Michael Jantzen

Studio Show

In the woods, ecology seems real and believable; in the city, it often seems more like a clever advertising ploy. Michael Jantzen has lived all his life in the woods of Carlyle, Illinois; there, his architectural structures make a lot of sense. When he exhibits his conceptual projects in the city, however, they can become the seat of a communications crossfire.

Jantzen’s architectural structures started out as sculptures, but they became increasingly large in scale until finally he was walking around inside them. The largest such one, currently being completed, is one in which Jantzen and his wife live, and which, like his prior structures, is integrated with the surrounding area. The ecology of this house includes solar heat, herbs that keep rodents away without chemicals, indoor waste water filtered to the outdoor plants, breakfast room windows which face east to catch the early morning sun, and exercise machines that allow people to bring water from a well by peddling. Such interaction would be impossible in city life.

Even when Jantzen shows conceptual projects in the city they have some-thing of “the woods” in them—he attempts to create situations here which have the sense of the way things work out there. Jantzen devises gentle kinds of pieces that nudge you into an understanding. For instance, he’s made a nice one-with-your-fellow-man-type piece in which a viewer climbs a ladder to a plywood box, sticks his head through a membrane, confronts a video monitor playing what Jantzen saw from a hilltop, and simultaneously hears an audiotape of Jantzen breathing. It’s supposed to be a throwback to share and share alike, something like merging your head with Jantzen’s head and seeing what he saw, but in the city our mentality is more apt to find in the box an inciter of claustrophobia and in the ladder an impetus for fear of heights.

Jantzen doesn’t always imply that everything affects everything by asking for a viewer’s physical involvement. He has exhibited an arrangement in which two nailed-together boards support rocks that dangle over live white mice. Viewers read a statement that the nails holding the boards may not be sufficient and could at any moment split apart, causing the rocks to descend. Poor mice! Ecologically speaking, this project demonstrates that the errors of one man (Jantzen) could cause the termination or continuation of another creature’s (mouse’s) life cycle, which certainly has far wider implications than the single gallery demonstration. However, I can imagine products of the cold, faceless city watching for hours to see those rocks descend, an intended moral lesson becoming “good” vicarious entertainment.

But Jantzen’s problems aren’t all accidental. His conscientious appeal to that “part in all of us which is not yet intellectually programmed” (Jantzen’s words) sometimes can become just plain ridiculous. He runs into trouble with “spiritual ecologies”: these remain convincing as long as they are at the poetic level, but defeat his aims when they use functional technology to symbolize impossible operations. At the poetic level, his Personal Sleep Chamber with Residue for Influencing My Dreams is an environment in a plastic module that’s supposed to affect Jantzen, who sleeps inside the chamber on a mattress wired to bits of clothing worn by his dead brother—implying an ecology in which objects can seem to “vibrate” or “radiate” an influence. While it might be scientifically possible to plug into the human brain and control its dreams, Jantzen intends a situation in which the influence is as natural as, say, air coming into a room through in-wall vents bringing oxygen from the plants outside.

However, when he hooks radio antennas to FM transmitters to tape recorders to tone shift generators to speakers to a polygraph so that he might symbolize, by a sort of “osmosis,” a broadcast of his thoughts to the viewer’s brain, his work turns to folly. For all of that machinery, he might as well have displayed the words, “I’m imagining a white line, won’t you please imagine one too?” Generally speaking, Jantzen’s technological projects are strongest when the technology is functional, because he renders his admirable task impossible when he uses “city” apparatus in a “back-country” way.

—C. L. Morrison