Art

These Massive, Uncanny Artworks Will Give You the Chills

Tara Donovan’s art is not a metaphor, it is not about identity, and it is not historical. So what is it?

Tara Donovan, “Untitled (Mylar)” (2011), Mylar and hot glue, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery, photograph by Christopher Burke Studios)

DENVER — Tara Donovan’s artworks are unexpected: they borrow manufactured goods, but they are never readymades; they are theatrical and serial, but rarely considered minimalist; and they are massive in scale, but never outsourced. Fieldwork at the MCA Denver revisits Donovan’s contributions from the last 20 years, bringing her wall-based and free-standing sculptures together under one roof for the first time. Her art is not a metaphor, it is not about identity, and it is not historical. So what is it?

Tara Donovan, “Untitled” (2014), Styrene index cards, metal, wood, paint, and glue, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery, photographed by Christopher Burke Studios)

We have a causal relationship with Donovan’s materials: rubber bands, plastic straws, index cards, and pins. We see them in our homes, we use them at work, we lose and replace them. They exist whether we think of them or not. In the 2013 book Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton, he introduces the term “hyperobject” to refer to things “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” A broad term ecologically and philosophically speaking, a hyperobject could be a product like Styrofoam, human-manufactured with a long lifespan, or something more difficult to point out, such as the sum of capitalism’s mechanisms.

Tara Donovan, “Transplanted” (2001/2018), tar paper, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery)

Hyperobjects are characteristically invisible to humans, despite the fact we are surrounded by them. Morton argues that since the invention of the steam engine by James Watt — which extracted and sent decaying matter into the atmosphere — there is no untangling human activity from nature. Despite our best efforts to affirm the differences between humans and the rest, Morton notes that we are enmeshed with other objects from birth. This lens carves an interesting route into Donovan’s work, making it all the more obvious how powerful objects can be.Her sculptures translate our actions into aesthetic gestures. “Transplanted” (2001/2018) made from tar paper, a roofing material, pushes visitors to the edge of the room, forcing one to yield space to the authority of the object. “Untitled” made from Mylar and tape (2012/2018) distorts light, making the wall appear to bubble. Her famous 2003 “Haze” was recreated for the museum with thousands of plastic straws, altering the sound of the gallery by eating up the echoes typical of a concrete room. While we are familiar with her materials, they become unfamiliar once they are smeared together.

Tara Donovan, “Haze” (2003/2018), translucent plastic drinking straws, (image courtesy the collection of John and Amy Phelan, photographed by Christopher Burke Studios)

When Roberta Smith reviewed Donovan’s 2003 show at Ace Gallery for the New York Times, she cleverly concluded, “sometimes more is more than more.” Donovan raises a discussion on the ideology of the consumer and the demand capital meets. She does this from the perspective of waste, with her propensity for site-specific productions that result in sculptures destroyed at the end of a show. But her work also comments on the pace of art production today.

Tara Donovan, “Untitled” (2018), Mylar, tape, and hot glue, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery, photographed by Christopher Burke Studios)

In the text “Art in the Making,” Glenn Adamson notes, “for decades art has been principally valued for its conceptual merits not physical qualities such as materials.” It is strange that most of Donovan’s press coverage, stretching back to her 2000 Whitney Biennial presentation, fixates on her process, her methodical manipulations of the found good. But if making is a form of thinking then building monumental art with materials from our social environment means art is its own hyperobject.

Every artist understands the pace of production today as much as they accept every art opening celebration will be cut short with, “so what are you working on next?” Adamson predicts, “when future art historians look back at the present day it is possible that it will be the sheer proliferation of our art that will strike them most, rather than content.” The pace and quantity of art production is a symptom of a larger ailment.

Tara Donovan, “Untitled” (2015), Slinkys®, (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery, photographed by Christopher Burke Studios)

Morton compares the market-driven reality we fail to see to that of a swimming pool. “We are submersed … yet we are nonetheless independent of the water … causing it to ripple in particular ways.” Like the cool pool water, Fieldwork will give you goosebumps.

Tara Donovan: Fieldwork continues at MCA Denver (1486 Delgany Street, Denver, CO) through January 27. The exhibition is curated by Nora Burnett Abrams, Ellen Bruss Curator at MCA Denver.

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