It’s hard to appreciate the true scale of Rachel Owens’ work at a glance. Beside the granite slab of the Krasnoyarsk Museum Center stands a golden throne, which, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be an ordinary—albeit gilded—set of stadium bleachers. Speakers of all shapes and sizes form a makeshift seatback for the top row. The throne overlooks the Yenisei River, and it seems to direct a gaze into the expansive distance. But it’s more than a gaze—it’s a voice. Listen closely, and you’ll hear a chorus of voices emerging from the speakers at various volumes—alternating between loud and barely audible—all describing a distant place. This place, however, isn’t one that can be seen while perched on this democratic, publicly accessible throne; and the listener realizes that Rachel Owens’ work is much bigger than it seems. A throne just like it, a twin to Krasnoyarsk’s, stands inside the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On opposite ends of the Earth, the thrones constitute a polar axis that pierces the globe with invisible threads of communication. The opposites exchange information: the throne in Krasnoyarsk speaks Russian as its voices describe what the Brooklynites see before them, while the one in Brooklyn speaks English, sharing the visual impressions of the citizens of Krasnoyarsk. Almost Antipodeans, as it turns out, is an artwork of planetary dimensions.
Both Russia and the United States are countries with national mythologies that place a premium on vast expanses of space. But how similar are these expanses? Does Russia’s poetry of space rhyme with America’s? How do our systems of historical and geographic coordinates differ? Can the American North, South, and Wild West measure the Russian East, which begins not in the Urals but at the country’s very threshold—at St. Petersburg’s “window onto Europe”? Does Krasnoyarsk rhyme with New York, or Siberia with the Atlantic? What would happen if we traded the American spatial imagination for the Russian one? The question is all the more vexing because the Brooklynites are describing interiors while the people of Krasnoyark survey an endless horizon, which makes the absurdity of the comparison even stronger. Will the world turn over and stand on its head? Will two parallel lines meet? Will these similarly charged magnetic poles stick to one another? Or is this about something more than national differences? The gilded throne of Rachel Owens is, after all, open to everyone. It offers multiple points of view. And perhaps, somewhere, individual lines of sights, originating in different parts of the world, will intersect.
“What do you see?” the artist asks Americans and Russians. It is one of the great questions of art. The literal difference in points of view, the differences of vision, national stereotypes, the difficulties of translation—all of the potential irony in Almost Antipodeans falls away when confronted by this direct, simple, and philosophically deep question, which is at once epistemological and aesthetic. The Age of Enlightenment believed that the human eye, seeing Beauty in Nature, is capable of seeing the Beautiful in Art—a belief that nourished the philosophy of the English garden. But today, when nature has been practically destroyed by industry and war (two phenomena that often appear as equals), are we no longer capable of perceiving and understanding beauty? Is that why the art critic’s vision is trained to recognize economic and political subtexts in everything? Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
Verdant plants made from shards of bottles, icebergs hewn from a battleship’s hull, cardboard squirrels, crows shaped from wrecked cars—Rachel Owens has often created natural landscapes from garbage, using materials rich in political and environmental associations. But the international connection of Almost Antipodeans models not a landscape but a situation: a situation of exchanging opinion, the acceptance—albeit imposed—of another person’s point of view, the formation of single collective statement from a plurality of individual ones. In other words, it creates the situation of democracy, the basic principles of which—along with the set of environmental and aesthetic ideas described above—also took shape in the Age of Enlightenment. As did the principle of art’s social responsibility.
- Anna Tolstova
Almost Antipodeans (Krasnoyarsk), 2013
6 ft x 17 ft x 6 ft
aluminum bleachers, gold leaf, speakers, laptop, 10 minute 16-channel sound
part of X Krasnoyarsk Biennial (Krasnoyarsk, RUS), presented in conjunction with BAM/Prokhorov Foundation
Almost Antipodeans (Brooklyn), 2013
5 ft x 8 ft x 4 ft
aluminum bleachers, gold leaf, speakers, MP3 layers, 10 min 8 channel sound
Commissioned by BAM/ Prohkorov Foundation
Video Documentation of both sites