newton's cradle

Newton's Cradle reviewed by Steve Mannheimer

"One large Caveat: Extended viewing may or may not yield definitive readings of this complex arrangement of suspended bowling balls, grass seed, an automatic garage door opener and a medicine cabinet. Viewers are invited to activate the installation by pushing the opener's remote control, setting in motion the last bowling ball in a row of 15, which eventually bumps the next-to-last and thus bounces the one at the opposite end while those in between stay motionless. Meanwhile, a string attached to the first ball slowly draws open a medicine cabinet on a nearby wall, revealing a bowling pin, and a teacup of grass seed.

Masculine commentary? At first glance, there is humor and social commentary: Are not the garage, the bowling balls and grass seed the telltale clues of your basic all-american man-about-the-house? Further: The row of balls may remind some viewers of that classic, mindlessly clicking "execu-toy" or desk ornament popular a few years back. In that, the end balls in a suspended row of chrome ball bearings would swing back and forth alternating as one's momentum was transferred through the stationary row the other end. Is that it? Combined, these two readings translate as a send-up of suburban, white-collar masculinity, a scaled-up interpretation of the vacuousness of their daily and seasonal rituals. This is a plausible reading but not quite enough. Call it the subject but not the content of Skaggs' installation. The mood of the piece, to the extent that this arrangement might be said to have an emotional texture or atmosphere, is rather less scathing and instead more poetic than might be expected. An uncertain delicacy pervades it, a distant dreaminess arising from Skaggs' handling of the hard, heavy and cantankerous as if it were light and soft. Moreover, the cause-and-effect of it all implies some great stretch from the mechanical to the natural, with the muffled music of the spheres hanging in between.

What does it mean? In short, there may be more things in heaven and garages, Horatio, than is dreamt of in our philosophy. Despite the goofy obviousness of the separate elements, the whole machinery eludes any pat explanation. It is a Rube Goberg-ish venture into metaphysics, culminating in a hint of salvation. Skaggs suggests a natural medicine for the mechanical humdrum of American life, the renewal implicit in these seeds of grass. Despite--or perhaps because of--the modesty of its ingredients, this is an almost Whitmanesque vision. In this, Skaggs demonstrates her familiarity with so much of contemporary installation art. Like so much of that, she begins with the well-known and with it builds a metaphoric edifice into the ineffable, into poignant absurdity, into the wistfulness of a world made of mute but ever-present things through which we know most of what we can know.

Implicit in work such as Skaggs' is also the assumption that the world can be known, basically because it is envisioned as a machine and thus, presumably, governed by dependable laws that bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, that every action is followed by equal and opposite reaction--in other words, by Newton's laws of motion."