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Art in the Trenches

A contemporary artist introduces viewers to soldiers’ wartime practice of turning artillery into artifacts

Art in the Trenches

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.


Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant confronts history head on in a body of work that seems to be scathingly critical of inadequate history books. For instance, for his 2006 work Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, he acquired diorama scenes from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, deconstructed the scene, and photographed the wax figures in front of a white wall. In his latest show at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, Durant unearths a little known bit of history known as “Trench Art.”

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

In an interview with ArtInfo, Durant explains what exactly Trench Art is, and how he has made a few pieces of his own to place next to the actual examples he's found over the years: "The use of 'Trench Art' functions as a reminder of the inextricable link between war and art, violence and culture. I made two sculptures which involve war material. One, a large wind chime, uses artillery shells as the bells, which might actually qualify the piece as Trench Art. The other work is a collection of various examples of Trench Art, which I accumulated over the past several years in my research. The artifacts represent a variety of different forms of Trench Art from different conflicts throughout the 20th century. They are arranged into a unified composition that is a cross between modernist and anthropological artifact display conventions. Trench Art as a recognized form developed during World War I as soldiers trapped in the trenches for weeks and months on end began to use what was at hand to make things: lighters, vases, ashtrays, little sculptures of tanks, animals, planes, people, and so forth. The tradition has carried on from WWI to WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and on and on and on. I imagine there is Trench Art being made in Syria, Iraq, Libya, perhaps even in Gaza right now."

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Elsewhere in the show, Durant shines a light on lesser known artists of the Surrealist movement, particularly those living in the French colonies.

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Sam Durant, Invisible Surrealists, will be on exhibit at Paula Cooper Gallery, 521 W. 21st St., New York on September 12 - October 18, 2014.

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

On Saturday, September 13, Durant and UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley will have a conversation at the gallery about "Keepin' It (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous," an essay by Kelley that inspired Durant's latest explorations.

SAM DURANT, An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base, 2014. Found objects, light bulbs, plaster, wood, marble, steel, wood, MDF, acrylic, gauche, (fabrication Chris Dyson) overall 65.5 x 56.5 x 57 in. (166.4 x 143.5 x 144.8 cm). ©Sam Durant. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

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