PRINT September 2002

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Sam Durant

Nineteen sixty-eight: a year of global unrest and seismic shivers. Where better to ride the wave than in golden California? Steel-and-glass boxes perched above LA, the Case Study Houses, remnants of one of the great experiments in modern architecture, lie in ruins—trashed by a ragtag family of squatters? Charles Eames meets Charles Manson: That’s one way of relating the nightmarish scene imagined in a series of architectural models titled “Abandoned Houses,” 1995, by Sam Durant, an artist for whom the dreams of both modernism and hippie idealism are the stuff of myth and memory.

The history lessons that unfold in MoCA’s exhibition—the first major museum survey of Durant’s work (to be followed by a show at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf, with a shared catalogue)—serve to remind us that the entwined stories of art and popular culture since the ’60s are best examined by way of free association. They are also, typically, haunted by the death of someone, or something, and Durant forensically follows every clue. In two other sculptural models, he disinters Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, a work politicized by the shooting of four students at Kent State during an antiwar demonstration only months after it was realized on the Ohio campus, and by its eventual removal. In each of Durant’s scaled-down versions, the heaps of dirt under which the original shed was submerged are absent, and the structure can be seen as a grave marker: to the students, to the era, to the death of Smithson himself. Durant’s sound tracks for these works, with songs looped and overlaid in reverse, create a heady, disorienting effect. In Upside Down and Backwards, Completely Unburied, 1999, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”—its lyrics quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note (“better to burn out than to fade away”)—and the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter” endlessly spiral around one another, and Durant compresses the end of the ’60s and the end of the ’80s as if by spirit medium.

The LA-based artist’s freewheeling sense of humor is everywhere evident in his installation Proposal for a Monument in Friendship Park, Jacksonville, FL, 2000, where a Noguchi rock garden improbably spreads out before a down-home front porch, to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” In Upside Down: Pastoral Scene, 2002, an installation of inverted trees on mirrors, he offers up the most entropic work Smithson never made; by way of reflection, each stump is held between a tangle of roots at either end, growing nowhere fast. For many younger artists, Smithson’s art and essays provide a passage between the ’60s and our time, and he hovers over much of Durant’s terrain. Judging from the ten years of work presented in this exhibition, Durant’s “unburied” speaks to his project as a whole, to the intricate path he traces from utopia to dystopia, as he sifts through the remains.

Bob Nickas

“Sam Durant” will be on view at MoCA at California Plaza, Los Angeles, Oct. 13–Feb. 9.