Joan Tanner at Suyama Space
“So, they’re setting up in here?” a woman asked her companion as they walked onto the rough wood-planked floors of the Suyama Space gallery and stood beneath the ceiling’s open beams and metal piping, the windows above letting in the mild winter light. “No, this is the exhibition,” he answered. He gestured to the assembly that stood before them, to the vertical structures of wood, sheet metal, and industrial-grade sandpaper cladding. She looked at them and then to a bundle of orange plastic webbing, then past faceted blue foam shapes resembling traffic lights or security cameras to sheets of Quick-Step Unisound, normally used to underlay and absorb the sound of walking on laminate flooring and here folded and unfurling against the far wall. “Are you sure?” She asked dubiously. “Yes, this is it.” She stepped around uncertainly, tentative on her feet. Several yards away, and walking about slowly myself, I smiled in recognition.
I had walked to Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood and Suyama Space from nearby South Lake Union, past cranes, past scaffolding, past the metal armatures that will soon support Amazon’s biospheres, and past the Jersey barriers, chain link fences, and orange plastic webbing that keep my relationship with Seattle’s rampant construction one of proximity but never intimacy.
Arriving at Suyama Space, I found that Joan Tanner’s installation, The False Spectator, did not invite easy entrée. “The pieces rove,” the California artist writes of her show, “spill away and reconfigure in opposition…My hope is to evoke an embedded theater, an obstreperous discombobulation depositing shape change and breaching gaps to reflect universal displacement; a dilemma generating geographical impermanence that challenges the preeminence of the mega-scape to sift and sort and solve.” And, finally, tellingly: “[The false spectator does not divine.]” But in The False Spectator, I didn’t feel a spectator at all. I was, rather, more exposed participant than disinterested observer. Little clear caps protected my arms and eyes from the installation’s protruding extremities as I moved past, but, I noticed, were left bare above. As I walked among Tanner’s imposing masses, I heard in the heaving sigh of the floor beneath the weight of each step.
As I stepped, I thought of director Jacques Tati and the glass and steel mini-city he built on the outskirts of Paris to shoot his 1967 film Playtime. The film is a series of jokes about modern architecture and the overwrought routines and choreographies of consumerism and global capitalism. Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself, steps cautiously in this automated, abstracted world, umbrella in hand. Like the woman in Tanner’s installation, he is tentative on his feet, but he is wary not of the imposing physicality of his surroundings as she was but of their glossy deceptiveness and immateriality. Near the end of the film, things—the interior architecture and décor of an upscale bistro—literally fall apart. The film became a critical success but a commercial failure, and when it was all said and done, Tati’s cinema town near Vincennes, like the restaurant in that penultimate scene, was dismantled. On the other side of Paris, the business district of La Défense grew in the coming decades, adopting similarly sleek materials and an analogous architectural language. “I would probably have done better to wait for five or six years and go and settle at La Défense where, in fact, they rebuilt the set of Playtime,” Tati later joked.
Tanner’s installation, like Seattle, like Paris, like Tati’s enormous set, is a staging ground. But in its bare industrial materials, in its seemingly impromptu arrangement, The False Spectator is deliberately makeshift. It will never become the mega-scape of Amazon’s urban campus, soon-to-be cleaned-up and opened for business, or have the polish of La Défense, which realized Tati’s parody of modernism on a vast scale. The False Spectator is an invitation, instead, to step in from the safe distance of spectator and experience industrial materials close at hand and even overhead, to build associations with the provisional process of construction, and to register and recognize the ebbs and flows of making and unmaking happening so quickly all around us, as we try to find our footing.
Tanner’s The False Spectator is on view through April 15, 2016. Suyama Space, which once housed a livery stable and later an automobile repair shop, has, for the last nineteen years, served as a nonprofit space for experimental installations. It will close at the end of 2016.
Joan Tanner: The False Spectator is on view at Suyama Space in Seattle until April 15th, 2016.
Images courtesy of Suyama Space. Photos: Mark Woods.