Kirsten Mosher

Throughout the 1990s, New York artist Kirsten Mosher has focused her attention on the urban landscape. Her sculpture, public art, and video works have isolated and deconstructed the signs of our pedestrian life, uncovering questions about our physicality, language, visual culture, and movement.

The canon of installation art has grown in the 1990s as artists continue to explore and push the boundaries of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Definitions of drawing have expanded; the line has moved from paper into the architectural space inhabited by the art object itself. Painting has jumped outside of the canvas. The pedestals upon which sculptures rest have disappeared as artists arrange objects directly on the floor of the exhibition space. Although Mosher’s work resides easily in the realm of today’s installation art, its foundations are well within the tradition of modern sculpture. The subject of her work is movement: how our bodies and, indeed, our culture, move through our collective spaces.

In the modernist tradition, movement is necessary to capture the dimensionality of a sculpture; negative space, mass, and form all become apparent as our perspective changes. Sculpture by the Italian Futurists required that the viewer move around an object to experience the machine-like grace of the human form in motion, as exemplified by Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). Alexander Archipenko, Naum Gabo, and Henry Moore negotiated interior spaces and forms, exposing hidden spaces so that the viewer need only move physically around the surface to see them. Minimalists were no strangers to the impact of the viewer’s movement. Carl Andre’s floor sculptures challenge the observer to walk over their surfaces — to experience the physicality of the everyday materials he transformed with a simple arrangement. Donald Judd’s sublime forms invite the viewer to gaze at slick surfaces and interiors from a variety of vantage points; his 100 Mill Aluminum Works, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas comes to life as one moves among the aluminum boxes, experiencing the dramatic West Texas landscape in their reflections.

Kirsten Mosher propels us deeper into the subject of movement, working to lay bare the codes that underlie it. What concerns her are the physical entities — the painted lines, curbs, structural patterns — that direct our daily actions: Cross, Park, Okay to Pass, Roll Here. Such symbolic structures become tools for examining a manifestation of negative space that becomes apparent to us only after it has been transformed. Hers is a sculpture turned inside-out, not with concave forms or internal volumes, but rather with the space that exists between content and form.

In 1990 Mosher began a series of drawings, videos, and sculptural works examining the relationship between public and private spaces. This inside–outside landscape is rich with issues to explore. How is our social order constructed and maintained? In our cities, traffic moves people, and signs that we universally agree upon move the traffic. What is a passing lane or a parking space, if not the representation of an agreement? A reminder of this agreement is painted on the ground, stationary, like sculpture. It exists to give an order to everyday chaos, and we take that order for granted, including the fact that we may receive a ticket for running a red light. Movement defines our public spaces; the city grid consists of conduits of traffic that surround living and working spaces. The shapes of public spaces are carved out by patterns of movement.

Mosher takes the lines on the pavement that mark where we are allowed to park our cars, where we can safely cross the street, and where our cars move upon the highway, and she abstracts their visual presence, twisting their meaning. These agreements, directives, and symbols may become chaotic and dangerous, as in the drawing Vanishing Point Parking (1991), where a parking lot is rendered progressively non-functional by modifying its utilitarian grid into a more psychologically intriguing vanishing point. This series of drawings was translated into installations, both within the exhibition space and in the public realm. Walk - In Parking (1991) located a parking space in the doorway of the gallery; as visitors entered the gallery space, lines on the floor — visual cues placed by the artist — directed them to stop within their bounds. The challenge to the viewer was to break the rules and ‘park’ outside the proper space. As in many of Mosher’s works, such an arrangement makes it apparent to the observer that she or he is also a participant in the installation. Parking Space Raft (1993; Welch Lake, Nova Scotia, Canada) is just what its title implies: a single parking space is available, but it floats on oil drums in the middle of a lake. Your wish for a parking space is granted; perhaps next time you’ll be more specific.

Works created for the gallery space also direct movement through and beyond the white cube. In Local Park Express (1998) , installed at the Wanås Foundation, near Malmö, Sweden, Mosher mounted wheeled benches and planters on scaled-down train tracks. Sitting on a mobile park bench, the viewer was encouraged to move from inside the institution to the more public grounds outside. Richly textured Persian rugs defined the interior space, and the train tracks ran across them to the exterior surface, which was densely carpeted with grass within the confines of an exquisitely manicured public park. A recognition of distinct differences in social context is intrinsic to this work; by participating, one is made aware of the tensions that exist between two types of public spaces, the museum and the park, and how we are transported, but not necessarily transformed, as we move between them.

Similar tensions are also evident in Mosher’s Parking Space Tent (1994), created for the Museum Fridericanum in Kassel, Germany. The artist rented a parking space in a lot near the museum and erected a pup tent within that space. Again she was investigating movement, focusing this time on the way in which we identify our homes or headquarters, both of which have assumed an increasing transience. With the accelerated mobility of our world, have our cars become our homes? If our society is increasingly volatile, economically and politically, have our homes become transportable — or even disposable? And if cars are metaphors for a nomadic and fragile existence, where do they reside? By rearranging space, Mosher offers a multitude of readings and political implications for the viewer to consider.

Mosher’s sensitivities to site and politics are particularly relevant in Detox Detour (1994), installed at the intersection of two streets in Nice, France. The artist used detour markings to make the four crosswalks and the four street corners contiguous, creating a continuous pedestrian walkway that encapsulated the intersection, forming it into a central arena. Pedestrians following the everyday cues they were given as literal directions would find themselves walking in an endless circle. This circular path to nowhere, in contrast to the linear progress one expects from daily life, is Mosher’s form of anarchic humor. Of course the real question she forces us to consider is whether we really do ever get anywhere in daily life. Another intersection intervention, Ball Park Traffic (1998; sponsored by the Public Art Fund, NYC), reconfigured the junction of Ninth Avenue and Twenty-Second Street, in Chelsea, into a baseball diamond. An existing fence was everted to form a backstop, and each of the four street corners was fitted with a regulation base. Traffic marking paint was used to outline the pitcher’s mound and create the foul lines, which ran along the outer edges of the crosswalks. Real stadium lights illuminated the site.

Mosher’s humor is also evident in her video work, which functions at a more intimate scale and incorporates a direct narrative. In her Walking series (1991), the artist takes a Fisher-Price Pixel-Vision camera to the streets, pacing around a city block, focused only on the curb, and then only as it curves around each corner. Spatially confused, the observer does not get a sense of distance, only of time.

The performative aspect of Walking carries over to Mosher’s Carmen (1994) series of short videos, which star a 10-inch-long battery-operated toy soldier who alternately crawls forward and pauses, always in a prone position and camouflaged within the cardboard form of a similar-sized automobile. Initially the car camouflage is only two-dimensional, but it soon takes on the three-dimensional car shape that will define all succeeding ‘car men.’The first few missions assigned to the carman involve crossing busy city streets. Each of the street-crossings ends in disaster as the toy is buffeted, flipped, turned off course, and ultimately crushed beneath the tires of a real car. The viewer is given a sense of expectant disappointment; it is obvious that our protagonist will not survive. Our identification with the doomed carman leaves us with a feeling of loss (we, too, are ‘crushed’). But although individuals are destroyed, the carman as a species evolves and thrives. A number of carmen crawl jerkily up a snowy path in the woods, and one by one they crest a hill to overlook the life-size valley below. One imagines that their bodies will protect them as they are seen to tumble over small cliffs. Later they return to the city to parachute, one at a time, from an apartment building toward the street below. They often seem to avoid landing in the roadway.

As part of her exhibition at Grand Arts, Mosher employs a static, more sculptural object. Portal (1998) reproduces the side-walk portion of a street corner, with wheelchair ramp, in yellow pine. Its warm coloration gives it a domestic character, similar to that of furniture. This is not the slick and exaggerated representation of an object, like Richard Artschwager’s ‘furniture’ pieces of the 1980s, but more like a rough, utilitarian piece of the living-room landscape. A three foot border of floor space separates Portal from the adjacent walls, and to reach the wheelchair ramp via wheelchair would require its operator to navigate that border. Mosher’s audience is not actually directed to engage this work physically, but to contemplate its meaning. If you wheel around and up the ramp onto the wooden street corner, where does that put you? Is that something you want to do? Portal to where? Although minimalist in presence, Portal objectness, as might be the intent of a work by Donald Judd or Carl Andre. Nor is it a perfect reproduction of the object. It represents a space we experience every day, but it is transformed, its function heightened, then withdrawn. Like Detox Detour?, it seems to lead nowhere.

The video work Lift Up and Push (1998) , projected on a gallery wall, has both the simplicity and confusion of a slice of life. Mosher’s narrative takes place in a natural, rural environment. Three generations of women are gathered to put up a shelter — a camping tent. Most of the narrative events are outside the frame of the video, having already occurred or yet to be revealed. Will they all sleep there tonight? Are more people coming? Is this a recreational pursuit? A tent is generally for camping, a group activity in which stories are shared and community is built. The utopian ideal of working together, of teaching, of learning, of sharing history and experience is offered as the camera takes in the younger participants: a baby coos in her carrier, a young girl draws on paper. The women read the assembly instructions aloud as they piece the tent together, functioning as a unit and focused on the task at hand. The little girl draws, showing a passing interest in the activity around her; at one point she asks whether the half-built tent is not supposed to look more like the picture on the package. But it comes together flawlessly as the women collaborate in its construction. The structure of the video itself is held together by an outside voice — that of the instruction manual. It is a familiar voice, yet it sounds like babble, a foreign language, or telephone hold music. Whose voice is writing the instructions? Is it a voice of authority? Like Mosher’s investigations of the codes of street signage, Lift Up subtly questions social issues of authority and control; at the same time it introduces more personal ideas of family, community, and cooperation.

As does most contemporary art, Kirsten Mosher’s work raises as many questions as it answers. It asks us to address timely issues about our individual rights and responsibilities. In the face of small decisions we make daily — where to cross the street, where to park our cars, how to work cooperatively, and how to follow directions — there is a larger picture in which we fit. And in spite of the thousands of directions we receive every day — from the media, from our employers, from our families, from our government, from instruction manuals for the products we buy — we control our own destiny and set our own directions. Through elegant formal devices, Kirsten Mosher’s art reminds us of the joy of chaos, of the absurdity of authority, and that our individual freedom to move is ultimately more powerful than our individual spaces.

Alexander Gray
San Antonio, TX

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