BODIES IN MOTION A former car part laborer performs his daily gestures in Jesse Sugarmann’s We Build Excitement.
The automobile is a thing of great ambivalence. On one hand, it’s contributed to catastrophic and virtually irreversible climate change, enabled the limitless profiteering of the oil industry, and served as symbolic fuel for a lot of dumb notions of masculinity. On the other, if you’re an American between the ages of 16 and 99, life’s most pivotal moments would have been impossible without them, whether they provided transport, escape, or a soft, cushiony interior.
The notion that cars are an irreducible part of our cultural make-up is the inspiration behind the work of Jesse Sugarmann, an artist from Bakersfield, California. His video installation on view at SPACE Gallery, titled We Build Excitement, hauntingly asks us to consider the indelible marks that automobiles—and our dependency on them—have made on American life. A three-channel video installation projected onto the gallery walls, Sugarmann uses tells a big-picture story about the collapse and shuttering of the Pontiac Motor Division in 2010, and by proxy, the decline of American auto as a whole.
The body of a vehicle has an intimate relationship with the body of a person. To drive a car, humans curl into semi-fetal positions; to build one, they perform endless physical repetitions; to collide with one could mean death or dismemberment. Such a precarious agent commands respect, and Sugarmann’s project rightly attempts to convey the emotional weight automobiles exert upon the lives of their users. Participants in the these videos perform their interactions through gesture and story—a little old woman in a denim jacket mimes the screwing and unscrewing of nuts, bolts, and geroders; a younger man attempts multiple verbal accounts of a time his car malfunctioned, acting out the vehicle’s shocks and sputters before he play-acts a dive out the driver’s side.
Sugarmann’s masterstroke, the genius of which is only partially captured in video format, is his resuscitation of the abandoned Pontiac dealerships themselves into sites of bizarre cultural memory. At the old lots, Sugarmann has mounted and propped up vehicles onto large metallic pedestals, their noses and rears awkwardly aimed at 60 degree angles. It’s an absurd deformation of the vehicle’s body that mirrors, in part, the contortions enacted upon countless consumers, makers, and obsessives over its shelf life. Like readymade sculpture, it expands the definition of what art could be in American cultural terrain writ large, encompassing the strategic restructuring of sites in remote America that corporate entities have long since jettisoned for more profitable sectors.
While the propped-up cars are an effective conceit, and the exhibit’s relative silence makes for a stark and haunting experience, We Build Excitement might benefit from a few more human subjects. Sugarmann’s three videos of varying length, 12 to 44 minutes, only feature a handful of actors, and detailed shots of inert Pontiac dealerships make up a slightly heavy percentage of its running time.
But like the hardbodied Pontiac itself, the exhibit doesn’t need much impact to make a dent. Sugarmann’s fixation with the auto industry and its aftershocks may have its roots in a personal hobby, but when its all said and done, this is a show about labor, the sweat and toil induced by our love of cars, and the emptiness of being that strangely follows without them.
“We Build Excitement,” video installation by Jesse Sugarmann | Through December 5 | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | 207.828.5600 | space538.org
AN AERIAL VIEW Stills from Jesse Sugarmann’s Pontiac dealerships.