Friday, December 14, 2012

Going Nowhere, Fast

Robert Boyd

As metaphors go, the hamster wheel is a good one. The idea of man being on a hamster wheel, endlessly, mindlessly running with no destination, a willing cog in the machinery of modern life--you can't beat it. It's hardly surprising that artists of all stripes would employ this image. That's what James Ciosek has done with Human Hamster Wheel.

James Ciosek, Human Hamster Wheel, mixed media, 2012

But a metaphor like this doesn't belong to one artist. "Which one of us exercises on the old treadmill --- Who hides his head, pretending to sleep?" Yeah, I've reached rock bottom here--I'm quoting Jethro Tull ("One Brown Mouse" from the album Heavy Horses, 1978). But that lyric popped into my head as I watched people in the Human Hamster Wheel going nowhere, fast.

But what really popped into mind was an installation by Los Angeles artist Liz Young that I saw in 1990 at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. The name of the piece was Neglected Fixations, and it was part of a group show called Low Technology: Artist Made Machines curated by Larry Reid. It features a human-sized hamster wheel (which had some people walking in it constantly--you could see sweat pouring off them when you viewed it) while Young sat nearby in a metal bath-tub filled with water. The metaphor here is a little different because Young was a paraplegic--paralyzed in a car accident when she was 18. Human-powered wheels have a different meaning for Young, I suspect.

James Ciosek, Human Hamster Wheel, mixed media, 2012

The thing is that whatever the metaphor, the idea of building a giant version of a really small thing has been a popular artistic strategy since Claes Oldenburg did it in the early 60s. There is something inherently fun about it. When you get inside Human Hamster Wheel, you aren't thinking about the futility of modern existence--you are playing. You're on a carnival ride powered by yourself, desperately trying to keep your balance.

Ciosek was quite thoughtful in how he made it. It really is a scaled up hamster wheel, but he added a governor to check the maximum speed it could turn. The wire mesh that you can see on the inside is temporary. It's there so that people can use the wheel safely. Without it, people would undoubtedly trip and break their noses and/or teeth on the cross-beams. But the mesh is held in place with tie-wraps. When (and if) this sculptural contraption finds its way to a permanent resting place, the mesh can be removed and it will revert to being a pristine sculptural object.

James Ciosek, Human Hamster Wheel, mixed media, 2012

But for now, the safety features remain in place and you can see it in back of Lawndale. (The Continuum performance collective will be putting on a carnival-like performance fest with Human Hamster Wheel as the centerpiece on Saturday, December 15 from 3 pm to 5 pm.)


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