Art Experience/Amusement: Steve Kemple’s recent work at Semantics

Steve Kemple’s exhibition at Semantics, The World is Everything That it Isn’t, accomplishes what many exhibitions strive to do: approach difficult ideas, both in the arts, and in general, in a digestible and playful way. Kemple touches on subjects of organizational systems, simulation, function, etc. with art objects such as a houseplant, an old map, and a telescope among others.

The first object presented to the viewer upon entry is a plant, sitting on the floor, surrounded by “vectors”: four pillows with an array of books ranging from Bertrand Russell to The Phantom Tollbooth. On the wall to the right, a large sheet of paper reads “Instructions For Activating Vectors (Self Aware Houseplant),” directing the viewer to, in a group of four, read simultaneously to the houseplant.  The resulting cacophony of sounds from this activity is part science experiment, (a la Peter Tompkins’ book The Secret Life of Plants, in which sounds and significant cultural fragments were presented to plants in order to investigate plant sentience) part social experiment, (which text will the viewer choose, and what does that say about the value of what we choose to educate someone or, in this case something, i.e. Bertrand Russell vs. Tollbooth) and as a participatory art installation, a playful interrogation of the lengths we go to “experience” a work of art – is it the plant’s self awareness under scrutiny or ours?

The other objects – a pathway from a photo of the sun to a heater,  a hanging plant light that illuminates the numbers zero through ten in alphabetical order, the letters/words “ok” written three times in salt, a telescope whose focus is pushed to its maximum and pointing at a hanging map, all carry similar themes of investigation: artist work meaning vs. doing, functional dialectics, and at some points practical jokes (consider, The World’s Second Most Inconceivable Object, found outside of the gallery, and only existing theoretically). Yet, these theoreticals define our art viewing: can we get “lost” in the fantasy that a work of art presents to us? Is it necessary to have a communion with works of art? Is it necessary to have a communion with specific works of art? Kemple, by having us read to his plant, step around his salt words, and share a pointless literal worldview with a telescope, uses humor, playfulness, and wit to investigate art as experience, theory, and all of the other baggage that comes along with “activating” an exhibition.

-Chris Reeves




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