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Just imagine: If the sensors failed to trip in Heather Theresa Clark’s “Sides of a Line” (2018), now on view at Hamiltonian Gallery, then viewers might wind up squeezed to a paste between two fashionably chic walls. Crushed by metaphor. Killed by art. Wiped out by the collapsing structures of late capitalism.
That’s one way to read Clark’s trap sculpture, one of the most ambitious projects ever mounted by Hamiltonian, or at least the biggest. For the piece, the artist has built two 10-by-13-foot walls that face one another. One is fixed, a padded scaffold that looks like a combination bed frame and mattress. The other wall, which has one mattress face to match the other, is mounted to a mechanical system that slides it along a 52-foot-long track. Running through and between the walls is a cable, cemented on the movable-wall end to the gallery floor by a turnbuckle and heavy burlap weights. Bigger than the piece itself are the weighty ideas that the artist wants viewers thinking about.
Picture a tightrope walker balanced on the wire between the walls, as one closes in on the other, shortening the distance at hand for an acrobat while an imaginary clock ticks down. Or re-live the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars, only with one designed by Kanye West in martial couture tones. The sides of the walls that bear down on each other are covered in sleek black military parachute, punched and buttoned in upholstery fashion. The track is paved with marbled Formica. The side of the wall facing out from the vice is lined with wax, punched like tin with a fleur-de-lis pattern. Clark is pointing to a larger framework—maybe capitalism, maybe the Kardashians.
Along a Line gestures broadly at systemic forces. In “Sides of a Line,” the tightrope hints at performance, the roles we play, within a structure that poses a threat. The critique mounted in this installation is both literal and wishy-washy. It reads like an indictment of an idea along the lines of late capitalism or neoliberalism, big-tent concepts that have come to embody sanitized corporate evil. Concepts so big they don’t mean anything.
Clark’s solo show is uneven: “DISSONANCE” (2018), a pair of photos documenting a dance-like performance conducted by the artist on a barge at sea, is inviting but hard to judge from this presentation. On the other hand, “Monument” (2018) steals the show. The sculpture comprises a pedestal made of plywood, over which the artist has suspended a ghostly imprint, an echo of the pedestal rendered in rawhide. Nevermind that it’s a tribute to Rachel Whiteread’s “Monument” (2001), part of London’s famous Fourth Plinth series. The piece may be the key to unlocking Clark’s politics.
For the “Monument” that Whiteread was invited to build in Trafalgar Square, she made a copy of the empty fourth plinth, cast in transparent resin, and set it on the plinth as an inverted mirror-image. Whiteread’s contribution to the Fourth Plinth series seems part and parcel of a ’90s approach to political art: heavy, snarky, laden with symbolism, performative in a theatrical vein. For her own “Monument,” Clark has recreated an outline of a corner of the plinth in rawhide. It looks like a flag waving over the memorial, a transformation of the monument that still exalts the monument.
If Clark’s work can be read as an embrace of a bigger way of framing global politics, then it could be read as a rejection of the community-focused craft of social practice, the dominant political art genre of the 2010s. Whereas social practice has seen artists zero in on locally oriented topics like lead poisoning or food security, Clark embraces the sweeping gesture of history. In “Monument” she is flying that idea as a flag: a monument to monumentalism.
At Hamiltonian Gallery to May 12. 1353 U St. NW. Free. (202) 332-1116. hamiltoniangallery.com.