The Berlin Wall sits in my desk drawer.
Well, a tiny piece of it, anyway. It’s in a small, zip-locked bag with a certificate of authenticity. I acquired it by correctly answering a question posed on a program broadcast by the shortwave radio station Radio Deutsche Welle in 1989 as the Wall fell, and the two Germanys moved toward reconciliation.
Walls. We’re damn fond of them, and they are of course exceptionally useful in terms of keepings things either in or out. And they have a devastatingly political dimension, as the Berlin Wall so capably demonstrated through the latter part of the twentieth century, and as other political walls – the one separating much of Mexico from the United States, the one separating Israelis from Palestinians, separating Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland, etc. – continue to show.
That political aspect can clearly inform sculptural work based around the idea of the wall. And it has with the work of Toronto-based artist Ryan Legassicke.
So time for full disclosure: I’ve previously worked with Legassicke on a couple of occasions, including his work in a group show I curated back in 2003, and then curating him in a solo exhibition in 2007. Those earlier exhibitions had nothing to do with walls, and indeed, the first had everything to do with a simple bench.
Legassicke has an educational background that cuts across the conventional categories we like to employ – like “fine art” and “craft.” Legassicke originally studied furniture design at Sheridan College just outside of Toronto, a school renowned its design and ceramics programs, amongst others. He moved on to the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary in 2002 to study glass and sculpture, but not before having created the work that brought him to my attention.
This is Wood isn’t a complex piece. Essentially it comprises three separate chunks of soft maple wood – long, lateral slices cut from the trunk of a tree, bark still adhering to their narrow edges – that are assembled together to make a simple bench. One section of wood is set on edge, part of it resting on the floor, and held in position and stabilized with a short vertical piece of wood at one end notched into it at right angles. And the sitting part of the bench comprises another slice of maple set horizontally and itself intersecting at right angles with first long piece. Simple, and yet so much going on. At over four meters in length, it’s a fairly massive work that doesn’t really speak to another quality it contains: it has a certain musicality to it. The wood slab of the seat connected to the rest of the work at but one end means that it can reverberate, like a ruler held along the edge of a table. Okay, maybe it’s not “musical.” Perhaps “proto-musical.”
In 2009 Legassicke received his MFA from SUNY-Buffalo, and it’s here where walls began to come into focus.
In the early 1970s, in the heyday of the split between East and West, an East German psychiatrist attempted to describe, in an encompassing way, the variety of mental illnesses apparently suffered by his compatriots who had to deal with the monolithic presence of the Berlin Wall on a daily basis. He called it “Wall Disease.”
It’s a concept central to Legassicke’s sculptural work over this, the second decade of the new millennium. In 2011, he installed States of Security/Security States along the outer wall of the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a facility closed at about the same time as “Wall Disease” was first described over forty years ago. It’s a wall-hung work depicting, in 1:1 scale image form, a kind of “penal” sculpture – the sculpture of the wall. Legassicke depicted, in full-scale cross-sections, the walls that separated West from East Berlin, the USA/Mexico Border Fence in Arizona, the Israel West Bank Separation Barrier, the Peace Line Walls of Northern Ireland, and, interestingly, the temporary security fence installed in downtown Toronto during the G20 Summit in 2010 that cordoned off a large chunk of the city core from its inhabitants.
Images iterated were soon reiterated, becoming sculptural works, in and of their own right, with Shadows: Wall Disease. These pieces – again, replicating at a 1:1 scale the originals, range in height from the closely human size to tall monoliths that can’t help but evoke the mysterious monoliths of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Legassicke’s aren’t about sparking intelligence and leading humanity away from its cozy nest on earth. They’re about the shape and power of political and social containment. Unlike some of the walls on which they are based, Legassicke’s Shadows have a certain transparency to them; made of metal frames, they’re wrapped in black metal mesh. They obscure the other side of things, but don’t make it unobservable. But they of course carry the meaningful weight of what separation entails. You may see through them, but you certainly can’t touch what’s there.
Legassicke mounted them out-of-doors as part of an exhibition with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in New York City in 2014. In the context of the urban garden in which they were shown, black monolithic structures rising amidst (and high above) trees and plants in this small oasis made the pieces even more sinister and disruptive. They uncomfortably intrude into the natural and social milieu of urban place. Legassicke has exhibited them indoors, as well, showing them at the Sculpture Centre in Cleveland last year. Too large to fit inside in the state in which they appear out-of-doors, he laid them on their sides, making the gallery space claustrophobic and crammed, forming a kind of maze through which one must perilously navigate.
Wherever and however he’s exhibited them, Ryan Legassicke’s walls are true to the intentions of the makers of the originals on which his works are based. And like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, commissioned for, installed at, and then removed from the Foley Federal Plaza in New York City after a protracted legal battle, Legassicke’s walls transgress and disrupt, aesthetically reshaping spaces – not necessarily in the ways we might want it to occur.
Fences – walls – tend to do that.
By Gil McElroy
For further information, check out www.ryanlegassicke.com