PRINT September 1999



Working as a member of the dance/performance collaborative SHRIMPS, Martin Kersels figured out how to join a dulcet Conceptualism with loud noises and kickass kinetics, proving that there is a lot to be done with the dumb fact of gravity—having a body and being a body in space and time. Although he freely employs an array of media, his work always confronts and explores the mystery and sheer fun of spatial dynamics: a metal house that rumbled boisterously as he appeared to dance inside; an early piece, Brown Sound Kit, 1994, that emitted a sonic frequency purportedly disturbing enough to cause those in its vicinity to shit themselves; the recent photos that capture the abstract wonder of friendship and motion. Even when the result resembles a science experiment gone a little haywire, a delicate sensibility guides his investigations. Martin and I had so much fun talking that I made him late for the class he teaches at Art Center in Pasadena (he is also cochair of the Art Program at Cal Arts). Sitting down with Kersels confirmed that the most vital work being done in LA today continues to build on the history of action—sculpture and performance testing and extending the limits of Conceptualism.

Bruce Hainley


I STARTED MAKING OBJECTS in ignorance. Coming from a background in performance, what I did understand was space and motion. I hung out a lot with dancers in college. Although I never felt like I wanted to choreograph by the rules, I was influenced and inspired by Merce Cunningham, Rudy Perez, Alwin Nikolais—and by Buster Keaton. I love the mayhem created by Keaton, a Candide in the midst of a maelstrom that he may not even know he started—everything whirling and whirling around him as he maneuvers through it. Chaplin by comparison is too aware of how clever he is: Chaplin’s an incredible physical comedian, but his innocence is a little too innocent, everything pushed a little too much. With SHRIMPS, I don’t think we ever decided that what we wanted to do as a group was a mix of silent movies and Alwin Nikolais, but timing and pathos of silent movies was one of my contributions.

Instead of making work that was static or purely spectral, I wanted to define space, create new spaces, and make new activities of movement within space. If you look at a Brancusi, there’s a visual dynamic. I don’t think I’m enough of a master of materials to create that kind of dynamic with a static form, but motion and sound allowed me to have a dynamic I couldn’t otherwise achieve. I didn’t ever think of my early kinetic pieces as stand-ins for myself performing—but basically they really were. In some of my first performances, in 1982 with a woman named Lin Hixson, I carried people, I lifted them—because I could. I was a prop in a certain way. SHRIMPS allowed me to be not just the big carrying guy but the big sweet guy, the sexy big guy who falls down as soon as he’s done flaunting. When I dance, I may not be John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, but I spin and run across the floor into a butt-slide. People go, Wow, you’re energetic! They’re probably thinking, How can someone so big and fat do that? People’s attention to my size can be limiting, but my size can’t be denied. If I enter a room of a house, say, at a party, I kind of block the doorway. It causes some to be afraid. Walking down the street at night, some people will cross to the other side of the street when they see me—trouble—coming.

Despite my sheer presence, I’ve always felt like I was a little guy. I often concentrate on the small—the small motion, the small detail. The first time I realized the power of size, I was about seventeen or eighteen, thinner but still six-three, six-four. My dad was six feet, lighter. One day in the kitchen I picked him up and cradled him. Here was this forty-nine-year-old man who hadn’t been picked up like that for, oh, forty-five years. All of the sudden there was like this—wheeewww: I’m the son picking up my dad and cradling him. When I spin my son Kirby around, he loves it. Once Brent Petersen was setting up his graduate thesis show in a gallery. He was lying down because he was tired. As a lark I said, I’m going to spin you, Brent. He said, Oh, right. I took his hands and I got him off the ground and spun him around. I started thinking about boundaries—what is allowable to a child, what is allowable to an adult. Spinning is an act of disorientation, and through that disorientation, control. Because I’m holding someone and the person can’t do anything while he or she is being spun, they have to trust totally that I’m not going to use the situation to throw them, to let go of them. Certain people really don’t like to be controlled, to lose control, which is one of the reasons that I use friends for the photographs and don’t hire people. The work becomes about friendship and trust. The spinning photographs are part of the preparation process for a project in Paris this summer. After visiting the gallery, it came to me that I could spin the women who work there. The photos are time-exposed and shot from above. I wanted to make them more abstract, to capture the abstraction of the motion of spinning. I consider the results almost like flowers, and my interest with them is in drawing: nondigitally manipulating the surface by physical activity, by sheer force of will.

There’s a joke: It’s not the fall, it’s the landing. The spinning moment is more extended and blurred, but I’m also fascinated by the peak moment. I did a piece some years ago for Dan Bernier’s gallery where a swinging speaker slammed into a pole. I want to try to do this with a swinging piano. There will be several moments along a trajectory, a line, the piano, suspended from the ceiling, is slowly, very very slowly, pulled back from a wall and then released very quickly—like a wrecking ball. Things will oscillate: There will be moments of tension, moments of release. The wall will also move: A passageway behind it will be expanded beyond the impact, a domino-like effect to display different points on the line. The bang is the least interesting part. It’s the tension before and the aftermath—like in a Hitchcock film. Slow movement played off by fast. I don’t want the crash, the big movement, to be the star. Just like my size, the big thing tends to get more notice, but I hope everyone will see a finer point.