Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Ben Sang: A Matter of Scale

Ben Sang’s Gut Set at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

We may be done here. From time to time, a new effort in a human enterprise so fully exceeds what has gone before that it becomes impossible to speak of the new in the language that was adequate to discuss what came before. Imagine trying to explain to the curious what Copernicus was up to, or Galileo. To explain a moving, heliocentric universe to an audience comfortable with a stable system, one in which the Earth was the immobile center of God’s Creation and all things … EVERYthing … revolved in unchanging orbits around us, would have necessitated going back to basics and building over again from there. No half measures would do.

Yet half measures must follow. So then, imagine a group of artists who think of themselves, their lives, and their activities as their art. It’s not as if artists never before created in the same spirit in which they fixed and ate food, or conversed among themselves, or made love — the activity its own purpose and its own reward, not to be shared with the world beyond themselves and the moment of its happening. But when Ben Sang says he thinks curating the art of his colleagues (and friends) is indistinguishable from making his own art, but that he would never curate a show of his own work, any explanation of what he means and why he feels that way far exceeds the limits of a conventional review.

Here’s a metaphor. As humans pursue anything, the early stages, when the good stuff is just lying around, waiting to be found and picked up, are succeeded by increasingly more demanding and burdensome activity, including longer and longer spells spent in getting to where the work is actually being done: up the mountain to get near the sought-after peak, or down into the mine to reach the end of the tunnel. In Physics, for some time now, advances in knowledge have required accelerating familiar particles to insane velocities, crashing them together to break them apart, then picking through the rubble in order to find what unknown bits the known ones are made of.

In the gentler world of Ben Sang’s art, however, bringing familiar things together serves not to destroy them, but to reveal them through the combinations they make. For example, the Artist in Residence (or A.I.R.) Space, a room behind the main gallery, downstairs at UMOCA, has been used for many different exhibitions, sometimes hung entirely on the walls, sometimes placed on pedestals, sometimes filling the room like a thrift store extravaganza, at other times observing the decorum of a classic art gallery. Sang took an unprecedented approach, placing small objects directly on the floor and pinning a drawing of the near horizon and distant sky to the wall, and suddenly what had always been true but had gone unnoticed till now became apparent: the AIR space is shaped rather like the State of Utah, although inverted east to west. Not only that, but it resembles Utah in another way. Utah is the twelfth largest state in the Union, but despite being among the fastest growing in population, by civilian measure it’s still largely (and blissfully) empty.

Ben Sang, “White Pocket and Zombie Buffalo”

Meanwhile, in the AIR, it’s unnecessary to urge starting with the drawing, which is the only work at eye level and so dominates the room. It’s curious to stand in the gallery and watch visitors come in, glance at this drawing — which elaborately represents a place few will ever see in person, and those who do will spend hours trekking through challenging country to reach — and then casually walk away. White Pocket, in Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, is a standout feature among many phenomenal geological revelations: in fact second in repute and popularity only to the nearby Wave. Yet Sang must call attention to both its worldly and its other-worldly qualities as though they were not self-evident. The pools reflecting the sky and the surrounding rocks may be common enough elsewhere, but in the desert they merit recognition. The fact that clouds in that sky can be in the Earth’s shadow, and so be dark even with daylight surrounding them, is another mundane miracle that too often goes unappreciated. And yet, in this seemingly unlikely landscape, nothing less than a zombie buffalo, a creature of science fiction fantasy, can even attempt to shake some viewers’ complacency. Once having seen James Cameron’s 3-D islands floating ponderously in the sky, what can possibly separate the sheep of imagination from the goats of reality? Even when the latter go on routinely outstripping the former? Sang may symbolize this predicament of a domesticated wilderness by showing it through a bay window, like someone’s back yard or garden.

Gut Set makes similarly serious, no matter how casual looking, references to some of the Southwest’s other monumental offerings. “Metaphor,” the puzzling sculpture of Karl Momen that stands 87 feel tall in the Bonneville salt flats, having failed to galvanize a public of its own, reappears in triplicate, shrunk to less than one percent of its actual size, in a tunnel wherein it regains some of its intrigue. The Telescope Array Surface Detector, which covers vast tracts of Western Utah’s lands without ever managing to offend those who industriously protect mining from the encroachment (that is, patient request) of the Original Peoples for the return of what was stolen from them, also appears at an insignificant fraction of its actual size. The ironies here are as exquisite as the visual form — again a metaphor — given how this vast but easily overlooked bit of 21st-century science, symbolized here by a couple of measuring devices and a pair of eggs, operates subliminally under the noses of many who might object if they knew.

As for the art, meanwhile, while its attributes may change, the task endures.

A work in one corner of the gallery riffs on Karl Momen’s “Metaphor: The Tree of Utah” sculpture found along I-80 in Utah’s West Desert


The Telescope Array Surface Detector is brought down to size

Ben Sang: Gut Set, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 14

All images courtesy the author

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