Tara Donovan: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

By Hudson, Suzanne | Artforum International, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Tara Donovan: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston


Hudson, Suzanne, Artforum International


"IN THE MID-1990S, Tara Donovan was experimenting in her studio when serendipity struck. She knocked over a big box of toothpicks, picked it up, and then noticed that the spilled contents had latticed into a shape that echoed the perfect corner of their container." Jen Mergel and Nicholas Baume, the curators of Donovan's ICA exhibition, begin their catalogue essay with this time-honored trope: the studio anecdote as out-and-out epiphany. As the story goes, after this minor mishap the artist sourced some five hundred thousand toothpicks, which she succeeded in assembling into a large, freestanding cube, building it from the ground up as one might construct a sand castle. Since that time, Untitled (Toothpicks), 1996, has served as an iconic point of origin for her sculptural practice and the development of what Donovan terms her "site-responsive" forms. Befitting and recapitulating its symbolic priority, Toothpicks was given pride of place alongside the related Untitled (Pins), 2004, and Untitled (Glass), 2004, in this, Donovan's first museum survey. The sculptures ushered viewers into the installation of fifteen works from the past decade, plus a new piece designed specifically for the ICA show.

The exhibition, like the essay, quickly established Donovan's procedures through the humble logic of the toothpick: She would use vernacular, mass-produced objects as her sculptural mainstays, "remanufacturing" their "intended fate" per her own telling; she would arrange the stuff into geometric, modular forms; she would produce relationships among selfsame constituents; and she would isolate obdurate physical properties in order to harness and then contravene them, optically if not actually, and with consummate showmanship. Above all, she would make sculpture that involves taking great quantities of a particular type of object (the more quotidian the better, with subsequent materials including plastic cups, buttons, and tape) and subjecting them to a certain pragmatic procedure (e.g., rolling, stacking, aggregating, gluing, placing).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This emphasis on quantity--what I would be inclined to call intemperance--is telling. For Donovan, it expediently suggests themes of inordinate plenitude and consumer waste, expanding cities and illimitable viral networks. For her commentators, however--and for most gallerygoers, at least from what I overheard--it signifies, well, lots of cups or buttons or tape that startle for this reason, above all. Litanies of weights and measures are invoked with considerable and near-anesthetizing frequency, as though this mode of enumeration as such instantiates a critical position. In fact it produces nothing so much as a tedious inventory: A million cups in Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006/2008, a gridded phalanx of plastic tumblers stacked to varying heights; thousands of feet of polyester film in Untitled, 2008, a kaleidoscopic window nestled in a gallery wall; and so on. And in a kind of unwitting homage to the one-thing-after-another seriality of Minimalism that Donovan so deliberately summons, such notations seek to control the anxiety she also produces, with arrangements of objects that, in their evident pre-cariousness, seem always on the verge of destruction. …

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