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Tower of babble
Aaron Stephanís "LIFT" at USM
BY CHRIS THOMPSON


Commissioned as part of Maineís Percent for Art program, sculptor Aaron T. Stephanís "LIFT" is a finely crafted wooden table with chairs for six whose eating and sitting surfaces hover roughly 20 feet above the ground. From below, the space in and among the 28 two-story wooden legs is an unsettling and disorienting thicket of spare clean lines; viewed from the second-floor balcony, these become gossamer-thin supports that let the table float on a cushion of light.

This week, "LIFT" goes live in the atrium of the University of Southern Maineís new Joel and Linda Abromson Community Education Center. The Phoenix caught up with Stephan to find out more about the project and its significance.

Phoenix: One of the intriguing questions in the practice of public art is how to imagine who exactly constitutes your "public"; I wonder how you think about this: Who and what is the public? And how much of a role does this imagined public play as youíre conceiving the work?

Stephan: I am relatively new to public art. I am still trying to figure out exactly what the public is and what separates this kind of work from that which is made for a gallery or a museum. I find myself negotiating between the 20th-century notion of an individual artist following a vision and the more traditional idea of a work becoming part of a community, which brings with it the baggage of social responsibility, communal ownership, and cultural relevance. In a gallery you ask individuals to come in and experience the work, and hope that a few individuals will connect with the work on a strong enough level to want to live with it in their homes. A public space is a living part of the community, so Iím not simply dealing with one personís relationship to a certain object or subject but the shifting environment of a community. It instantly becomes a part of a larger dialogue, which is exciting and scary at the same time.

Q: Following up on this, as you imagine the sorts of interactions that unfold around the piece, which possibilities do you find the most compelling and promising?

A: Honestly Chris, I donít know. The most that I can do is make something that I think will spur a dialogue, provoke a feeling, or feed a conversation. The most compelling aspect, for me, is that the work has the ability to become a part of the institution that holds it. It will interact with the physical site and become part of the dialogue that takes place in classrooms, the casual conversions in the lobby, and on a broader scale, between the school and the surrounding community. I hope that it will serve as an interface between the ideas generated in the classroom and the community, which mirrors the function of the building.

Q: Much of your work to date has focused on the production of knowledge and academic discourse, playing with the conventions and pretenses of critical language, poking fun at some of the illustrious individuals whose names punctuate art-world conversations. Iím thinking here, for instance, of the toolbox full of tools made of texts by critic Clement Greenberg, which you then used to try and fix your truck. Located as it is in USMís new Community Education Center, how does "LIFT" sit with respect to this playful engagement with knowledge and the institutions that shape and disseminate it?

A: I definitely see this work as an extension of that exploration. My approach changed with "LIFT," however, because I am dealing with more abstract ideas. I am still attempting to raise questions about how dialogue can function as a tool, how information is disseminated, and how things are understood. I am hoping that the public will add the specifics. Perhaps coming from the institution to ask their own questions about their own experiences and knowledge.

Q: To back up a bit, Iím curious about how you came to decide on this particular piece. And what does the table itself ó and its elevation, and therefore the impossibility of "using" it ó signify?

Stephan: I wanted to create something that interacts with the site on many levels and becomes immersed in it. I was inspired by the tall atrium and saw an opportunity to use the height of this space as a metaphor. I love getting lost in conversation. Most of these great talks seem to happen over a table, be it in a dining room, a bar, or a more traditional academic environment. The idea of a table and chairs felt natural to me, and I thought it would translate to reach a broad audience.

Itís funny, but I think that a lot of what I have been trying to do for years in my work is bring in a larger dialogue, to put the work in a larger context. Now, with this work, it automatically becomes part of a larger dialogue. I respond to work that unfolds in levels, so that there is something there for both an art critic like you and also for your daughter [Note: My daughter is 20 months old. As it happens, sheís quite fond of this particular artwork]. I think the best work does this.

Q: Are you still following any sort of rigorous diet?

A: Yes, mostly novels.

Chris Thompson can be reached at xxtopher@hotmail.com

Aaron Stephanís "LIFT" is on permanent view at USMís Joel and Linda Abromson Community Education Center, on Bedford Street, in Portland.

 


Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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