The ecstatic forms of Lindsey Dorr-Niro
Object-oriented philosopher Timothy Morton thinks of existence as a swath of mesh: interconnected, billowing, both structured and porous. The large-scale play of forces—what he calls “hyperobjects”—happens constantly, and often outside of our human frame of reference. Morton is particularly interested in the things we don’t yet have categories for but that swell and move and affect the world we think we know. In his words, “nothing is radically external to anything else.”
This sentiment, hand-picked by Lindsey Dorr-Niro during a performative lecture and poetry reading, might well be the argument of the small universe she has set up at Sector 2337 in Logan Square. “This Land Again” continues her interest in the ambient noise of capitalism: features of the built environment so familiar that they stop registering as physical matter. Her starting point is the back of a billboard, inspired by Woody Guthrie’s folk détournement: “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property, / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing—This land was made for you and me.” A billboard might be intended to trigger a split-second of affective commerce on the open road, but that’s just the way we let it use us; look at it differently and it’s not so far away after all. Dorr-Niro finds freedom in seeing other affinities, in turning things the wrong way around.
Images and objects on view share a visual vocabulary of form, color, and material that requires the viewer’s engagement to become a grammar. Turn around after watching a video of the artist arranging and rearranging cinder blocks and you will see the very same objects being used as sculptural support; around the corner from an uncannily mirrored photograph of a pile of rubble at sunset is an installation of rocks and Flavin-esque lights in sunset tones. Even the purpose of the space itself is modular, with a sculptural platform serving as an event stage for readings and experimental performances as much as it is for rest and casual conversation. The delight in recognizing these threads does the work of making these bits and pieces familiar and unfamiliar at once. The rules of the space are like those of a welcoming host: Walk on the rocks! Sit on the stage! Like the blank backside of Guthrie’s wall, all the stuff in here is stuff after all.
It is easy to trace the inspiration the exhibition takes from Gordon Matta-Clark, slicing buildings open to expose their innards rather than their interiors. Here, too, objects we usually only know by their function are delinked from utility and allowed to play, to open, to morph metonymically into one another. Dorr-Niro’s tight constellation of works heightens our senses against the deadening assumptions of commodity culture and conjures up a world forever just around the corner from the one we know.
We recently caught up with the artist over drinks to talk about the little stuff: freedom, capitalism, and hyperobjects. A condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
How do you think about the idea of freedom you want to explore with the show?
LDN: My work is dealing with freedom on a more abstract or elemental level: how, by understanding that a frame is provided but can be altered, opened, changed, reorganized or rejected altogether, we can reframe things or create new frames or ways of seeing things entirely. It’s freedom as it relates to vision, to perception. This isn’t to say that this is easy, but it is possible and incredibly empowering as a realization, because it recognizes the power of the individual to change their reality.
What can encourage or trigger that realization?
LDN: There is something inspiring to me about the experience of collective, radical joy: these elemental, important experiences we need to have as human beings to want to continue to exist. Art is a more cerebral path than music, which is so connected with the body and is more immediate. I’ve set myself a challenge to create a similar experience. How do we use our deeply capitalist world and its spaces toward more ecstatic ends? I’m trying to take materials and forms associated with industry and re-appropriate them, redirecting them toward a more ecstatic way of seeing or thinking.
Do you see your work as engaging in a civic conversation?
LDN: I don’t think of my work as overtly political, but like Jacques Rancière has discussed at length, taking the most fundamental aspects of experiences and reorienting and redistributing them, which creates new openings for experiencing the world. A lot of the ways in which this is pursued are very formal and through materials. Even that action of taking the language of commodity and using it for an alternative purpose is already a political act. A basic question that many artists aren’t asking is what is what I’m doing doing? This is actually what I think makes art “political” and allows for moving beyond the representational. There are so many more nuanced ways of thinking about what is political, how to engage, how to exercise agency and where agency is.
It seems like you use events and collective experiences, like your performative lectures and poetry readings in the exhibition space, to approximate these kinds of moments.
LDN: Experience is amplified by the fact that you’re sharing it. With [live music], you feel connected in a way that sounds New Age-y, but it’s true. It’s not something that can be measured or calculated. I’m interested in experiences that aren’t commodities or can’t quite be accounted for.
What about the impulse to look at the backs of things or the component parts of things?
LDN: This relates back to the notion of freedom. We perceive things to be a fixed reality, unchanging and stable—that’s a limitation of perception. We know that at a quantum scale, I’m not sitting on this chair. But when you see things reframed or taken apart and put back together, or shifted positions, or something you know is familiar from materials but isn’t the thing it’s referring to, you can see that things can be different. When you see that things are malleable, you can think about how the rest of the world is malleable. I don’t want to claim that I’m teaching people how to see—I’m invested in making these objects, but when I think about it objectively, I see that that’s what is driving this.
Can you tell me about the allegorical space of the back of the billboard?
LDN: With the initial billboard photograph, I was trying to show it as a structure or present it as something with history, a thing that was designed and made by human beings. I like how it acts as a metonym for so many other parts of our experience that are ahistorical. I wanted to invert that. A billboard is a structure with a physical system, with a history; it is the support system for an image that has specific intentions. It’s a very loaded object, in terms of its function in the mythos of the American highway system, which is a kind of glamorous idea of freedom. It also reflects back to us the mind’s ability to focus. If driving is a metaphor for life, the billboard is a distraction pulling us out of what we’re attending to. It is symbolic of psychological or perceptual processes, our inability to not look at something, which becomes more complicated and loaded in relation to capitalism.
That piece is almost virtual reality. It replicates human scale so well; if you were standing at a certain distance looking at the back of a billboard, it would look like that. Obviously it’s not trying to create the illusion that it’s there, but I like the strangeness. I feel like fundamentally that is something I’m interested in producing: a defamiliarization.
Your work is consciously engaging with Timothy Morton’s ideas about “hyperobjects.” How do you engage with nature and larger forms of existence?
LDN: I’m interested in how Timothy Morton discusses nature as something that never existed or rather only exists in relation to what we consider artificial or abject. As the Buddhist tradition says, nothing is pure and everything is pure. It’s a logic of simultaneity or “bothness” rather than the binary logic of the Western patriarchy. I want to highlight that desire for purity that a pastoral landscape encodes and satisfies by both including and complicating it. So, in the show, for example, a photograph of a construction site at sunset is mirrored horizontally so that it appears as a sublime mountain range from a distance, and in the hallway behind the wall on which it is hung, a material analog is created out of rocks and a fluorescent light piece reconstructing the sunset of the photograph. Here, nature or what is natural, what is more natural and more real, hopefully becomes an obviously absurd inquiry and comparison. Neither is more real or unreal. Neither is natural or unnatural—they are equal.
The motif of doubling, mirroring, and re-presenting certain elements in the work defamiliarizes the images, but at the same time creates an internally referential environment.
LDN: Using these simple formal or visual strategies and repeating them is a way of creating a visual vocabulary that through repetition creates an environment. There’s something that a mirrored image accesses on a weird, primordial level; there’s a strangeness to it, almost hallucinatory. I like the simplicity of those actions in a very literal way. [In the photograph,] once people look a little more closely, they see that there’s no illusion; it’s just a mirror image. It’s not trying to achieve some sort of mystery into how it is made. I think it’s like a key or index for how to read the rest of the work.
Thinking about manipulable units, structures, and materials reminds me of post-structuralist ideas about language. How do you think about language when making objects?
LDN: To me, language is another material. I’m thinking on such an elemental level of space and light and architecture; language is just another part of that, equal to all these other things. Language is the thing in our experience that best demonstrates performativity—that is, by being malleable and interchangeable, it points to the openness, the radical potential that everything holds. So semiotics, the study of meaning-making through the signs that make up our world, has been a foundation for me, but instead of primarily studying words, I’m exploring language through image-making and the relationship between images, objects, materials, and words.
And you collaborate with your partner, poet Marty McConnell. What is the relationship between poetry and sculpture for you?
LDN: Marty and I joke about artists over-using the word “poetic,” because what does that really mean? For me, the best poetry uses language to transcend language not in an escapist way but in a way where thought is experienced and felt. Someone may be addressing a really heavy subject like “interrogating whiteness,” for example, but there are these ruptures or openings into a more primordial, intuitive, human space that happen.
I think of poetics as the relationship we see between things that are different. That sensory experience of difference inspires us to connect and relate things. How this relates to sculpture or objects and forms is that there is something that exists/happens between two (or more!) related or connected things that escapes our ability to put language to. If there isn’t some “beyond” we can’t articulate, if it’s all explained and obvious, then why make it? Why look at it? To me it’s the same as or connected to our inability to explain the beginning of the universe—in the West, the Big Bang; in Eastern traditions, “beginningless time.” We know and have a desire to connect to space that can’t be calculated or explained, and we also long for and need such spaces and places to exist in this world as human beings.
Lindsey Dorr-Niro's "This Land Again" is on display at Sector 2337 in Chicago until June 10.
Interview by Nina Wexelblatt.Photography by Claire Britt.