Notes from the Field: Bernie Lubell: Conservation of Intimacy

Todd Lavine is a Summer Intern at the ICA. He wrote this review for our Blog.

In conjunction with the 2010 01SJ Biennial, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is exhibiting from July 3rd through September 19th Bernie Lubell’s Conservation of Intimacy in the Main gallery. Lubell’s show is a retrospective of sorts, containing six individual pieces produced over 28 years from the early 80’s to the present. The centerpiece and gem of the show is also its namesake.

Conservation of Intimacy (2005) consists of a complicated web of elements : a stationary bike, a rocking bench for a couple, a monitor screen for viewing the motion of hidden balls, and a network of gears, tubing and pulleys, which all work together to form one magnificent work of art. Intimacy, the state of being associated in close personal relations, can be found throughout Lubell’s work.  As one passes through the raised curtain at the entrance of the gallery and enters the low lit space, a sensation of closeness emanates from the complex structure of wood, string, and latex cabling, and draws you in.

However, the piece’s interactive nature makes its focal point unclear.  For some it could be the rocking bench for two, for others, the piled up paper which rests on the floor below a series of gears. The paper, which begins its journey on a blank roll ten feet above the bench, is pulled across the space and down through a series of contraptions that ultimately produce lines or scribbles on it and then with the mechanical force of the bike, it reaches the ground. The whole mechanism that is Conservation of Intimacy is a result of Lubell’s fascination with the nineteenth-century French scientist,  Etienn-Jules Marey, whose machines were some of the first to record human bodily functions like a heartbeat or pulse. However, unlike Marey’s mechanisms which aim to record the internal measurements of one person, Lubell’s machine seeks to record and create intimacy, something that occurs between multiple beings. And it does so effectively, in two different ways.

The first creator and indicator of intimacy are the balls. As mentioned above, the balls move when the rocking bench sways in a particular direction. If a single individual attempts to move the balls, he is likely to give up before the desired result occurs. The bench is designed for a couple, and it requires them to experience a moment of closeness for the balls’ to produce the largest movement.  The balls’ motion is not only an indication of the couple’s synergy, or said another way, their intimacy; it is also the source of it. The paper functions similarly as a litmus test of intimacy, but its measurements persist as a record. Since moving the bench in a specific direction produces a certain mark and pedaling the bike without moving the bench at the same time produces a straight line, the paper acts as a coded history of the space that surrounds it. Like a polygraph or EKG, the papers’ markings at first glance seem undecipherable, but with further investigation and knowledge a greater level of understanding can be achieved.  Ultimately, the above-mentioned processes reveal that within the SJICA’s main gallery intimacy is recorded as it is produced. Thus, the seemingly inconspicuous piles of paper are the Conservation of Intimacy.

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