Still, Flat, and Far

Miranda: Shirreff conversation

Photo: J. Katz

post by Rachel Pastan

“I’m intrigued by the staticness of form.”

That wonderful sentence was uttered last week at ICA by sculptor, photographer, and video-maker Erin Shirreff, whose show Still, Flat, and Far closed at the museum last weekend. Ordinarily I wouldn’t use this space to talk about a show you can’t see, but last week’s conversation between Shirreff and Penn’s brand new contemporary art professor, Kaja Silverman, with an introduction by exhibition curator Lucy Gallun, was such an interesting event that I thought I’d say just a few words about it. Also, I get the feeling you’re likely to run into Shirreff’s work somewhere or other over the next couple of years. At MoMA, for instance, or the Met.

What struck me, listening to Erin and Kaja, was how differently two people from different backgrounds can talk about the same work. Kaja is the consummate academic: thoughtful, informed, theoretical, curious, articulate. She started the conversation with a wonderfully complicated and captivating inquiry into the show’s title: what might each of those words mean, still, flat, far? Does “still” refer to photographs in their analog form? Is “far” a temporal term, expressing how distant analog photography is from today’s general practice? Does it allude to what Walter Benjamin says about photography bringing things closer?

In response, Erin smiled a lot and said, “They’re complicated words, and I liked them for their simplicity.”

I love that answer, which acknowledges contradictions while refusing to tease them out. That’s not her job, after all: it’s the curator’s job, the academic’s job. Possibly my job.
Miranda: Shirreff_Ash_detail

Erin Shirreff, Untitled (detail), 2009, Compressed ash, hydrocal, 86 x 41 x 13 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York

Not that Erin wasn’t also extremely articulate about her own work, as well as about minimalist art, photography, monuments, and various other things. She was. But she was also resistant to too much interpretation, concerned about taking things too far. When Kaja asked her, “What did you mean when you said, You can see geologic time in the desert?” Erin replied, “That’s so pretentious sounding, I apologize!” Then she went on to talk evocatively about living in New Mexico, driving over knolls that are ancient volcanoes, explaining exactly what she meant in a way that wasn’t pretentious at all.

How does one find a language to talk about art? How do you know when you’ve properly or effectively expressed in language the essence of what the artist has made with her hands (and, well, maybe with her camera and her editing software)? I think what I liked so much about this conversation was the way three different modes of discourse came together—curator Lucy Gallun’s lovely prepared introduction, Kaja’s multi-layered analysis and penetrating questions, and Erin’s feints and qualifications and open-ended attempts to capture her own passionate preoccupations. Any one of them alone would have been partial, slanted, not quite satisfying. But woven together they created an experience as resonant, subtle, and compelling as any other work of art.