Susan Meyer: Together

Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston, South Carolina is presenting a new solo exhibition titled Together by sculptor/installation artist, Susan Meyer. The exhibition, which opens this evening, is part of the 2008 Redux Artist-in-Residence program.

Meyer makes environments for us, and for the tiny people that inhabit her structures of undulating platforms. Her work might resemble the interior of a cave, strands of DNA, futuristic buildings, a space colony, or a shopping mall, but its inability to be classified as any real object sets it apart from this literal representation. Her work seems to be a social structure we can view, a conceptual model addressing our world, but making its own world in isolation. Read below for the full article by Celi Dailey.

Inspired by her study of Utopian environments and past social experiments, Together compels consideration of social systems and our relationship to materials and modern space. The humanoid citizens, plastic H-O scale figures (popular accompaniments to model trains) lack individual identity, clothing, and distinctive features beyond their muted gender and skin tone. They are posed in unreal motion, sometimes in relation to each other or sitting on the edge of their world, but unresponsive to the pervasive empty space inside and outside of their habitat. They seem made from the same conceptual material as their home, manufactured but unlabeled.

In Together, acrylic glass floors or planes have partitions that create mazes of rooms in an array of translucent blues, yellows, and whites. Threaded bolts are the unconcealed columns for the sparse, undecorated structure. Glowing surfaces and metal skeletal parts, stunningly plain elements in repetition, combine to produce a peculiar, fantastical landscape. Some of the planes are linked by long bridges or stairwells which hypothetically provide transportation throughout the world. The structure seems to honor its material, an homage to radiant space and flowing edge, organic and geometric, in search of perfect balance.

Many floors of refined, dense surfaces dwarf the inhabitants in scale. There is no concept of what these people might need or want, how they might sustain life in this environment. There are no personal possessions or modern amenities like air conditioning or refrigerators. But, there is a sense in which we are looking at some kind of society, one that seems free of information, inequality, suffering, and death, among other worldly things. Maybe it’s stagnation or bliss, but it’s uncertain if life is happening here, in this strange constructed paradise.

Meyer’s work has been informed by her documentation of Utopian communities in the U.S. in their current state, including the Oneida Community in Upstate New York (1848-1881), an isolated religious town-like settlement that sought perfection in this world by trying to correct perceived problems of modernity. It was self-supporting by virtue of its variety of industrial efforts, which included production of canned foods, animal traps, silk, and silverware, requiring all members to work depending on their skills. One of their goals was to correct gender inequality, resulting in unconventional marriage and other rites of passage. Although lasting longer than many communes, their beliefs proved too radical to endure.

Meyer has also investigated communes in Western Colorado from the 1960’s & 1970’s, including Drop City, Red Rockers and Libre. Drop City was founded by artists wanting to experiment in collective art-making and seeking relief from capitalism. Inspired by indigenous cultures and Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic structures, “Droppers” built a domed landscape on a hill, using sheet metal from scrap cars as building material, which Fuller later recognized with his Dymaxion Award. Their aim at sustainability, although abandoned in 1977, included the use of passive solar energy and reuse of trash for food and materials. By the 1970’s, intentional communities had been founded across the region, including Libre, inspired by the Drop City project.

In addition to the preparation of Together, Meyer will conduct a research project based on the development principles of I’on, a residential and commercial development in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. I’on is inspired by the new urbanist movement in city planning, where the needs of residents are aimed to be met within walking distance, a concept that is learned from the open structure of a city. It seeks to build higher density residential areas, but create preserves of land to be enjoyed by all, rather than distribute it throughout suburbia. One of I’on’s main goals is to create a sense of place, inspired by the Lowcountry cities that have “stood the test of time with their distinctive architectural styles, wide range of lot sizes, ‘grid’ layout of interconnected streets and mix of residential, commercial, and public places.” All building and landscaping plans must adhere to the I’on code and undergo review by the I’on Design Committee in order to create a visually unified landscape of “great architectural design.” Narrow streets that bend around lakes create picturesque vistas that appear tranquil and seem distant from any lively city grid.

Other examples of traditional neighborhood development, like I’on, exist on a larger scale, like the towns of Seaside, FL, where the Truman Show was filmed, and Celebration, MD. In South Carolina, the developer Core Communities has built a “city within in a city” with a similar ideology, Tradition Hilton Head, located in Hardeeville.

They tell us that “smart growth” is an answer to sprawl, and state that their communities are “mixed-use developments that are environmentally sensitive, economically viable, community-oriented and sustainable.” They seek to give their citizens “all of the amenities that make your living experience complete,” which includes commerce, schools, libraries, and a “Tommy Fazio-designed Tradition National Golf Course.” They’ve also recently built Tradition, FL down the street from their sold-out community of 7500, St. Lucie West.

These idealistic communities investigated by Meyer are set within a greater historical, geographic, and ecological context. These new neighborhoods seek to correct suburban shortcomings by reviving the city with plenty of green space. The infrastructure of our unsustainable lifestyle has been vitally supported since Eisenhower argued extensive highway development as a means of national defense. Growth along the rural frontier later saw the need to widen roads to accommodate traffic and build parking lots, but sidewalks were forgotten or thought unnecessary. Accommodating the pedestrian in a city’s plan seems to be an essential part of dealing with our excessive energy consumption and contribution to global pollution. Achieving total sustainability is the next step to ensuring our modern existence, but it needs a humongous plan that must take into account complexities of human and environmental existence.

Curitiba, Brazil, one of the first cities to strive for sustainability, has transformed into an urban region of 3.5 million people. They have continued to find ways to reduce their pressure on natural resources by providing cheap mass transit that used existing roadway infrastructure, funding their recycling and trash program through the sale of scrap, and refusing to create sprawl.

An early attempt at environmental sustainability in America is Arcosanti, a prototype town in the Arizona desert, designed for a few thousand, but currently only housing about one hundred permanent residents. It has transformed into educational facility that swells with eco-tourists, taking up only 25 acres of a 4060 acre preserve. Arcosanti began construction in 1970 by architect Paolo Soleri, expanding on Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of organic architecture. Built into the land, shade is used for climate control, concrete is cast in silt from the landscape, organic farms provide food, and energy comes from the sun. Their sewage treatment is informed by the idea that “in nature there is no ‘waste’ from organisms, only nutrients to be used for another organism.” Although not yet extensive, this is a main area of research.

Dongtan, China, an “eco-city” built for 50,000 to 500,000 to be completed by 2010, won’t be a source of any greenhouse gases or allow carbon-emitting vehicles within their boundaries. It is the first of four such developments planned by Arup, and is hoped to be a “blueprint for the future planning of Chinese cities.” High-density clusters of buildings will expand along a linear transit corridor, allowing two-thirds of the land to be parks, high-tech farms, and wildlife reserves. They will achieve sustainability with systems that capture and purify water, use organic waste to create power, and use heat from power plants in climate control of the buildings. Dongtan will be showcased as the site of the Shanghai World Expo.

The difficulties of creating large-scale urban plan can be seen in Le Corbusier‘s attempts to transform the industrial slums of Paris and his future influence. His esteem of the automobile and technology inspired his skyscrapers-in-a-park designs, advocating a broad brush stroke of modernism rather than integrating or improving existing urban structures. His projects became prototypes for many American public housing projects in the 1950’s, resulting in high-density slums across the nation, as well as informing our last bout of skyscraper-building with his machine aesthetic. These projects were criticized by Jane Jacobs in the 1960’s for lacking mixed-used and mixed-income buildings, which she described as an important part of how urban areas produce safety, diversity, and vibrancy. Her activism is now idealized by some who desire a return to traditional neighborhood development, especially as that concept increases in popularity and profitability.

Future structures for living might resemble the commune, medieval city, or massive self-sufficient hyperstructures like the Bionic Tower, a vertical city for 100,000, or unbuildable X-Seed 4000, proposed to be shaped like Mt. Fuji, but larger, and located over Tokyo’s sea. Past attempts at creating communities serve as theoretical exercises and social laboratories to observe how they meet a person’s needs, provide social interaction, and produce well-being.

Susan Meyer’s installations provoke us to investigate our relationship to the materials that make our world. We can sense the guiding role of physical structure on beliefs and values and the transformative power of new architecture, organization, and technology. The citizen’s experience has been perfected, truly reaching the information age, yet from our perspective we comprehend no history before modernism, no sense of place, and no natural world. We see a soaring topographic landscape of light and plastic, compelling in its substance and void.