Walker show asks: Is a still life really still or life?

Objects hang on the wall as part of an art exhibit.
Roman Signer’s 2004 piece “Installation with Tables” doesn’t move until one of the candles burns down to the fuse inserted in its wax. Once lit the burning fuse causes the table to fall and smash on the floor. The piece is the final room in “The Paradox of Stillness” at the Walker Art Center
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The stereotypical still life painting is a bowl of fruit, or a vase of flowers, artfully arranged. The finished picture captures a moment in time.

But curator Vincenzo de Bellis says the Walker Art Center’s latest exhibition examines whether a still life really is "still." 

"A lot of artists have questioned themselves about whether you can keep something still and frozen for perpetuity or, like any other human thing, (it) has a beginning and an end,” he said. “Or at least has a cycle."

What happened to the objects in the picture? Did the flowers wilt? Who ate the fruit? Or did it rot? And is the artwork itself really still? Some may last for centuries, but de Bellis says they keep changing too as they age and decay. 

The exhibition called “Paradox of Stillness” asks whether stillness can — or cannot — really exist. It's high-concept but also a lot of fun.

Pieces of art sit with a spotlight on them in a large, white room.
Visitors to “The Paradox of Stillness” at the Walker Art Center are greeted by a snare drum which plays itself.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

A spot-lit snare drum, with two drumsticks resting on top stands by the entrance.

"So as soon as the visitors first come in, they start playing by themselves," said de Bellis. 

Inanimate objects apparently self-animating is just the first of many mind-bending pieces in Paradox of Stillness.

De Bellis approaches a quartet of ventriloquist dolls hanging on one wall, next to a large photograph of a real person dressed as a Raggedy Anne doll.

Objects hang on the wall as part of an art exhibit.
In The Paradox of Stillness curator Vincenzo de Bellis juxtaposes Paulina Olowska’s 2019 painting “Shelly Duvall in Brewster McLeod” with Laurie Simmons sculpture “Clothes Make the Man.”
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Objects that function as bodies, or bodies that function like objects," he said, pointing to the artworks around him.  "In other words, puppets, mannequins, dummies." 

Nearby three toddler-sized puppets of men painted silver hang from the ceiling. They're more than a little creepy. 

"And we have known from our nightmares, and from the pop culture, that the dolls get animated, and Stephen King has made a fortune out of that," laughed de Bellis.  

The brain-twisters just keep coming. There are what de Bellis calls performative sculptures, including three bell-covered human-sized articulated figures.  

Pieces of art sit with a spotlight on them in a large, white room.
The Walker commissioned artist Haegue Yang, to create these pieces called “Sonic Intermediates – Triad Walker Trinity."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"They spin, they move and every week they will be activated by a number of performers," he said. 

In fact, 14 of the sculptures will be animated by a total of 45 performers during the show. These range from a go-go dancer in one gallery, to a model who will discretely pose nude as a Greek statue. There is even a plinth on which visitors are encouraged to stand and become works of arts themselves.

Objects hang on the wall as part of an art exhibit.
Visitors to the Walker Art Center’s exhibition “The Paradox of Stillness” are invited to step onto Piero Manzoni’s 1961 sculpture “Magic Base - living sculpture” which the artist said had the purpose of transforming “any person, any object placed on it (into) a work of art.”
Photo by Pierre Ware | Courtesy of Walker Art Center

There's a group of performers in painted bodysuits recreating the picnic scene from Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe." They lounge under a tapestry portraying women gathered round a bust of Karl Marx.  It's called a tableau vivant, or living picture.

"This is the core of the show," de Bellis said. "It's a room titled 'Between living picture and still life.’ How can we say that a tableau or a picture is living? And how can we say that a life can be still?"

Eventually de Bellis approaches one more spectacle.

 "This is the final piece, the cover shot of the show," he says. "It's six tables hanging from the ceiling, suspended.''  

They're very big tables and it's a very high ceiling. The ropes holding them up are skinny. The whole thing is lit by large candles. It's very still, except for the flickering flames. But here's the thing: each of the ropes is tied to a fuse. In coming weeks those candles will slowly burn down to the fuses.

"They will eat the fuse, and the table will fall down."

After each mighty crash, stillness will return.

"And that's the end of the show," said de Bellis, his face lit up with delight.

Well, not entirely. The Walker hopes to film each Paradox of Stillness plunge as it happens. 

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