Sublimity within a Birdcage: An Essay on the work of James Weingrod by Heather Castro

Sublimity within a Birdcage

An Essay on the work of James Weingrod by Heather Castro

Let Me Tell You a Secret, video still 2009

Let Me Tell You a Secret, video still 2009

 Space – it is, as the famed television show reminds us, the final frontier. However, to unpack that cliché is to realize its truth: the universe is the edge of knowledge. Little is concretely known about it, discoveries are around every corner and, while scientifically fascinating, the universe also is a source of transcendental wonder, inspiring both fear and awe in its capacity for the sublime. In his installation SPACE /SPĀS/ (NOUN), James Weingrod addresses these issues in an open-ended, multimedia illumination of the abstracted nature of the universe. Through found objects, film and imagery of the universe based on NASA photography, Weingrod’s work inspires a contemporary mysticism created through movement, object and consideration of the infinite.

The sublime has an ever-widening place in contemporary art criticism. Weingrod’s interest in outer space emerges from the concept of dealing with something bigger than the imagination in a process that confronts and transcends fear:  “depict(ing) a place I have never been, to realize from inside our world what is on the outside, to question the beginnings and ends of our existence within it.” While basing his imagery on scientific theory and data, his work also relates to the apocalyptic fear into which the twenty-first century was born, a fear that is upended as certain absolute destruction gives way in favor of changeful aesthetic beauty.

Hush, 2013

Hush, 2013

That regenerative spirit is at the heart of Weingrod’s installation at NAPOLEON, as is a development of a smaller prior installation; it features the third incarnation of a found object sculpture formerly entitled Hush, consisting of a painted mechanized birdcage.  “My father brought the birdcage from China,” explains Weingrod. ‘I loved it as a child. He gave it to me on the condition that I make art with it.” While the artist merges his personal past, present and future within the space of the birdcage, the viewer’s notions of time, space and individuality also become involved in the work through the absorptive act of watching motion and in the mechanics of mirrors.

The cage is positioned atop a pedestal within a display box of two-way mirrored acrylic. Lit from within, the birdcage is visible from any angle, but is also reflected back onto itself, creating the illusion of multiple cages.  The cage’s dark, wide vertical bands are dotted with spots of white in various sizes. Mounted on a motorized hanger, the cage spins and functions as a variation of a zoetrope;[1] the white dots suddenly set into motion like stars moving across the galaxy. The speed changes over the course of time, creating an animated illusion.

Early film critics often compared theater houses to churches; the silent contemplation, the flickering lights and the mass grouping of people produced a secular religion wherein one approached the new god: technology. For Weingrod’s audience, watching Untitled (Birdcage) evokes similar ritual action on the part of the viewer towards the sublime.

Reflected back into the mirrors surrounding it, the birdcage’s universe is self-contained, isolated and sealed off.  The illusion is multiplied and surrounds the viewer’s attention. The experience of standing before the view is to become a part of it, a view akin to a precipice, looking out towards others, in a manner where “no matter where you are,” says Weingrod, “you see infinity.” The intangible is conjured through an entirely tangible form, encouraging the viewer to stand in personal relation to a moving illusion and fully participate in a moment that is continually re-presented, outside of time and individual identification.

A multimedia approach continues in SPACE /SPĀS/ (NOUN) with the silent video work Let Me Tell You a Secret. The video depicts Weingard’s application and manipulation of paint to a dark viscous surface.  An initial application of a drop of silvered paint breaks apart into pigmented glitter that slowly disperses across the picture plane in a manner showing a likeness to visualizations of the Big Bang. As the concentration of the pigment cloud lessens, a wave of darkness (caused by Weingrod’s off-camera manipulation) wipes out the “universe” and changes the pigment’s aqueous current, resulting in a new galaxy formation. Watching the video is hypnotic, becoming an act of spiritual testimony to the creation, destruction and re-creation of a world.

Together, the works in SPACE /SPĀS/ (NOUN) invoke a modern cosmological Sublime, giving form to both the fear and fascination of the overwhelming nature of the universe. Whether facing the isolated galaxy of the birdcage in its mirrored universe or taking a front row seat for the grand expanse growing within Let Me Tell You a Secret, the viewer is positioned to take in an awe-filled vantage point that questions existence and the significance of being. However, no one looks at the night sky alone; human consciousness is necessary for the universe to be experienced. Within the context of the gallery installation, then, the works become hierophanies, signs manifesting a reality outside of our own. After experiencing Weingrod’s vision of it, we are invited to explore these strange new worlds, built through and beyond fear, to come face to face with infinity and admire its beauty.

Heather Castro is a PhD candidate in Art History at Temple University, where she is concentrating upon Modern European and American art and horror film. Her M.A. degree is from the University of Louisville, where she explored an art-based theory of the grotesque. Her research concentrates on examining the connections between fine art and popular culture in an effort to further understand the visual expression of social fear and anxiety.

To download a .pdf version, click Castro_Weingrod_Essay_September_2013.


[1] A circular device popular in the Victorian era that creates the illusion of movement from static images.

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