Food for thought
Artist Corin Hewitt creates a gesamtkunstwerk for still lifes.
Tue Sep 30 2008
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 short, “Powers of 10,” starts with an overhead close-up of a couple lying on a beach blanket on the banks of Lake Michigan. The camera then zooms out by factors of ten until it appears to be stationed in space, before speeding back down again. A conversation with artist Corin Hewitt, 37, is the verbal equivalent of that film. Weighing in on his work, the artist moves with fluidity and alacrity between big picture and small, focusing on how each detail or medium functions in his complex performances, both on micro and macro levels.
Starting Friday 3 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Hewitt will mount a three-month-and-one-day performance-installation titled Seed Stage in the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Lobby Gallery, just off the museum’s main entrance. Part theater, part pantry, part active still life, the physical piece is a stage set with multiple parts, including a kitchen with a fridge and a root cellar, giant shelving units and a pulley system for hauling goods, all surrounded by nine-foot walls in a closed-off space within the gallery. Hewitt will spend at least three days a week there, cooking, canning vegetables and making artwork, either by casting or manipulating a series of bought and fabricated materials. Visitors will be able to peek at this activity through seven-foot gaps cut into the corners of the room. Seed Stage revisits themes that have preoccupied the artist since childhood, and which he first began to explore through performance at art school, both as an undergraduate at Oberlin and as an M.F.A. student at Bard.
Hewitt conceives of his presentations as a corralling of circumstances rather than a fixed set of events, a continuum of activity into which he inserts his own presence. Citing as an influence Roland Barthes’s seminal book on photography, Camera Lucida, Hewitt says that the shape of Seed Stage took form as a solution to a problem he was attempting to solve for his graduate-school thesis. “I was trying to create a situation in which there was a fusion of the organic and the inorganic, both in space and in time,” he explains. “I wanted to close the gap between the history of the object and the history of the image of the object.”
Hewitt settled on still life as a subject, creating a room filled with food alongside things like souvenirs from his travels. He then realized that the act of adding himself to the tableaux was a logical extension of creating them in the first place. Over time, he’d allow his setups to rot, taking photos of the results that both documented the work and became an integral element of it. Photography turned into a way to capture how the piece existed at one moment in time; the camera enables Hewitt to play the role of steward along the developing course of his mutable pieces.
Hewitt grew up in Vermont, in the wake of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s and ’70s: “My parents tried to grow as much of our food as possible.” He laughs: “It could be incredibly frustrating sometimes.” The artist’s roots manifest themselves in numerous ways in Seed Stage. In one section, 1,000 worms, which Hewitt has been raising all summer, will do their composting thing. In a conceptual twist, Hewitt plans to make prints of the photos he shoots of his still lifes and feed them to the worms. The residue will be extracted after it’s undergone a good chew and reincorporated into the installation. Images taken over the course of this process will periodically be mounted on the walls of the gallery outside the self-contained stage set. This cyclical element provides yet another metaphor for a way of life that eschews compartmentalization in favor of continuity.
All of Hewitt’s activities resonate with the radical echoes of homegrown activism. Indeed, Seed Stage is, in part, about the artist literally touching every aspect of the work himself. At no two points in time will the piece be the same, prompting Hewitt to say, “My hope is that people could come back and visit at least twice.”