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Review: Conceptual Art in a Conceptual Art Space

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2013 - Bringing to mind Churchill’s description of the Russian national interest in 1939 as “ a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” (did you know where that was from?), Christopher Chiappa’s 54-minute video Hermit Crab viewed from within the 7’ x 7’ x 9’ Isolation Room/Gallery Kit is a complex experience that raises intriguing questions about the nature of art participation.

Chiappa’s film opens with scenes of the Queens skyline as seen from above his studio. Focus is on a circle penciled on the surface of a wooden board just in front of the camera. Chiappa brings in two shells, grabs his well-used glue gun and begins to adhere the shells together. Then many red-brown legs begin to emerge from the shells. The art materials are alive.

Chiappa places the two, now attached, hermit crabs onto his penciled ring and fumbles for another crab. He attaches this third shell to the first two, making certain the bond is secure and continues, on and on, until he has formed a large undulating wreath of shells. The legs emerge and disappear. The living wreath moves left across the board. The slight scurry of legs and the tapping of the shells punctuate the Queens traffic noise as Chiappa’s creation moves.

Chiappa has gained a reputation for clever, uncomfortable artwork. Discomfort viewing this film would be matched by the space in which it is viewed if the hosts, director Daniel McGrath and curator Dana Turkovic, were not who they are: distinguished experts in their field who enjoy shaping life/art experience.

To visit the Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, art enthusiasts must first unearth bravery and attach that (no glue gun necessary) to their enthusiasm. Turkovic points out that, in general, just entering a gallery – opening the door and walking into the either near-empty rooms or into the cosmopolitan clatter of an opening event – takes a degree of confidence. St. Louis galleries are generally welcoming spaces, none is exclusive. Yet, despite the warm welcome or casual nonchalance of curators and artists, planning the gallery visit and then entering does strike some as daunting.

The Isolation Room’s McGrath and Turkovic address this concern by combining the public art viewing space with their private domestic space. This means, yes, they invite you into their home to step up and into the small, closet-size space that is the Isolation Room.

To do so outside of opening events requires an appointment with the gallery hosts. An easier method of participation is to wait for the opening. The next exhibit is scheduled to run from Feb. 8-March 6 and will feature work by Yamini Nayar.

Sarah Hermes Griesbach is a freelance writer.

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