New York

Markus Baenziger

Markus Baenziger makes sculpture out of Plexiglas and synthetic resin and rubber: filmy, opalescent stuff that looks like it might not really be there after all. Which is just fine, since what he makes out of it might not really be there either. There’s a piece called Soft Landings (all works 1995), a pile of towels made of synthetic resin and rubber indented in the center as though something had dropped there from above. Then there are three works all entitled Nocturnal Trail, frosted synthetic-resin pillows resting on top of Plexiglas cubes, with depressions indicating where the dreamer’s head would rest. Inside there’s a whirlwind (made from the same translucent stuff) rising out of—or descending down to—a covered wagon. Agitator, as its title suggests, is literally the agitator from a washing machine, made to look as though it were spreading slowly across the floor. The covered wagons are the giveaway, though—they showed up in his earlier work, and they mean just what they have always meant to Americans. Which is to say, they mean Frontier. For all of the frontier’s current dreamlike quality, Baenziger works hard at trying to remember. At trying to imagine what it must have been like to have had that particular dream . . . .

We used to have a real frontier. It lived longest in the middle of the country, where civilization moved in on it from both sides; civilization, as usual, took the train in from the coasts. People who actually intended to live there, in the wild heart of the country, usually moved in groups; they took horses and wagons. In a sea of grass, they set up little islands made out of the things that could be carried in the covered wagons. And, although they did not know it, they were slowly destroying the empty sea that they floated on, turning the frontier bit by bit into something very like memory, until civilization was everywhere—strip malls and Stuckeys and suburbs for as far as the eye could see. Punctuated, of course, with little islands of nostalgia, marking the place where the frontier and its storm-tossed sea of grass used to be: historical markers and scenic overlooks and empty places. I say “of course” here because, if there is one thing we love more than civilization (with its soft landings and warm, dry clothes and trips everywhere that don’t even require leaving the family room in the house in the cul-de-sac in the suburbs) it is our memories of that frontier dream, our nostalgia. Nostalgia for amongst other things, the feeling that the frontier (and consequently, freedom, space, beauty, new beginnings, whatever, the dream of the frontier is always overdetermined just like any dream of any significance) is still out there, somewhere, still possible.

Baenziger’s work gives it to you both ways: portraying that vaporous sense of delicious ease that means you’re on your way, as well as its opposite. So you see the wagons, and the whirlwinds, and the magic carpets, and you also see how it all winds up, in Baenziger’s cul-de-sac (the ultimate subdivision housing arrangement), and glass boxes, and washing machines, agitators whirling out across the floor, trapping you in pretty goo. Work that conveys exactly what it’s like when it seems as though the dream of the frontier is in sight, it’s merely a matter of getting there, whether you have to ride a whirlwind in the night like Dorothy, off to Oz, or a magic carpet. Or, on the other hand, what it’s like when you realize that, for all your trying, you just might be spinning in place: going nowhere fast.

Mark Van de Walle