Clichés being what they are, I’ll nevertheless risk one and say: it’s an image that looks like something out of a bad science fiction movie. A late-model car, otherwise innocuously (if somewhat illegally) parked in a No Parking Zone, has been, well, “cleaved” shall we say, by, of all things, a satellite. And not just any old satellite. Resting atop the remains of the vehicle’s badly dented roof, it’s Sputnik, the very first satellite, put up into orbit by the Soviets in 1957, circling the earth and emitting a beeping sound that was monitored by amateur radio operators around the world (oh, and the highly annoyed US military as well).
The real Sputnik did indeed fall back to earth. Well, in a way. It actually burned up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 1958, so there is no artefactual evidence of it around. But its aesthetic iteration – all polished and shiny and new, unmarred by the travails of atmospheric re-entry – marries it to a more earthbound vehicle (an Acura sedan, to be more specific) to comprise a work entitled Sputnik Returned #2 (2015) by Canadian sculptor Brandon Vickerd.
He’s a graduate of the redoubtable Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax (and how many times have I mentioned that institution in my past blogs) who went on to acquire his MFA at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and since the clocked ticked over into this new millennium has been exhibiting his work –sculpture and kinetic works – across Canada, the US, and Europe.
In a sense Vickerd’s work is about mythmaking. Certainly, Sputnik Returned #2 hints at it, but in its original incarnation, it’s more overt. Sputnik Returned (2013) concerns itself with the central artefact, of course – the classic satellite – but here it’s not one that’s crash-landed atop an automobile, but, instead, skidded to a stop in a field after having ploughed a long furrow in the earth courtesy the energy of its descent. The sky has fallen. Icarus has plummeted back to earth, his hubris quelled, nullified. The central myth of technology – that it can overcome, can transcend – has fallen, been shown to be fraudulent. Vickerd proffers us the aesthetic evidence, the aftermaths, if you will.
So that fall figures prominently in a number of Vickerd’s other sculptural work. Like the bronze piece, Monument to the First American in Space (2014). A steel chair atop an ornate wooden plinth (its ornateness shaping a resemblance to the capital from atop a column) holds the representational bronze space-suited figure – a skeleton, actually – which, of course, is not that of a male biped – look at the teeth – but possibly one of the rhesus monkeys which were sacrificed for the sake of science as space exploration was brand new. Albert was actually the first, riding aboard a German V2 rocket (war booty) and suffocating to death for his trouble in 1948. Or maybe it’s Ham, a chimpanzee who was the most famous of the original primate astronauts (as a child, I had a book about him), part of the Mercury program that got American men into space.
There’s a point to listing all of this information. Monuments are commemorative artefacts, and so definitions that circumscribe context are at issue. Most of us would of course be surprised to note that the Vickerd’s work doesn’t commemorate a member of the human species, but instead a close relative. It is very likely Ham, but without personal knowledge of the piece you can’t be sure, and anyway such specificity would tend to blur away the sacrifices of those who came before him. We tend to forget that spaceflight was never an entirely human achievement (and yes, I do mean that “passive” animal passengers contributed enormously), which actually raises another definitional question: what exactly do we mean by “spaceflight”? Go ahead, try and define it. It’s a tricky, liminal thing.
Vickerd’s Dead Astronaut (2008) has more clarity. Carved of wood, it is most decidedly human, the skeletal remains of a figure – indeterminately male or female – fully encased in its spacesuit, its tomb. Of note: it is standing, not prone, the body so stipulated, perhaps, owing to its massive and constraining cocoon of technology. Ghost Rider (2015) somewhat thematically carries this concept along further, a red fiberglass and metal figure, standing, encased from head to toe in the protective wear of a serious motorcycle racer. Only the absent visor on the helmet reveals the skull within, frail human muscle and flesh displaced by a more robust exoskeleton.
Much (though by no means all) of Brandon Vickerd’s sculptural work articulates how very much we have become creatures indelibly mediated by technology, our bodies aided and abetted by the outreach of technology, the proprioceptive capacity and quality of our flesh and blood increasingly nudged aside in favor of devices of subtler distinctions. In a sense, we’ve all become dead astronauts, ghost riders, wrapped up in technologies that while extending us, also displace us. The central myth of technology has indeed been rendered evident to us, but we’ve widely ignored. We’re in a strangely liminal state, now, and if our planet doesn’t collapse under the pressures we exert upon it, the zero point of our unnecessity creeps ever nearer.
The sky is falling.
By Gil McElroy