Mike Rathbun’s current installation evokes a hostile American frontier
Seattle Pi, September 27, 2007
By Nate Lippens
Suyama Space lends itself to grandeur, and Portland-based sculptor Mike Rathbun’s sprawling, exuberant installation, “N47°36.878′ W122°20.788′, ” matches the challenge. His work is alive to the mysteries and difficulties of experience in a way that changes with each viewing.
The home of architecture firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi, Suyama Space also includes a fantastic, light-filled central gallery. Artists are commissioned to fill the space with site-specific installations. Rathbun has created an environment consisting of an airborne skeletal plane with thorny wooden vines reaching up through the frame. The mission, by the looks of it, hasn’t been a success. But the art is.
Rathbun’s installation creates an experience rooted not only in place but time. Since 1995, when Rathbun made a 70-mile solo voyage across Lake Superior in a handmade sailboat, he has been making sculptures with geographical coordinates for titles; N47°36.878′ W122°20.788′ is the location of Suyama Space. Yet despite the title’s specificity, the narratives suggested by the work are open-ended.
It seems appropriate that Rathbun teaches at Lewis & Clark College. The urge to connect to something larger drove those explorers — a desire for a new frontier also has driven artists, prophets and madmen. It’s behind innovation and westward expansion, glory and genocide.
In the case of Rathbun’s installation, the beauty of failure — of crashing — is the epiphany. Discovery is truncated and, in a way, realigned. There is no straight line for revelation. It brings to mind the directions given to the Arkansas Traveler in old fiddle tunes: “You can’t get there from here.” But he does and so does Rathbun. However, “there” turns out to be a flexible, unanticipated, and perhaps even unwelcoming place. No one said discovery wouldn’t be hostile. When an installation reminds one simultaneously of Emerson and Amelia Earhart, without directly referencing either, something wonderful is at play.
Most likely Rathbun was the kind of boy who attached batteries to things, made something out of everything that he came across, and learned to love what he made and feel a little empty at its completion. In other words, he’s an artist. God help him.
His work continues the impulsiveness of a born inventor but rather than solving problems, Rathbun creates work that complicates easy narrative impulses. Adventurers call out to something and sometimes it calls back. Just as often one crashes and burns and leaves a legend. Enter Earhart, the Madame Curie of flight with the Mona Lisa smile and the Lindbergh drive.
This plane, resting uneasily on a bed of nettles or pierced by vines, leaves its mystery intact. The perfectly crafted form, with its unknown origin and unachieved destination, points at manifest destiny that has run its course, at the American impulse to venture into the unknown and the inability to admit when this impulse has led one astray. Or, as Daniel Boone wrote, “I never was lost in the woods, though once I was confused for three days.”
Nate Lippens is a Seattle-based writer.
He can be reached at [email protected]