Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jessica Burnside's Spider

For whatever reason(s), about 3 weeks ago I was on the third floor of the IUPUI library when I looked out over the atrium and noticed a big spider hanging there. How did I get all the way up there and not see the spider?

How long have there been sculptures installed in this space by Herron students?

I didn’t know what to think; I read the artist’s statement glued to the concrete post. It made a lot of sense, this statement and this spider. I watched it spin slowly. The piece is called Threat Level Orange.

Jessica Burnside made it; she’s a senior in the Sculpture BFA program at Herron. Here's a link to a press release about the spider (that's all I could find).

Taking matters into my own hands, I went and made a video that shows the installation and then asked Jessica a few questions about the work via e-mail. Note: the spider will come down some time next month and a new installation will go up (what it is, I don't know).

First, here’s the video (never mind the choppy cuts – my goal is to do only one take):

Here’s the interview:

First: a short bio, please.

I was born here in Indiana and have lived here all my life. I live in Franklin with my husband and two children and most recently, a new dog. I am working on a sculpture BFA at Herron and plan on graduating next May.

I'm interested to know about how you arrived at the idea of making a spider for the IUPUI library. Do you remember how and when you came up with this idea? Did the competition generate the idea or did you have it before then?

I was already interested in making large-scale spiders. I have a completely irrational fear of spiders and wanted to make one that was in scale with my fear of it. It was (and still is) also representative of the fears that hang over us as a society.

This was back when we were still getting regular threat level adjustments and daily news reports of the next thing that’s going to kill us all. (SARS, bird flu, biological attacks, suspicious box trucks, catastrophic power grid failure, bioengineered food; the list goes on- remember when duct tape was going to save us from smallpox?) We had irrational fears about everything then. I still have trouble deciding if they are legitimate or overblown. Lately our news reports have been refocused on the latest piece of lint found on the presidential candidates’ jackets, but I anticipate a return to the fear mongering after the election

Did you ever consider making the spider from different materials?

When I checked out the atrium space I was most impressed by the available light. The piece that hung there before was darker and filled the space more. I thought a sparkly chandelier would be perfect for the space. (I’m a sucker for shiny things. My husband says that shopping with me is impossible; I’m constantly distracted by pretty things the way a dog can’t pass up a tree.) While I wasn’t interested in making chandeliers, I decided to apply the clear and reflective quality of a chandelier to the spider. I was also happy with this material because it worked well for the spider being a representation of other social fears. It is unavoidably large and obtrusive, yet also transparent and ignorable. It was structurally a good choice because of the volume I could create for relatively low weight. Polycarbonate has the same transparent quality of Plexiglas, but is stronger and more flexible.

The spider is transparent but still quite visible. And though it looks like very much like a spider, it also has an angular and geometric form-- the legs have sharp angles and the locations at which the legs attach to the body appear almost like eight, square boxes on the underside of the thorax. Can you talk about some of your decisions in making the spider look the way it does?

I wanted it to be a faithful enough representation that no one could say, “That’s not what a spider looks like.” But since my fear of spiders isn’t based on an exact representation, I didn’t feel any need to make it a replica. The first model was comically inaccurate, with the legs coming out of the sides of the body. A little research showed me that the legs look more like a crab’s legs, all coming out underneath. The shapes that make up the head and abdomen are what come out of my pen when I’m doodling.

Many of the decisions were made for structural reasons. The legs and inner ribs are especially structurally necessary. The boxes where the legs attach were one of the last design elements and also somewhat surprising. Working with polycarbonate is a bit like having a surprise reveal at the end of making a piece. The whole time I was working on it, it was covered in protective white plastic to prevent scratching. It seemed like a solid thing. The day we installed it, we pulled all that plastic off and the solid piece I’d spent all this time with just disappeared. The boxes for the legs weren’t that obvious when they were covered, but the light really reflects there now and draws your eye.

The atrium of the IUPUI library is a large and fairly complex space. Do you think that your spider would work in the same way if it were installed some place else?

During the assembly, I kept imagining walking under this piece. The atrium offers three levels to view the spider from and it never occurred to me that from the top level you’d be looking down on it. I love that it looks so different from each floor. There is also Plexi on the railing and stairs there that echoes the piece. I’m sure it would work very differently in a darker space. Walking under the piece is necessary for my intention, but I am most satisfied looking at it from the side. Just as there were pleasantly surprising views in the library, I am sure there would be equally unexpected but pleasing opportunities in a different space.

In what ways has the experience of making this spider (and winning the competition) affected they way that you work?

For a little while I wanted to make work that wasn’t overwhelming. It was very satisfying to be so immersed in making a piece, but my family and other work suffered for it. It was also hard for me to figure out ‘the next thing’. Jumping from a big public installation with a budget back to schoolwork and no budget was difficult. I got ‘artist’s block’ or something that I’m just recently coming out of. I’ve had an interesting year of growing as an artist and trying to figure out what kind of work I am led to make.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a few pieces that have been rolling around in my brain for a while. One project is some cows that I’ve been working on casting. I use animals frequently in my work. With human figures you get so caught up in the aesthetic of the representation that it’s easy to pass over other levels of engagement.

Another is a meat hand that addresses personal sacrifice. I hear myself trying to explain it and I think I sound like the woman who lived next door for years and seemed so normal…

1 Responses to “Jessica Burnside's Spider”

Christopher said...
April 15, 2008 at 10:15 AM

Thanks for the heads up Richard. I'm going to check it out over lunch today.

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