13 January 2000 - 26 February 2000
Opening Reception 13 January 2000 8pm
One mild February day during the most recent el Nino winter, a wasp wandered into Kenn Bass’s studio in Brooklyn. He caught it and videotaped it for a few days before releasing it. The out-of-season wasp became the imagery for Bee Movie, a projection of much edited and manipulated footage onto an informal grid of a dozen mismatched box fans.
The peculiar and apparently pointless movement of the wasp hovering in a space of whirling fan blades, gives the projected image a sculptural depth not ordinarily associated with video. It’s a 3-D film without the silly eyewear. Not incidentally, the grid of fan chassis evokes the segmentation of insect eyes. The ways we see things are under observation here in a manner that questions the naturalness of ordinary perception. The wind and roar of the fans contribute an appropriate soundtrack for the noiseless tape that invites the viewer to imagine the turbulence inside a hive as hundreds of bees buzz their wings, as they do for ventilation.
Yet the subject is not a bee, but a wasp; there is an intentional error in the name of the sculpture. The large scale projection lends an imprecise, science fiction aura to Bass’s wasp, like one of those 1950s nuclear anxiety pop culture parables about hostile animal gigantism caused by A-bomb testing. Ridiculously outsized and unimaginably other, the insect is subject to a scrutiny that is hard to justify on rational grounds. It’s as though some flipped-out movie scientist has made a preposterously earth-shaking discovery about arthropod biology that threatens life as we know it. B movie, indeed: “They laughed at my research, the fools!” cries the dangerously misunderstood protagonist.
There is a fictional aspect to this movie, in that it suggests a particular authorial persona who may be “the Bass” himself. In a sense the alien character of the subject has infected the artist, generating an imaginary, hybrid person who is the true author of the video. I imagine an isolated scientist whose research has devolved into madness.
Saying that an artist “investigates” forms or materials or aesthetic issues is common enough, but here the artwork conjures another kind of investigation which I associate with 19th Century mystical scientism, a post-Enlightenment alchemy which seeks impossibly big things (immortality, say) in dumb observations of ordinary processes. Taking to heart Nietzsche’s admonition that one should not seek to know everything, but to know one thing and know everything about it, the Bass/wasp investigator indulges in a mad compulsion to look and study, to observe without limit.
Some years ago, Borges’s story “Pierre Menard” served intellectuals and academics (and artists, too) as a richly evocative metaphor for a constellation of postmodern ideas about artistic originality (and lack of), the death of the author, and the nature of contexts for meanings. A fictional obituary, it is the story of a man so obsessed with rewriting Don Quixote that he immerses himself in the language and culture of Cervantes’s Spain. As his acculturation to that historical era reaches a delirious perfection, he is able to rewrite every word Cervantes wrote as though it were new. He becomes the author of Don Quixote.
An unfortunate side effect of using Borges’s ideas to explicate the postmodern condition – for me, at least – is that I am tempted to ignore the man in the story as I concentrate on the philosophical issues. A fictional account of a man who makes his life into a fiction to better recreate a fictional character who himself imitates fiction, the story is written in the voice of a fictional persona. In the service of ideas, the story was depopulated. The implications of the story for art and culture have proved profound, but the experience of Pierre Menard’s immersion in Cervantes’s Spain remains indescribable. It is that order of experience Bass’s video sculpture names.
If there is a reference to scientific study in Bee Movie, Bass and his insect collaborator have pushed it to absurd extremes. Like the efforts of an autodidact in his basement, the investigation is pursued without thought for its external connectedness to the body of generally held knowledge that is natural science; the investigator has led himself to a solipsistic state in which even the species of his subject is of less importance than the immediate experience of the individual animal. His research is encysted within a private need, which not incidentally is a fine metaphor for artistic practice in general. Think of an art student chewing her lip as she struggles to render the contours of a model in a life drawing class. Think of the myth of Van Gogh as it’s presented in Lust for Life or in art history. Think of Robert Irwin in his California studio in the 60s, staring for days at two lines on a canvas, trying to determine if he’d put them in the right place. The job of making art requires a singularity of purpose, a wholesale surrendering of the self to another object, which is like the melding of investigated and investigator suggested in Bass’s video sculpture.
When I wrote that the wasp was “unimaginably other”, I had in mind its brain, or at least its behaviour. Trapped in a glass tube, it hopelessly reiterates futile escape maneuvers dictated by the logic of a hundred million years of evolutionary programming. But the history of this evolution could never anticipate such a prison and so it is subject to a crisis of reason. Parallel to the mania-driven persona of the videographer, its compulsive search for an exit is the product of a kind of bio-intelligence: a complex neurological hardware preprogrammed to make the organism act and react in specific patterns which are hugely successful in most cases. Anyone who has seen a hunting wasp at work knows how marvelously effective they are. Usually.
By rights, the wasp should be dead already at the start of the video. Wasps don’t fare well in a Brooklyn winter. I should add that Bass is horribly allergic to insect venom – one sting can kill him. Although he denies any autobiographical content to the work, I can easily imagine an extra-aesthetic motive for his fascination with this imagery: through imprisonment, a natural fear of death is made manageable, studiable. At any rate, the animal is long gone; only it’s projected image remains.
– Michael Odom
Kenn Bass was born in North Carolina and was given a microscope at age 8. He attended the University of North Carolina, the Pennsylvania State University, and received an M.F.A. in 1989. Since 1991, he has lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York. In the last three years, he has concentrated on incorporating moving images and sound into his installations, and investigating the relationship between science, nature, and language. His work has been exhibited at White Columns in New York, and Southern Exposure in San Francisco, as well as numerous other venues. His work is currently represented in New York by Roebling Hall Gallery and Tobey Fine Arts.
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