So it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and we’re all gathered round to watch cars crash behind the high school. These same three cars crashed twice Saturday, and they will do it again in a few hours. I’m not sure what I had expected, exactly, but I know I had expected something else; I had been told that cars would be made to crash in slow motion, and had wanted perhaps a giant game of popcorn played not with whiffle balls but with tons of rubber and steel, the cars rumpling tenderly against each other until they looked like worn, wadded paper.
But artist Jesse Sugarmann
has instead arranged these cars facing away from each other, with their rear tires atop an ever inflating pile of mattresses. So essentially, what we have in front of us is a tripod made of air and minivans, getting taller by the second. Or at least, it got about two feet taller over about fifteen minutes, at which point some of the mattresses slipped, sending the northernmost minivan tumbling awkwardly sideways off its seven-foot mount.
But, disappointment: no carnage. The car lands silently, square on its wheels—so quietly that about a quarter of the people surrounding the cars and mattresses were still waiting patiently for the crash that had already come. The rest of the surrounding crowd tented out to the north to see the fallout. Finding none, they walked bewildered away. “It was better yesterday,” said one. “The cars got all the way vertical, like they were all going to tip.”
“Did any of them fall over?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said the guy. “It was taking too long, so I left.”
And thus, the problem with the piece is that as an experience it is too much like life—we’re all out there waiting for something or other, we know that much has been arranged and that it is impressive, but for a long, long time nothing happens until suddenly it does, and when it does it is unexpected and anticlimactic, only half-seen and maybe even less understood.
So it fails as an event and as a spectacle, but it does succeed perhaps much better in its audacity and in the poetry of its conceptual architecture: after all, we have scheduled a car crash, on gentle beds, its force blown in by air. It would be wrong to complain.
SEE IT: PICA’s ninth Time-Based Art festival continues through Sept. 18.
Matthew Korfhage is a freelance writer and itinerant wind turbine technician. He is currently at work on a novel.