The Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery has a climate problem.
“The airflow is not democratic,” said Ben Chaffee, associate director of visual arts and the curator for this fall’s exhibit by artists Renee Gladman and Nick Raffel, running through October 16.
In the wing that is favored by airflow, Raffel installed a fan. In the other wing is Gladman’s collection. Her lines of prose and lines of drawing are neglected by the ventilation system.
Raffel’s installation, called airfoil, explores how the aesthetics of utilities express historic understandings of energy usage.
Gladman’s exhibit, called THE DREAM OF SENTENCES, is the largest solo presentation of her work to date, exploring intersections of poetry, prose, drawing, and architecture.
Raffel’s research for the exhibition on the temperature and humidity distribution across the gallery began in June, Chaffee said. He met with Professor of Art History Joseph Siry, who’s published work on air conditioning and Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts.
“He talked about intervening in modernist buildings,” Chaffee said about Siry and the aesthetic responsibilities of HVAC systems in energetically non-conservative buildings.
Because the gallery was built before the 1973 oil crisis, energy use was less of concern than it is now. The north wing is more extreme, colder in the winter and warmer in the summer than the main gallery.
Raffel then met with Peter McGurgan, HVAC technician with Physical Plant, who advised on the what-would-be ventilation and humidity contexts for the fan.
In late fall, the term of the exhibit, heat sinks into a loading dock below. The radiant heating in the floor, a compensatory measure, is actually insulated from the gallery space by its cork floors, which were installed for acoustic reasons.
Raffel’s first proposal was to cut a hole in the ceiling, or “open a ceiling window,” Chaffee said, but the quotes from the roofing company were too high. Raffel also wanted a solar panel on the roof, but they couldn’t wire a cord in from the exterior. They could have had an interior solar panel, but any iteration of solar power would be problematic.
“It made no sense to pair a continuous system with a non-continuous system,” Chaffee said about pairing the gallery ventilation with solar energy.
The final proposal, which hangs at a level between optimized utility and sculptural intimacy, spans 14 feet. It was created out of balsa wood in Raffel’s studio in Chicago, with aid from an aerodynamics engineer. As more of a flowering weed than a tree, balsa wood has a high strength-to-weight ratio, so the installation only uses one third the typical energy of a fan its size and speed.
Raffel wanted the student workers who opened the exhibit to decide on the speed, but Chaffee decided to standardize it at 35 rpms. There, it is neither inactive nor a concern for the circuitry.
The fan is untitled. Chaffee said that was purposeful, to allow anything to become part of the exhibit. “Like hair,” Chaffee said.
Or like the temperature gages which run up the wall, attached to a pole, at about meter-increments. Before Raffel’s installation their readings would have a wide range, but now they all read similarly. “I’ve got to send a picture to Nick,” he said.
The fan has a literal context, Chaffee said, but also an ideological one in its reference to modernism and environmentalism.
Chaffee said Gladman’s work creates its own context.
Gladman’s experimental writing pieces and drawings were all created before exhibition, unlike Raffel’s fan. They are lines in text and lines in drawing and the line between text and drawing, Chaffee said.
As a writer first, Gladman created prose with an attention to form, like poetry. She published three books in that style before moving into drawing. One Long Black Sentence, published in 2020, did away with page numbers, Chaffee said.
“Are we walking through sentences? Is our walk a sentence?” Chaffee said.
One series of drawings, set on black paper, look like knowledge systems. Chaffee said it is about future ways of knowing coming out of Blackness.
Another drawing, also on black paper, called “Prose” contains illegible lines of text. Chaffee said he didn’t wonder whether they were words that were made illegible by the scribe or if they never begun with meaning. “It didn’t matter to me,” he said. He compared it to when he admitted to his acupuncturist that he didn’t believe in acupuncture, and his acupuncturist responded that it didn’t matter whether he believed in it or not.
Because the exhibit would be Gladman’s first, Chaffee revived his digital modelling technology despite his intuitive understanding of the space, he said
There would be so many pieces, in such an arduously shaped gallery space. And Gladman’s trust was important.
All of the frames, Chaffee said, are in tension with the architecture for more dynamic brief viewings. With each exhibit, Chaffee said he is glad when they come down.
The curated tension is an irritant. “A full mass aligned with a void,” Chaffee said, pointing to one of the gallery bays. “Violated vitrines.”