WHAT HAPPENED (T)HERE: Lewis Colburn, On This Site: An Essay by Sarah Kim


An Essay by Sarah Kim


The obelisk.  A knife cutting into the sky—an unabashedly machismo protest of—?

Once stone was eternal, its immortality arises from physical immovability. History is a human interpretation of reality; aware of this, architects used the stolidity of a monument as a brazen assertion: ‘Yes, this is true, despite all else.’  Now the digital has usurped its position, free from both time and space.  Still resilient, stone forms the bulwark of museum fare whether in granite, marble, or lime; meanwhile images of old statues circulate through the internet in ironic farce.  There seems no need for monuments when their histories are mere clicks away on the web; more convenient that way.  With the easy archiving tools digital technology offers, monuments have fallen into the role of historical objects, confined to the role of public art or paraded as a public show of personal and even municipal wealth.  In contrast, the web appears to offer an omniscient and omnipresent compass, perhaps best summed up in Wikipedia and Reddit, the former an encyclopedic engine fueled by invisible labor and the latter a real-time fact-checking, op-ed horde.  One forgets that things happen at a specific time and a particular place.  We often overlook that information is a fallacious construction as the value of concrete particulars are effaced.

Photograph from On This Site. Inkjet print, 18" x 12."

Photograph from On This Site. Inkjet print, 18″ x 12.”

Unsurprisingly, the epistemological fissures inherent in new media are the current artistic obsession, ranging from Taryn Simon’s studies of censure and data—An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), Contraband (2010), and Image Atlas (2012)— to Michael Wolf’s screenshots of otherwise unnoticed events on GoogleMaps.  Lewis Colburn’s presentation, On This Site is a monument to monuments as well as a literal deconstruction of their function.  In contrast to works mentioned above, Colburn’s process is densely crafted, the deep chronological and material investment ritualistically fomenting the artistic ‘event.’  Anchoring the exhibition is a concrete obelisk, laid like a corpse on a wood-wagon, torn along the seams.  Another adorns the walls in parts, as if it exploded in transit and remains embedded in sepulchral crates. The show’s Janus-like anthems can be read on opposite sides of each obelisk:



The hollow structures, held roughly together by plastic bands, are cast from a wood original, translated into different medium as communication shifts content through transmission.  In the manner of conceptual art and action documents, photographs on another wall show Colburn dragging the centerpiece to its eventual destination and erection on the outskirts of Kensington.  Colburn was inspired by the blue PA commission historical plaques marking historic Philadelphia, from which the show’s title is taken.  Clad in a colonial costume, Colburn appears a tour guide lost on the way to a reenactment; Or, perhaps he is a rogue pioneer looking to—literally—make his mark in the city.

With the object in question present, the tableau is surreal—what was it for and why?  What event is memorialized? Is the edifice just one in many produced?  Or is this a preview of an action yet unexecuted?  What concrete interpretation the viewer cultivates inevitably runs into the Gettier-problematic nature of the work.

Like the monuments themselves, the will to know is ultimately empty in the absence of physical confirmation or descriptive elaboration.  Certainty for what exactly happened and why resists the viewer. The work exists in a liminal state – in the gaps in the data we’re given, between the physical remnant and the proposed photographic narrative, between THIS ALSO HAPPENED and HAS NOT HAPPENED.  The work’s overall effect is contradictorily planted in both abstract and sociopolitical commitments.  The image references tourism, commercial methods of production, and the cultural capital built around municipal centers.  It also transcends both through pure mystery.

Primarily, Colburn’s work relates to the nature of art itself.  While inseparable from the world, art defies certain meaning despite the bombardment of interpretive discourse extant in various media.  Instead its power originates from the epistemological possibilities it can inspire in the viewer—all in spite of contemporary media’s mission of mass determination.

An obelisk is like a tombstone. It stands for an event that has been named, buried, and rebuts contest on the land of the site.  However, Colburn’s floats above the ground—the event that’s there is the artistic possibility that is ever present fecund, and never nailed down.


About the Author:

Sarah Kim is a freelance artist and writer based in Philadelphia.
She writes for ArtSlant Contemporary Art Network
and contributes to mono.kultur (Berlin) and Philadelphia Printworks.  

 To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Kim_Sarah_Nov_2014

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