Arts Magazine: Plants and Animals, Simple Tools and So Forth

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Plants, Animals, Simple Tools and So Forth: Video sculptures by Minnesota artist Robert Lawrence explore the relationship between nature and technology

Consider a cross section of a tree connected by a pole to a television monitor. The monitor, encircled by books with titles like The Mysterious River, plays slow motion videotapes of animals and foliage. It's an intriguing blend of the rough-hewn and the high tech-so intriguing that at first glance you might miss the obvious. This amalgam of the natural and the man-made is a wheel and axle.

This and five other "video sculptures" make up artist Robert Lawrence's current exhibition "Plants, Animals, Simple Tools, and So Forth," on display in the Minnesota Gallery from May 18 until July 7, 1991. Lawrence combines books, television monitors and natural forms into sculptural configurations based on the six simple tools or machines: pulley, lever, screw, inclined plane, wheel and axle, and wedge.

Cloaked in the complex and inescapable technology of information that bombards our age, Lawerence's video sculptures explore the relationship between nature and technology and the evolution of our physical and informational worlds.

The "simple tools" of the exhibition evoke a time when such tools represented the peak of technology, when mankind was not severed from the "natural" world. Nature is also present in the fabric of each piece: in the tree trunk of Wheel and Axle;the huge forked branch from a tree felled by Lawrence in the Wisconsin woods used in Wedge. Also plucked from the natural world, but one step removed, are stuffed trophy animals, including the muskie in his Pulley piece and moose antlers, which sit at one end of a twisted helix of books that constitute the Screw.

Lawrence also references the natural world through two prime tools of information, books and television. He intends for both televisions and books to be considered as informational tools and as physical or sculptural objects. "Books and televisions give form to information and allude to the impact that information has on the physical world," he explains.

All of the book titles refer to nature-The Mysterious River, or a junior encyclopedia series, Our Wonderful Word. The video monitors show slow motion footage of walking through woods on a sunny afternoon, interspersed with closeup shots of bison and grizzly bears. As in our childhood memories of a "Wild Kingdom" version of nature, Lawrence shows us that our idea of the natural world is a cultural construct, carefully edited and mediated through informational tools.

One of Lawrence's aim is to press viewers into a physical confrontation, part "natural," part technological. "I prefer doing installations because they allow me to recontextualize the physical world," he explains. "I am acutely aware that just like the grizzly bears and the bison in the videos, we are also subject to the same physical needs and forces and, in the end, will-literally-be reclaimed by the earth."

The two themes he has explored for the past seven years are nature and the Old West. "I look at them as sort of American value nodal points, as a way of looking at how our values are changing," he explains. For Boom or Bust -Business, As Usual, included in the recent Institute exhibition "What's Art and What's Not?", Lawrewnce tied a television monitor to a sawhorse with thick jute rope. The monitor beckoned viewers with endless flashing images of John Wayne shooting a bandit.

Television plays a central role in his work, he says, "because television is the official display device of the information age. It says this commentary is contemporary, that what we're talking about now is something that is happening now." He compares televisions to cathedrals: "Both cathedral and television represent the dominant form of discourse of the time."

Lawrence looks to present familiar events in unfamiliar ways, to encourage his audience to ask questions and to consider how cultural values are affected by evolving technology and information systems. The artist feels that with this how he ventures into uncharted territory, which he is eager to explore.

Judy Arginteanu writes about the arts for local publications.

There will be an opening reception for "Plants, Animals, Simple Tools, and So Forth" on Friday, May 17, 1991 from 7 until 9:30 p.m. in the Minnesota Gallery. The reception is free and open to the public.

Robert Lawrence will lead a public tour, free and open to the public, of his exhibition on Sunday, May 26, 1991 at 3 p.m.

This project was made possible in part with a grant from Intermedia Arts with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts InterArts Program and the Rockefeller Foundation. Production support provided by the Media Arts Production Award Program through Intermedia Arts. Robert Lawrence is a fiscal year 1990-91 recipient of a Career Opportunity Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board through funds provided by the Minnesota State Legislature.

Related Images

InBoom or Bust-Business, As Usual(left), included in the recent exhibition "What's Art and What's Not?", a television monitor beckoned viewers with flashing images of John Wayne shooting a bandit. Lawrence's recent work (above) combines books and televisions with natural objects, including a stuffed trophy muskie and trees felled in the Wisconsin woods.

Slow motion footage of grizzly bears and bison references a "Wild Kingdom" version of nature. Lawrence presents the natural world as a cultural construct, carefully edited and mediated by informational tools.

Citation: Judy Arginteanu, "Plants, Animals, Simple Tools and So Forth: Video sculptures by Minnesota artist Robert Lawrence explore the relationship between nature and technology," Arts 14, no.5 (May 1991): 8-9.