By Denise Stewart-Sanabria
When you entered the Knoxville Museum of Art’s main entrance during the exhibition Contemporary Focus 2016: John Powers (May 6 – August 7, 2016), you could already hear the sounds emanating from the gallery space. The sounds were not unlike something coming from a vintage horror movie: the voices of the damned as they entered an endless inferno, or the screams and moans of the banshees.
The reason for the lack of any discernible words became obvious when you saw the source of the sound- dozens of metal rods rotating inside the mechanized arms of a massive wooden sculpture. Powers’ installation consisted of the kinetic sculpture, Locus (2015), made from oak, poplar, aspen, steel, brass, plastic and electric motor, Revenant (2014), video projection, and Omphalos (2010), carved marble and feathers.
Locus inhabited the front/center gallery space, with Revenant playing in a loop on the full wall behind it. Omphalos stood sentinel in the rear of the gallery. Though Revenant appeared to be a video, it was in fact an animated accumulation of multiple pinhole photographs. It was projected in mirror images by two projectors, creating a panoramic format. I interviewed Powers to see how the magic is made.
DSS: It looks like you grew up buying Popular Mechanics magazines instead of comic books?
JP: Yeah (laughs). I read both. I grew up taking things apart. I was interested in knowing how things worked. It started pretty early on- an interest in dismantling things. Things grew out of that.
So you were destructive?
Ummm- no NO! It was more like when the weed eater stopped working, instead of it going in the trash they’d let me take it apart. Things like that. Unlike my older brother- he dismantled the Rubik’s Cube when it was still perfectly functional.
I’ve been looking at how you constructed Locus, and there are all these separate arms coming out of a center radius. How many are there?
There are thirty-six spokes on this piece, not because it is a form of symbolism, but more like just the geometry of the piece. It was about how much of a space I could cut a U-joint for each articulated spoke with the row of waving reeds.
Do you know ahead of time what the noise your machines make will sound like?
At this point in time I have a pretty good idea. I’ve been making these for about ten years. There is a lot of trial and error that goes into them as well. So, with these thirty-six spokes, there was a model made of just one spoke so you can get the fine-tuning done.
Where does the sound in this one come from?
The noise you hear comes from the main point of articulation out of the camshaft- you’ve got a metal rod against a piece of wood with no lubrication in between. A similar idea is how a violin bow generates tone on a violin string. You’ve got one thing pulling and another creating vibration.
Did you intend for it to sound like screaming banshees and souls of the damned?
(Laughs) What I like about the sound is that it could be that, or it could just be marsh life as an abstract sound that gets read in combination with the object and the imagery, so there is some openness to it.
The waving reeds you have on this piece are similar to the ones you had on a previous piece, Field of Reeds. Are you still working with marshes and organic systems?
That is kind of the core work from my studio over the last several years. It started with an inquiry into imagery of Elysian Fields and the afterlife, and of the landscape of the Midwest where I spent my childhood, and thinking about the combination of those two things. I’ve been thinking about how we react to a field of grain- as a child it is just a playground and it can become anything you want and is a blank slate for a child’s imagination so I’ve hybridized those two things.
How do the three pieces in this installation connect each other?
The three pieces all have a schematic point of connection. When I first talked with Stephen (Stephen Wicks, curator, Knoxville Museum of Art) about what pieces he was interested in, he immediately understood how important empty space was for the work, and he requested one of the big moving objects and some video feed, and maybe one other, and before anything was even in the museum he knew it was the right amount of work. Thematically, I think the idea of “centering”, or “the center” and the idea of unseen forces are present in all three pieces.
In the center of all these spokes, you have a stacked pyramid of circular cut wood. Is there something significant about that?
Yes, the overall structure of that piece is working from the idea of the lineage of the field of grain, and thinking also about the idea of air currants or ocean currents and how kelp moves under the water. Taking those ideas of motion and then looking at historical architectural structures like burial mounds, the stack of disks you see in the middle is a very direct nod to the architectural structure of a Buddhist stupa (burial structure containing relics and remains).
When you build these mechanized sculptures, do you intend them to be some kind of living, breathing mechanical creature?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that that is the “want” when I’m making them, but I like that people respond to them that way. What I’m most interested in doing with these pieces is seeing how a time based element points back at the viewer, maybe subliminally or subconsciously. When you look at a static object there is a separation between the viewer and the object that give a suspension of belief. This works with a movie but works differently with a moving object that is physically occupying the same space as you. It is kind of enunciating back at you, so you are moving side by side with it, as it is mirroring your temporal reality: where a carved stone piece exists separately from you. That is what I’m most interested in with the time based work, is the way it looks back and points back at the viewer.
Your kinetic sculptures are always run by these simple-looking motors. What are they?
Most of them now are from a company in Chicago that I work with a lot where I’ll special order one, and they are typically the type made for industrial….something, but I’m looking for something fairly specific like rotational speed or range, and I generally have an idea of how much torque I’ll need, so I’ll order one made to those specifications.
Do they ever fail?
Well, they are machines, so things wear out, but for the most part they are fairly robust. I think I’ve had only one motor burn out over the last several years, but they are made to do much more work than run my sculpture.
This whole piece is in modular sections, right?
Yes- I learned a long time ago that two lessons as a sculptor: One, don’t make anything that you can’t move by yourself, and two, that you should never make anything that doesn’t fit through a standard size door. This piece is around twenty-two feet in diameter, but it comes apart, if you count the reeds, into over 1,000 pieces. The main ring disassembles, all the spokes come apart, all the reeds come out, the motor detaches. It goes into five or six refrigerator size crates.
Are they numbered and everything so you don’t screw up?
The main pieces are numbered because they fit together nicely in a very specific way, and it’s less a headache to keep them organized rather than puzzle it out.
Revenant appears to be a video, but it is actually an animation of a mausoleum angel backed with dark, scudding clouds, projected on the wall with two projectors. How was this made?
It is a two and a half minute loop of individual pinhole camera images- I don’t remember how many. It’s about a dozen frames per second. It’s an animation made of pinhole photographs done with a digital SLR camera with a pinhole lens on a body cap with the ISO set to very high virtual film speed so you can have very short exposures, which is not possible with analog photography. This particular animation was done in New Orleans when I was down at the Joan Mitchell Center for a residency a few years ago. They were shot in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 over the course of a week of going out there for the better part of each day and shooting—it’s all done manually. I had a metronome setting on my IPhone that I was shooting from so the spacing would be more or less consistent.
How does the stone and feather sculpture Omphalos, which stands at the back of the gallery, relate to the other two pieces?
I like that this is the only one of the three that isn’t moving. It is what is visible first when you approach the gallery so you can hear Locus but you see Omphalos. There are some simple ideas with that piece, kind of hard and soft, masculine and feminine, but it is a really quiet piece in a lot of ways. I like that the quiet piece is the anchor and introduction to this show. You can revisit it again at the end.
What are you working on now, especially since you have a year to goof-off from teaching at the University of Tennessee/Knoxville since you received a Guggenheim grant?
(Laughs) Oh, pretty much lots of beer and pizza! No, there’s lots of work on the drawing board and it’s nice to know that having this window of time is such a luxury, and to not feel frantic for once. So the work on the drawing board I can, for once, work through slowly, but still keep the pedal to the metal because there is this deadline coming up with just some light obligations in between. I can just combine studio and family for a little while.
Denise Stewart-Sanabria is a Knoxville based artist and writer.