Charles Long’s Eco-Decadence Redefines the Contemporary Austin
By Seth Hawkins
We asked Seth Hawkins, UCR’s ARTSBblock exhibition designer and studio manager for artist Charles Long, to be our eyes and ears at Long’s most current exhibition in Texas at the recently remodeled Jones Center. The Jones Center is the flagship headquarters for the newly rebranded Contemporary Austin, a joining of the Texas Fine Art Association’s Arthouse, founded in 1911, and the Austin Museum of Art. With a significant renovation by Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis Architects, the Jones Center has become a cutting edge space and the ideal venue for one of Charles Long’s largest and most complex art installations to date, “CATALIN.”
Walking toward the bustling intersection of 7th Street and Congress Avenue in the heart of downtown Austin, one is drawn immediately to the traditional masonry building on the corner — now studded with 177 LED-light laminated glass bricks, which protrude through the original façade of both the front and sidewalls of the structure. Floor to ceiling glass on the street level allows an intimate view into the space, providing a subtle delineation between street and gallery. Streamlined and cutting edge, the Jones Center is a re-imagined historic building meant to both breathe new life into a specific section of the downtown and, more importantly, into the exhibition space that at the time of the renovation was known as the Arthouse. In a city with the motto “Keep Austin Weird,” how could an art institution known for its avant-garde, edgy programming be housed in an unassuming, non-descript historic brick building? While in many cases a retrofit of an historic building can stifle much of the next architect’s design creativity, the Jones Center today has become the embodiment of what the Contemporary Austin embraces as a forward thinking and boundary-pushing art institution that remains firmly grounded in its 100+ year history.
The Jones Center has been through many iterations during its life. Originally built in 1851 as the first three-story brick building in Austin, it was transformed from a drug store into the Queen Theater in 1926, later returning to retail in 1956 when it became a Lerner’s Department Store. In 1995 the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA) purchased the building after it had remained vacant for many years. Budgetary limitations and the necessity to meet building codes led to a modest initial renovation in which all but the first floor of the building was sealed off. In 1998 the TFAA’s Jones Center for Contemporary Arts opened to the public with a modest 8,000 square feet of space.
The monumental task of keeping the building’s original mystique, while bringing it into the present, was taken on by the New York-based architectural firm Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (LTL)—with the help of a substantial six million dollar budget. This was not LTL Architects’ first jaunt into the world of fine art, as they were responsible for the notable 2004 American Pavilion venture at Venice’s Architectural Biennale. During this installation, LTL modified the neo-classical space by morphing the front columns into large cantilevered aluminum fins that shot out distinctively from the front of the building, displaying site maps for parking plans and a mosaic made of thousands of car air fresheners.
In much the same way as in Venice, LTL took what they were given with the Jones Center and created a hybrid structure that is both visually staggering and award-winning. With exhibition spaces presently totaling a formidable 20,000+ square feet, the Jones Center, now a noted downtown landmark, has remained true to its roots and its history.
The administrative offices display sections of the trompe l’oeil mural-painted masonry wall that existed when the building was the Queen Theater. In the upstairs main gallery, the wall is scarred, in the most beautiful sense of the word, with ghost staircases imprinted on the walls, blocked-up former doors, and other homages to the building’s previous lives — a true cross between contemporary construction and archaeological preservation.
Multi-functionality is a key theme that resonates throughout the building remodel. The second floor has become a flexible gallery space with a massive 57-foot, 16,000-pound moveable wall that is mounted to structural I-beams and moved by a motorized system. A 5,000 sf rooftop deck was constructed to function as a reception area, but it also includes a large format screen to show movies. With its massive wall of windows overlooking Congress Ave., the second floor conference room doubles as a staff meeting room, a reception area, and location for artist lectures. The windows are sheathed with a large-format rear projection screen, able to display video art to patrons on the sidewalk and streets below. Even the seemingly weightless, suspended staircase between the first two floors has a dual role; one of its bottom steps continues far out into the space, morphing into what is used as the front reception desk.
As with any ambitious art institution, people wear multiple hats. In much the same way, the remodel allows the building to follow suit, and in turn, artists who exhibit there will be inspired toward experimentation and architectural interventions.
Artist Charles Long’s massive collaborative installation “CATALIN” makes true use of everything the new Jones Center has to offer, shining a light — metaphorically and also in several cases, literally — on all aspects of its recent remodel. “CATALIN” is a true Gesamtkunstwerk, combining many artistic styles and media into a fully encompassing sensory experience that includes sculpture, music, scent, light, kinetics, video, theater, and new technology into one spectacle. “CATALIN” was a massive undertaking in which Long collaborated with a multitude of companies, musicians, and visual artists, even pressing an album with the band Eluvium and teaming up with the music event synonymous with Austin, South by Southwest (SXSW).
Walking up from the first floor of the Jones Center in “CATALIN,” multi-colored lights shoot through the dramatic staircase, casting theatrical rainbow shadows on the opposing wall. The large second floor gallery has a dark and ominous feel, the only illumination coming from fifty black lights shining overhead and a subtle glow of natural light piercing through the glass bricks in the wall. The room fluoresces with ominous white forms stretching 10-12 feet tall, Long’s Climate Controllers (2014). Some of these sculptures have the menacing feel of large cloaked figures towering over us, while others manifest as abstracted Erté drawings.
Long allows the viewer full access to the illusion of the sculptures by leaving one side of the structures open. The viewer can peer in and examine swooping and curving metal armatures over which white “eco-spandex” is stretched. Jutting out of each of these objects is a louvered vent that resembles an air exhaust. Floating slightly below the exposed ceiling joists are two large air conditioning units, each the size of a gas guzzling SUV. On these reside projections of varying subject matter: imagery of icebergs and glaciers, disturbing islands of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, as well as beautiful abstractions and art deco imagery.
At random moments the louvers on the front of the AC units turn 180-degrees, exposing a mirrored backside, which sends reflected light swimming and dancing around the gallery. Finally the wavering light comes to rest on the opposite wall, which contains an ominous tomb. Within the tomb is a small rusty kinetic machine. Here, patrons can grind off shavings of the lone section of a Catalin sample. Catalin is a phenolic resin that became increasingly popular from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, replacing the majority of plastic consumer goods. By shaving the plastic relic, viewers release back into the environment a small amount of its trapped formaldehyde. To this day, Catalin is still found on inlayed designs in the front of vintage radios, and even more so on collectable vintage jewelry. The history and chemistry of the Catalin resin begins to set the reoccurring theme of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “dark ecology” within the exhibition. The tomb leaves us with what Long is ultimately hoping for, but what we just cannot count on: the possibility that green technology will come into fruition to bury the toxic outdated materials from previous generations before it is all too late.
Long pairs the use of contemporary eco-friendly materials with cutting edge manufacturing processes. The tomb, as well as the architectural relief spanning the entire seventy-foot wall of the gallery, is made of mushroom tiles grown through a specific process that uses post-agricultural waste to produce sustainable and fully compostable packaging materials. This ethos is also demonstrated in the 3D printed iceberg sculptures made out of water-soluble material that double as perfume holders, greeting visitors as they enter the first floor. While the materials are ecologically minded, the work also implies that just the carbon footprint alone of manufacturing, shipping, and storing of the exhibition negates all of these benefits. The eco-spandex (made from 90% recycled post-consumer waste) used in this exhibition to create many of the artworks was the last of this material in the world—the costs of making vs. market demand for this more expensive variation of spandex has led its manufacture to halt production.
Aside from the use of eco-materials, a theme that resonates throughout both floors of the exhibition is an acknowledgement of climate change, primarily through the use of glacier and iceberg imagery.
For many of us, icebergs and glaciers seem distinct from one another, when truly they are beings related to the same phenomena. As glaciers flow into the sea large sections “calve off,” producing icebergs of varying size. Released from its stationary grasp an iceberg is free to float the oceans, like a nomadic wanderer traversing the seas, controlled only by water currents and the prevailing winds. When put within the context of the glacier’s life, the lifecycle of the iceberg is staggeringly short — a blink of the eye in geologic time. For millennia the ice remains dormant, trapped within one location and preserving everything, even pockets of ancient air. Exiled into the unknown, into the sea, it finally melts and combines with the water that once propelled its journey.
Thinking about climate change within the environment of “CATALIN,” one might consider that what leads us as humans to overuse natural resources is detrimental behavior coupled with turning a blind eye. Humans love beauty; for some of us it is natural beauty, while for others, it is a manufactured beauty. Empires have been built and have fallen on the pursuit of beauty in whatever context; more land, more wealth, more prominence, the attitude that one must have something precious “at any cost.” To play off of and expose this element of the human condition, Long had his scent collaborators manufacture perfumes with an added ingredient — water from the fastest melting glaciers on earth.
For many of us climate change is something akin to the boogey man, frightening, yet not completely tangible. Being born and raised outside of Missoula, Montana, I was particularly affected when I learned that some of the fastest melting glaciers on Earth reside in Glacier National Park, my childhood backyard. Everything snapped into focus, faced with the harsh reality that by the year 2020 the glaciers from my youth and memories could be gone. This visual evidence of climate change is not happening in some remote section of the world, and Long’s statement of using glacier water within the exhibition heavily resonates with me.
With Long’s creation of the CATALIN perfumes, can there be a larger tip of the hat to decadence? As the SXSW Festival takes over the museum in March 2014, with lectures and parties in and among the Climate Controllers, Long seems to ask: Is there enough time and enough foresight for us as a society to save this spinning top that we call our home?
People may just put on their party hats, crank up the music, adorn themselves with all that is beautiful, and drift until the lights go out.
Charles Long is known for his history of partnering with other artists and organizations. For CATALIN, Long collaborated with the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Mylan Chacon (Fabricator for Climate Controllers, AC Units, and Iceberg Seating), Chasing Ice (AC Units Video), Jeneene Chatowsky (AC Units Video), Ecovative (Mushroom Wall), Eluvium (Original Album), Brady Foster (Databerg Base Fabricator), Seth Hawkins (Crypt, Databergs, Boat Video, Mushroom Wall), John Hiler (Sound Tracks), Kerstin Hovland (Street Projected Video), Emery Martin (3d Render for Databergs), Michael Mascha at Finewaters.com (Glacier Water), Timothy Morton (Keynote Speaker), Carrie Paterson and Karen Reitzel (Perfume Creation), Alison Petty Ragguette (Mushroom Wall), Solid Concepts (3D Printing for Databergs), the SXSW Festival, and Anna Wittenberg (Video Creation, Filming, and Editing for AC Units and Boat Video).
Right: Kodak to Graph’s SXSW 2014 performance hosted in conjunction with Charles Long’s CATALIN. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons.
Historical and architectural photographs courtesy The Contemporary Austin. CATALIN installation photographs by Ben Aqua.