Crush Collision:Arts Magazine

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Crush Collision
Chris Larson captures the ‘moment of impact’ in his new sculptures and film

By Tammy Sopinski Perlman

ON SEPTEMBER 15, 1896, a reported 50,000 spectators gathered in a town just north of Waco called Crush, Texas. The festive public-relations event was the brainchild of William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. Each spectator had paid two dollars in anticipation of the planned collision of two 32-ton locomotives, each pulling seven boxcars, at a combined speed of 120 miles per hour.

Finally, at 5 p.m., the engines met carefully in the middle of a four-mile stretch of track. Then, slowly, they backed to their starting points, one to the north, the other to the south. At ten minutes after five, William Crush appeared on a white horse. He threw down his hat. The trains, whistles wailing, engines gleaming, careened toward each other. As the crowd cheered, the locomotives met in a thunderous crash before settling in a silent heap.

Suddenly, both engines’ boilers exploded. Chunks of metal, large and small, flew through the air, killing and injuring spectators. Regardless, the Crush Collision was considered a success. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin was among the spectators that day. The crash inspired him to write The Great Crush Collision.

LIKE WILLIAM CRUSH, Minnesota artist Chris Larson has been staging collisions. But these are conceptual collisions between cultures, beliefs, religions, and the art of people from diverse cultures. He tells these colliding stories in the tradition of early American storytellers, using not words and music, but large-scale sculpture and film as his medium. Larson’s picturesque stories come to the Minnesota Artists Exhibition program (MAEP) galleries, November 17, 2006, through January 7, 2007.

At the center of the exhibition is Crush Collision, named for Joplin’s song, Larson’s fourth film with producer Jason Spafford and sound designer Alex Oana. The twelve-minute film, whose action takes place in a house floating on the water, is a complex examination of the dualities of human existence. Featuring musician Grant Hart (formerly of the bands Hüsker Dü and Nova Mob) and performance artist Britta Hallin, the film follows the two as they toil on an elaborate machine that endlessly creates a circle of clay. Working on two levels, the actors are a study in contrasts. Hart’s dark hair and world-weary appearance complements Hallin’s angelic face and white dress, as she passes down to Hart the lumps of clay that he forms. Local percussionist Michael Bland (formerly with Prince and The New Power Generation and Soul Asylum) acts as narrator, playing drums to establish mood and texture.

As Hart works, a moment of reverie transports him to another life in that house on the water—that of the Knight Family, a Minneapolis gospel quartet, gathered around a supper table saying grace. As the family sings, Hart finds himself on the house’s upper level playing a silver piano, not with the keys, but by rhythmically rocking it back and forth. Hart and the family represent stories from different times running parallel in the same location. The film is a meditative study of dark and light, of the physical and spiritual.

In the exhibition, the film plays adjacent to an actual house. This 16-by-14-foot, two-story dwelling spent last winter frozen in a lake in the small, northern Wisconsin town where the film was made. Now, weathered and worn, it stands as a testament to the events that occurred there. Preserving the memory of the life it once held, the house blurs the lines of the real and the story. Larson creates the essence of a time and place, not just visually but with an assault on the senses—the earthy smell of wood; the sharp, sometimes dangerous-looking parts of the machines; the soundtracks. His scenarios resonate because they are steeped in history.

While Larson’s early sculptures were static, they always had the appearance of machines or of potential movement. His curiosity about their possibilities brought him to filmmaking. However, while every machine movement is carefully recorded, these films are not necessarily about the machines. They are, as Larson puts it, “vehicles to talk about the dualities of life.”

Most recently, Larson has been capturing the moment of impact in his sculptures of roughly hewn wood. In Pause (The Dukes of Hazzard ‘69 Charger and Ted Kaczynski’s Montana Refuge) of 2004, a replica of Kaczynski’s cabin explodes as the “General Lee” crashes through its roof. This work reveals the American cultural heroes and anti-heroes who inspire Larson.

Larson tells strange and fantastical stories, like the folktales that influence him. His stories deal the very different lives of contemporaneous people, their struggles, and the duality of human nature.

Tammy Sopinski Perlman is the MAEP Program Associate at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Citation: Tammy Sopinski Perlman, "Crush Collision: Chris Larson captures the 'moment of impact' in his new sculptures and film," Arts 29, No. 6 (November/December 2006): 16-17.