Homesick For Nowhere, Performing For No One: Vacancies & Vortexes at Skylab Gallery

The romanticization of a road trip always depends on the destination – no matter what people say about how it’s not the destination, it’s the journey – blah, blah, blah. We’re suckers for glorifying the end of the road and transcending space and time in a fast moving car. We let the windows become blurry movie screens that hold places for our visualization of what it will be like to have arrived.  

Anticipating one’s arrival isn’t overrated, it is expected. Grant Gill had been expecting his arrival to the Four Corners Monument since 2013 when he decided he wanted to make a photograph of four people playing four square at the Four Corners Monument, the concrete platform that brings the four states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona into one accessible conversion.

For Gill, that the idea for the photograph had always been a one liner – just one that took a very long time to get to, and required a road trip with three other people to make possible. He wanted to facilitate the right kind of environment, knowing that a road trip would require trust and comfortability between riders in close quarters for an extended period of time. He invited close friends Kyle Seis, Cody Powers, and Zach Hill to test their compatibility so they could mutually decide whether or not they wanted to hit the road together.

They did.

Once the group was formed and the destination was set, the next hurdle was figuring out how to finance the trip. So, in generous Midwest fashion, the four collaborators proposed to make postcards from the road for $3.00 a piece, resulting in the postcard project Exit 373: A Dream Died Here. Friends, families, and community members paid via Paypal and emailed their home addresses, allowing for the money to go straight into their gas tanks and fund dinners at diners on highway exits. The postcards were the first physical work to manifest from the transience of their travel.

Back in 2013, I was lucky to be with Zach Hill for a two week road trip in a twelve-passenger van as we explored monumental Land Art works across the American Southwest. Not knowing him much then, I remember being curious when he turned his handheld camera on himself like a visual diary and talked into it at every destination we visited. We discussed what the Selfie has become and how turning a handheld point-and-shoot on yourself (rather than your cell phone) seemed outdated. We questioned the portraits of people with beautiful landscapes behind them, hardly looking at the scene themselves as they held out their arm as far away as possible and took the photo in front of the captivating backdrop. One thing the Selfie has done is eliminate the need for human interaction at these destinations. Previously, you would ask a stranger to take your photo and propose a trade of sorts. Now, we are Self-sufficient – and I don’t think that is a positive thing.

The desire to find the Self has continued for Zach. He still intimately turns the camera on himself to examine the subtle changes over the past couple of years. In the current exhibition “Vacancies and Vortexes” at Skylab Gallery, his most recent short film, 3PM Ghost Rush Part 2, documents the most recent big change – living life as an art-school graduate. He takes the screen with Grant, Kyle, and Cody who all play accessible characters that reek of apathy and hopeful transformation at the same time. Hill questions what he should do next, and asks an ambiguous narrator to explain the unexplainable to him.

Kyle Seis, another competitor of the four square game, had a proposal for other places to go that would help him continue his research and interest in what pushes people to believe when the unexplainable can’t be explained. Growing up Catholic, he was less interested in blind faith and instead curious about the mysticism of it; rituals that produce relics and relics that produce artifacts – artifacts that then become charged objects and turn blind faith into concrete faith, like the rosaries I kept after my grandparents passed away that held fingernail clippings of Saints, or the relic at the Natural History Museum in New York City that displays a supposed splinter from the crucifix where Jesus died.

These charged objects were plentiful in Hooper, Colorado at the UFO Watch Tower’s vortex gardens. The watchtower is defined by rocks and treasures that are said to outline two vortexes on the grounds, regarded as entrances to other universes. Although photography is his usual medium, Seis opted to work more sculpturally for this show to simulate the pull of the vortexes he visited. Right off of the Cosmic Highway is a UFO Watch Tower, gift shop, vortex garden, and campsite where locals and visitors from around the world can watch the night sky for saucers and strange lights. During our studio visit Kyle showed me pictures of bread that they left outside the tent before going to sleep as a message to the aliens that they were staying the night and coming in peace. The next morning the bread was gone and the boys believed.

Looking at the different cities that fell on the route out to the Four Corners Monument, Cody Powers (the fourth member of the four corners game) chose to stop at the infamous Springfield (Nebraska). Curious about it being named after the capital of Illinois, he stopped in the city with a population under 2,000 that, according to Wikipedia, still has a classic soda fountain at the Community Drug Store. Wikipedia uses disambiguation when there are multiple listings of identical words, places, and people. Powers disambiguated Springfield (Nebraska) while asking locals about the best places to visit while in town. Powers learned the town was named to confuse immigrants, luring them to the doubly named city in hopes of expanding their population, but (sitting on the outskirts of Omaha as your typical American drive-through town) never reached the population it hoped for after naming itself. After visiting the locals’ recommendations, Powers based castings of the buildings into sandcastle molds. These molds function as a way to monumentalize the small town—in tandem, shedding the ambiguity Springfield was currently existing in.

Opposite of Springfield, the Four Corners Monument is a destination (rather than a drive-through town) and two-hours away from almost anything. Everyone wants to rush to be in four places at once, but once they are there they rarely stop to participate in the spectacle that the monument has attempted to create. Once a platform that was elevated and surrounded by stairs, the monument now takes on the form of an arena with surround seating.  

As the boys began their long anticipated game of foursquare the benches that circle the faux stage were vacant. Visitors seemed uninterested in the game that had been two years in the making. Instead, they formed a line and tapped their toes as they waited for their turn with cameras hanging around their necks. The added pressure of the impatient audience challenged the carefully orchestrated game and created a vortex all its own – a performance for audience members that did not view the monument as a theater.

It wasn’t just at the Four Corners Monument that the boys appeared to be performing for no one but rather the whole trip west – blurring into the roadside attractions as another spectacle of strange happenings that lack context for viewers. Unapologetically filming, photographing, dancing, and gaming, their trip was packed with Self-fulling actions that would produce a body of work.

Their exhibition “Vacancies and Vortexes” at Skylab Gallery in Columbus, Ohio is a montage to charged objects and empty spaces and reads more like a roadside attraction than a fine art exhibition. Filled with artifacts, relics, and stories that feel like folklore, these Milwaukee artists are sharing their new body of work with a Midwestern city outside of Wisconsin – continuing the road trip and refusing a homecoming.




Vacancies & Vortexes is currently on view at Skylab Gallery in Columbus, Ohio until January 25th.

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