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John Bisbee: Field
June 30–September 3, 2000

John Bisbee
Field, 2000
welded nails, dimensions variable
Collection of the artist
Photo: Melville Maclean

Pirating from his past work and work in progress, John Bisbee creates a restless installation whose fragmented pieces signal memory, the shifting moments of time, industry, and labor. Field is a haptic field of sometimes ambiguous and sometimes dangerously desirable metal objects. Field threatens and beckons. The fragmented metal pieces are often sharp and potentially harmful, but grouped together suggest a remarkable, indefinable biology or geography. We are confronted with an anxious desire for proximity to this field of objects, but may be fearful of the thousands of sharp nails and welded forms that comprise the work.

While Bisbee's work is curiously beautiful and fractionally a formal exploration of space and form, it also suggests the myriad ideologies associated with industry. Labor, work, and industry crackle through Bisbee's project. His materials - nails and arc welding, both industrial glues - emerge from industry, connote the struggle with often-dangerous material, and are the implements of pre- and postindustrial work. Marrying objects and structural elements with nails is a simple solution to complex fabrication goals, and Bisbee capitalizes on that idea. Yet the end result of Bisbee's manipulation of the nails, brads, spikes, and weld clearly places the work outside the realm of industrial labor. They're not really nails, brads, spikes, and weld anymore, but they're not not nails, brads, spikes, and weld. They're transformative objects of wonder.

Bisbee trades on the effect of patterning. By allowing a pattern to emerge in the nails, brads, spikes, and weld as he manipulates them, and then following the pattern "autodidactically," Bisbee sustains the organic impact of the patterning.(1) Like natural objects-shells, leaves-whose shapes are determined or surfaces are marked by pattern, Bisbee's works, while inorganic, often mimic biological forms. In his words, the works are "bioindustrial," also acknowledging their post- or preindustrial origins. Despite its preindustrial history-nails in some form have probably been in use since the bronze age-the work evinces postindustrial aftereffect. Bisbee's technique yields objects that emerge into a world dominated by electronic capitalism-the new industry. Yet Bisbee's work is rooted in the dependence of ritual (the repetition and patterns, the artist's solitude) lodged in preindustrial labor before master craftsmen were transformed into wage laborers. Agrarian labor practice and the attendant craftsmanship needed to maintain the tools of labor depended (and still do) on the patterned cycles of nature. Bisbee operates within the conceptual space history has provided between the Industrial Revolution's occlusion of the hand- made crafted object (and the artisan's singularity) and a modern social order- workers united around a capitalist goal. Ultimately, Bisbee's installation is allied to a utopian artisan's ideal-conscientiously crafting objects by allowing a pattern to emerge in the medium, and following that pattern to its aesthetically pleasing and logical culmination.

Bisbee's accumulative installation-some of whose components span the past ten years-reveals his desire to preserve and study time and memory attached to the work, to him, and to the private space of the studio. With this piece he has effected a shift in his working process-moving from the creation of singular and autonomous objects to shape-shifting installations whose individual components are also in flux. Some of the pieces in the work are discards from past work which Bisbee has reconfigured and revitalized; similarly some pieces may, in the future, be remade for another piece. By bringing the work-these fragments of meaning, of time, of moments passed and passing-from the private into the public, Bisbee unpacks memories implicit in objects, even fragments. Like relics, souvenirs, and inherited mementos, these metal fragments are a check against eventual loss. Art historian Carol Mavor notes,

Like a photograph, the drawer of saved objects functions as a space between life and death. For not only do our photographs, our objects, signify death, they also (in the spirit of the fetish) keep death away. Collecting those objects in the nooks and crannies of our homes keeps them and our memories and ourselves alive. Objects keep death away by helping us to remember. (2)

Populist in nature—nails and weld are easily available and relatively inexpensive—Bisbee's installation is conceptually tied to the works of his predecessors Carl André, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra, who democratized sculpture by using common materials such as firebricks and rusted nails, often scattering them on the gallery floor. Bisbee's populist approach to installation building emerges from his love of his material and its seemingly endless potential for metamorphosis. But perhaps his work is more closely related to a seemingly disparate history: 17th-century Dutch painting. Like those landscape, still-life, and genre paintings, where the viewer is visually and intellectually rewarded by patient scrutiny-think of the microscopic world made visible through paint or a map of the Netherlands creating topographical context-the intricate relationships between the myriad objects in Field offer a similarly handsome payoff. Looking closely at Field we find that the objects include tiny squiggles of weld, nails welded together in a seemingly chaotic pile, delicate nail "baskets," and spiny nail vertebrae, to name only a few. The individual pieces are tumbled together in ostensible chaos, but patient examination reveals their engaging eccentricity.

Bisbee's title Field is both wholly obvious and completely ambiguous. Field's geography is inherently unstable, shifting, and in flux-at any time the artist may decide to remove or add components. And the metal components' future as Field, a site-specific installation, is ephemeral. Field both occupies and becomes territory examined (in the already existing pieces), and unexamined, as evidenced in the new pieces. Bisbee denotes territory, geography, and place, marking out his site with the field of metal objects. Bisbee literally creates a field and more poetically fields a group of objects, as one would field a team for a pick-up game of touch football. (3) While each piece is scaled in a comfort zone relative to our bodies-nothing is taller than 16 inches-the feeling of the installation is that of monumentality. Spread out nearly forty feet in diameter, Field is strewn with objects that signify discursive histories of industry, work, memory and time, and the artistic practices that join them together.

The individual objects that comprise the whole (yet evolving) Field are Bisbee's utterances made physical, fragments of nonverbal speech, fragments of time. According to Albert Einstein, "Time cannot be defined in substance; it is, metaphysically speaking, as mysterious as matter and space." 4 Bisbee's beautiful fragments seem to suggest the opposite: that time can be embodied in something as prosaic as a 1/2-inch brad, a 10-inch spike, and weld. Moreover, as art historian Carol Mavor suggests in her discussion of an object's shaping of time and memory, Bisbee's accumulative (and perhaps subtractive, as he reshapes it) installation propels itself into the future, but without leaving behind the past. For Bisbee time is unambiguous, as evidenced by the works themselves which stand in for and mark the real time spent making objects of wonder, time, and memory from simple instruments of industry.

Dana Self


1. John Bisbee, in telephone conversation with Dana Self.

2. Carol Mavor, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 144.

3. John Bisbee suggested the idea of fielding a team in a telephone conversation with Dana Self.

4. Albert Einstein, as quoted in Peter Galison, "Einstein's Clocks: The Place of Time," Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (winter 2000): pp. 355–389.

John Bisbee was an artist in residence at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.