Los Angeles

Sam Durant

There’s plenty talk of cynicism in art today, but art truly born of cynicism, in which the idealistic and romantic are forced to hold their own against a healthy dose of skepticism and pessimism, is a rare dish. Sam Durant served up just that with four jaded meditations on entropy and disintegration, which generally are forces one might consider in relation to nature, but which he shows to be steadily wearing away at culture.

Durant’s concern with these kinds of issues is apparent in his titles, as in What’s the Opposite of Entropy? (all works 1999). A color photo, it depicts a model of Robert Smithson’s 1970 Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in which the artist heaped earth on a shed until its structural integrity was compromised, and then left it with instructions that it be maintained in a state of what one might call mediated entropy. In Durant’s image, two live models, a man and woman, lie draped over the shed, mimicking Smithson’s dirt pile and echoing the students fallen during the Kent State massacre, after which the shed, having made the transition from utility building to artwork, mutated again from artwork to makeshift memorial. The layering of references in the photo, with its figures resembling the “unmodels” (unkempt, unmade-up) familiar to us from Gap ads, echoes the manner in which mainstream, counterculture, and art mixed during that era. The image also suggests that the final disintegration of counterculture might simply lie in its eventual dispersion into the mainstream.

Smithson turns up again in the flow of polyurethane foam standing in for rolling hills in another model entitled Proposal for Monument at Altamont Raceway, Tracey, CA, which references the ill-conceived West Coast Woodstock held in 1969 at Altamont, where flower power was eclipsed by bad trips and clashes between Hell’s Angel security guards and hippie concert-goers as the Rolling Stones performed. As an alternative to the monoliths that serve as monuments the world over, Durant includes a tall, spindly steel scaffolding like that used at the concert, equipped with a sound system that plays a layered loop of “Brown Sugar” backward—a symbolic attempt to undo what became undone, a reversal of chaos that delivers not harmony, but only more noise. The related video Entropy in Reverse (Gimme Shelter backwards) delivers a segment of Albert and David Maysles’s 1970 documentary tracing the Rolling Stones set at Altamont, this too played in reverse. Employing the simple trick that allows broken glass to re-form in movies, this slice of backward history suggests the same “what if” proposition as the monument, in this instance bringing back to life the fan stabbed by a Hell’s Angel gang member as the Stones rocked. But the footage is so chaotic, the crowd so frenetic, and Mick Jagger’s movements so jerky that the reversed version seems barely different from the forward. The opposite of entropy turns out to be, well, entropy.

Lastly, Altamont comprises a row of mirrors running along the base of the wall, increasing in height from one end to the other, suggesting both an uphill climb and the hills of Altamont, which is spelled out backward and in reverse in cutout-gray-felt (à la Robert Morris) letters that slouch against the mirrors. In the reflection one sees oneself as if standing on the other side, reading the letters correctly from left to right. The piece aptly articulates the tone of the show, suggesting there well might be another way to get beyond all this falling apart, but good luck getting there.

Christopher Miles