T.R.A.C.E.S & Nida Art Colony Inter-Format Symposium
Inter-format Edition, July 2011
by Jodi Rose
Canadian born, Estonia based artist Justin Tyler Tate has developed a contemporary nomadic practice, traveling with a small toolbox plus some essentials. “Often my location directs the art while at other times the art directs me to my next location,” says Tate, who delights in making ruins for people to discover and investigate. Tate is concerned with the relationship viewers have to art, creating playful yet iconic and monumental structures, part sculpture and part relic, from the Lemonade Stand offering a place of pyschological and physical refreshment in the desert; to his Softwood Basketball Court where those brave enough may find themselves playing like wild animals on the challenging court in a world heritage forest.
Says the artist: “My practice is about creating modifications to spaces in order to create points of exchange; there should be a give and take happening between the viewer and the object(s) or space. The one should have a physical impact on the other. The physicality of the exchange can happen in a variety of ways: maybe there is an element of danger, necessity for investigation, prerequisite of consumption, or possibly the need for compromise. Regardless of the situation, when a viewer leaves the object(s) or space(s), they should both be different from when they met. It’s this play between subjective and objective relationships, how the work and viewers change while they’re interacting, which is the focal point of my practice”.
On first reading the proposal for the Tiki-Hut at Nida Art Colony, without prior knowledge of this artist or his work, I was charmed by this form of engagement with local community and environment and intrigued by the construction of architectural ruins for people to discover. In the event, due to weather conditions and the season, I’m still waiting for that drink in the Tiki-Hut*, but was able to experience a new iteration of the ‘Lemonade Stand’, previously built in the Australian desert outside the mining town of Cooper Pedy.
The promised ‘psychological and physical refreshment through interaction with the vendor (artist)’ was apparent in the sand dunes below the sundial and Parnidis Dunes at Nida, when I stumbled through the scorching sands of the Lithuanian Baltic coast on the Curonian Spit. The elegant simplicity of the work is part of it’s charm, although on closer reading the deeper layers of meaning and complexity become apparent. One can understand the Lemonade Stand first as an innocently idealistic recreation of a childhood act, however the artist is knowingly making a performance out of this ritual, both for himself and the viewers or participants who share the experience with him. The odyssey to reach the Lemonade Stand (and hopefully soon, finding warmth and solace in the snow and ice, the tropical Tiki-Hut), brings the viewer out of their comfort zone and into a new relationship to both place, artist and artwork, taking you beyond the confines of a gallery or defined cultural space to a site that is ‘off-the-map’, physically demanding to reach, and philosophically open to rethinking the boundaries of art, sculpture, performance and indeed survival. Using found materials sourced locally and often recycled is an integral part of his practice, allowing a deeper relationship to develop between the artist and places of work.
Where does the performance of culture, and the relationship between artist/viewer/location begin, and to what end does this exchange take place? Tate questions these exchanges, and sets up situations where their nature is examined and made playful, or problematic. An encounter with his work is a unique life experience, that is transformed as documentation and memory in the gallery or travellers photo album.
On the Softwood Basketball Court, built in the forest at Nida to follow the natural undulations of the ground, the artist offers a space for playful interaction and at times violent physical engagement. “You will get hurt”, promises Tate as he explains the rules (using those of a regular court), and tosses the ball to see who starts. Play becomes wild and animalistic in some moments, with the obstacles of the court – trees growing in the middle, uneven surface, gaps between pallets, crooked hoops – challenging the players to throw themselves completely into the game, and offering no respite to the faint of heart. Everyone has scratches and bruises that become a memento of the game, binding us together through a shared sense of physical urgency and ritual. “Justin’s work always has an element of danger”, comments Ernest Truely, director of Artist Residency program at Polymer Culture Factory in Tallinn, Estonia – to which I can attest through personal experience!
There is also a joyful element to his practice, as in “Bearding” where Tate offers participants the chance to wear a fake fur beard during social settings, calling into question the nature of gender and performance of identity. A collaboration with Amber Phelps Bondarof, these bearded moments are documented with photo and video in the Beardfolio. The artists say, “Bearding happens in social settings and creates its own unique social dynamics within those environments. The Bearding allows us to be who we really are by replacing our social mask with a beard and thereby lures the beard wearers own persona out in the public arena. Wearing the beard exaggerates our differences, highlights our personality and brings us together while inquiring into our idea of gender.” Again, I can personally speak to the transformational nature of this exchange, having found an inexplicable happiness and a sense of carefree pleasure take over while wearing the beard.
In another of Tate’s projects, “Blood for Culture” or “Culture Exchange”; the artist donates blood in any new city/country/culture visited, when possible according to local regulations. The donation is documented in a photograph, eventually to become an exhibition. The intention is to offer something in exchange for the culture of the host country, as Tate says, “travelers are leeches on their hosts – so, how does a visitor actually give back to the place and not just the economy?” The answer he proposes is to give blood, and so encourage the vitality of the culture, as one blood donation can save up to three lives: “Our foreign presence won’t homogenize the culture but instead will galvanize it. Culture isn’t free.” The dedication of this artistic practice, inherent in Tate’s willingness to give his own blood in exchange for the support of the local culture, is evidence of his personal commitment to working and creating with sustainable forms of cultural integrity.
Finally, Tate is also responsible for disseminating the work of Soviet theoretical physicist M. P. Bronstein**, whose inventions reached the artist via gmail through time travel technologies developed in Bronstein’s laboratory. Tate says “He has assigned me with the task of showing the world his Inventions for a Red Future. Although I don’t have the heart to tell Peter that there is no longer a Soviet Union, I’ve taken his assignment seriously and hope to do what I can.” A virtual tour and video of Bronstein’s fascinating studio above a Soviet toy factory in Estonia highlights Bronstein’s inventions to “help those in newly acquired Soviet regions who may be affected by toxic substances, radiation as well as loss of information and technology.”
“Inventions for a Red Future” shows the after suit designed for wearing in contaminated areas, mechanical butterfly and tiny robot allowing access to places too small for humans, and my personal favourite, the seagull rescue training program. During the 1970’s and 1980’s M.P. Bronstein worked on methods for communication across vast distances of time using quantum theories. These theories enabled him acquire a Gmail account (firstname.lastname@example.org) and communicate across 26 years of space/time. “I found his laboratory, very much in ruin, in the spring of 2010 and that is when Peter began contacting me,” said Tate.
The experiences I have enjoyed through being a part of Tate’s work show him to have successfully realised his intention to create a space that allows for the play of subjective and objective relationships between the work, the viewer and the relationships that take place during their interactions. “When a viewer leaves the object(s) or space(s), they should both be different from when they met…”
In a practice working across many forms and locations, whether creating ephemeral performances or monumental sculptural relics, Justin Tyler Tate is creating a significant body of work that offers those lucky enough to encounter this remarkable artist the possibility to be changed by the nature of their exchange. I look forward to following the development of his work and taking part in the next series of creative interactions, maybe giving blood in a culture exchange or finally having that cocktail in the Tiki-Hut.
*The Tiki-hut is an open and all inclusive installation; anyone can come for a tropical break from the endless night of winter. Serving as a beacon of warmth and light, straight from the tropics, the Tiki-hut will shine through the darkest days of the year. The location for the Tiki-Hut should be desolate and (a little bit) remote because the trip to the Tiki-hut is as much a part of the experience as the structure or an interaction with the bartender (artist). The visitor should feel as though they are making some sort of pilgrimage through the environment and upon seeing the lights of the hut, the visitor should be drawn to it like a moth. A unique experience of cultural and psychological warmth await you in the cold and the dark.
**M. Petrovich (Peter) Bronstein (Russian: М. Петрович Бронштейн, August 17 1936 — February 18, 1988) was a Soviet theoretical physicist, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, author of works in astrophysics, semiconductors, quantum electrodynamics and cosmology, as well as of a number of books in popular science for children.