New York

Jerilea Zempel

Battery Park

Jerilea Zempel’s Excess Volatility, 1989, looks like a captured beast. Located just south of a subway station in the Wall Street area, it resides in a triangular site that is completely enclosed by a black railing. Its stalking, crouched form suggests that it has been chased and bullied onto the site and is now protected, but trapped, by the surrounding urban armor. The temporary appearance of this object does not suggest run-of-the-mill public art; there is something startling and surreal in its occupation.

Zempel’s sculpture combines industrial and natural elements. The carcass of the piece is a ragged, green Volkswagen Bug. The artist glued a skin of pine needles on all of the interior surfaces of the car. But, soon after it was installed, the car was set on fire by vandals, and Zempel decided to paint the charred interior a brilliant orange-red in homage to the torching. On the outside of the car, Zempel attached a loose weaving of thin branches to create a thick, but visually penetrable, coat of wood. The wild,craggy silhouette is barely contained by the contours of the car.

If this sculpture were situated in a more “natural” setting, the plumage of broken branches might function as camouflage—as a protective visual screen for a machine-made object intruding on nature. On the other hand, if the car had some remaining value, if it were not so clearly a ruin, the natural filigree would be a sabotage of function rendering the vehicle immobile and impractical. But neither of these fanciful, ironic scenarios seems to be at work.

The bizarre assembly of material, the disjunctive qualities of the found and fashioned offer the simultaneous conditions of shock and humor. The discordant reality proposed by Zempel’s installation generates a mistrust of contemporary culture’s relation with both its own compulsive productions and the threatened state of the natural world. The art that she has created from scavenged materials and objects gives skepticism a memorable form. It expresses the crazed patterns of expendability that accompany progress.

At the same time, the act of dragging a useless, rejected automobile into one of New York’s cherished park spaces and then wedding it with the clippings and cuttings of park management suggests that we can- not simply wish away the things we throw out. The principle of obsolescence has to do with both branches and cars; presumably one action leads to renewed, invigorated growth and the other leads to the waste crisis that endangers life and nature. This small, six-month installation is not the consequence of some whimsical manipulation of incompatible materials, but a critical exposition on the machine’s problematic but essential place in our future.

Patricia C. Phillips