phantom feeling of having to unpeel a piece of tape from itself with the pick and scrape of a fingernail.
Tape appears in all areas of the space, like an infection. The metal panels around the elevator doors are striped purple, yellow, blue, and brown. Tape even finds its way into the bathrooms: The neck of a men's room urinal has a quartet of stripes, while seven vertical wall stripes are interrupted by the sink counter in the women's room. The metal plating around the water fountains, the seams of the concrete floor and the stanchions of the glass-panel walls above the gallery all get pulled in by dint of their underlying grids and lineation.
Ward also incorporates several sculptural elements, though they're better termed "instant relics." Two long fluorescent bulbs impale a masonry chunk and illuminate the grid of the far wall. In an almost forgotten corner beyond that, a porcelain horse lamp dangles upside down from an inverted yellow cone of tape strands. These serve the practical purpose of lighting the dark half of the gallery so that the bright tape colors pop, but the expanding spheres of their illuminations also provide a very different kind of shape from all the cold lines.
Finally, in a moment of levity called "Tape Totem," a selection of Ward's tape rolls is stacked waist-high like a camshaft, both a way of revealing her process and punning on the museum's name. A similar wit comes through in the titles of the individual fabric panels.
This is Ward's largest museum show of commissioned work. Currently, she's finishing an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Born in Texas in 1984, she exemplifies CAM's Emerging Artists Series: young, risk-taking, jam-packed with ideas. That she's united so many possibilities for her taped-line medium into a coherent and moving installation makes one wonder what she could do in bigger spaces. Perhaps she's the heir to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. If Ward cares to reinvent a city, then Raleigh should volunteer itself now.
Note: CAM's Independent Weekly Gallery is so named per an agreement between the museum and this paper's business side. The Indy's editorial department has no special relationship with the gallery.