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Harriet Sanderson: LIMBUS AT JUNDT Galleries at Gonzaga University

by Seattle writer, poet, and critic Robert Mittenthal

Reprint permission granted by The Jundt Art Museum
Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258-0001

In the sensation of the phantom limb, transcendence and immanence meet. It is "a felt recovery, a felt advance beyond severance and limitation which contends with and questions conventional reality. It's a feeling for what's not there which reaches beyond as it calls into question what is." (Mackey, 40)

Grounded in physical memory, the body throws itself across space with the faith that it will marshal the balance to stay upright. Naturally proprioceptive, the body becomes almost immediately aware of itself as it gestures or moves.

Without this bodily self-awareness we might wake up beating ourselves up in the dark, not knowing where or what we are. Without any inner or outer intuition, we'd lose ourselves, the body would not be able to become the body.

According to Nate Mackey, Legba — the limping Yoruba god of crossroads — transforms his "deficit leg into invisible supplement." Legba is "crippled, the limping god who nonetheless dances." He "suffers not from deformity but multiformity." In effect the so-called 'disability' expressed through limping can "unveil impairment's power...." The point here is that "impairment taken to higher ground, remediated, translates damage and disarray into a dance," into art.

Every artist works under constraints. Even the words unfolding here are not completely under my control. The context controls me as much as I control what comes out.

Harriet Sanderson is an artist enabled by an acute awareness of her own physical limits. She has spent a lifetime struggling with constraints, having virtually no use of her right arm since she contracted polio at a young age.

Arranging and rearranging furniture in a sort of Zen-like rock balancing exercise, Sanderson works like Sisyphus: rolling a rock uphill, turning it carefully upward in anticipation of the inevitable moment when balance is lost, when the rock tumbles back down to the foot of the hill.

Sanderson's installation, LIMBUS, recontextualizes the museum into a sort of allegorical nursing home. Entering the body of the building, the viewer walks through the illuminated interior of the spaces as our bodies cast shadows amid the tableaux.

We enter an enclosed yet active space to interact and measure the physical presence of the art against our own bodies. But it is the eerie absence evoked by arrangements of canes and chairs, mattresses and pillows that as Nate Mackey says "reaches beyond as it calls into question what is."

Michel Serres asserts that work is "a struggle against noise." (86) Health is a silence of the organs. "Sickness is a noise." We live in the relative space between silence and noise. It is up to us to work toward and not run from noise. If we are patient, "the noise slowly becomes conversation... noise and message exchange roles." (66)

Precariously balanced, Sanderson's sculptures are vulnerable, impermanent. Morphing into different forms, her chairs and canes lean on each other, their arrangements shifting in pursuit of a more comfortable or less noisy position. In Tango Without Arms a chair is comforted or perhaps tortured by mutating fragments of canes whose articulating arms contort themselves, as if they were embracing their own constraints.

In both LIMBUS and Lag — A Holding Pattern in Building Nine (at the former Sand Point Naval Station in Seattle (1998)), the installation space is delineated into contiguous areas. In LIMBUS, the use of movable walls break the Jundt Galleries into discrete spaces — in effect suggesting both interconnection and disjunction. The rooms seem to be working out a division of labor, each room assigned a different function.

Before an infant grows down, developing neck and then arm and leg muscles etc, the infant is as one. Sensation ripples through its body unimpeded. Tickled toes reverberate into the arms and face. With the acquisition of language — or maybe just with the development of muscle tone and control — the body begins to form divisions or compartments.

In Georges Perec's novel Life: A Users Manual, each room in a Parisian apartment building is revealed to us as a world unto itself. There are discontinuities at every threshold. Each room in some fundamental way is unknowable to all other rooms, but all rooms or chapters are singularly composed, full of intent. They are divided but in time relations between rooms and their contents begin to connect to reveal a more complex organism — the building as a whole.

In LIMBUS, there are all sorts of rooms: sleeping rooms, sitting or waiting rooms, play or living rooms, as well as other transitional spaces.

Two earlier sculptures, Tractor and Easy Chair, appear along the intermediary spaces guarding the entrances to rooms. Sanderson reequipped these wheelchairs, renovating them with wooden canes and wicker. Tricked out of their bodies, as if hyperaware of themselves, they are vehicles adorned with symbols of their own limitations.

In the big living room an almost circus atmosphere pervades, a sequence of chairs exercising, leaning in synch to one side or another. There seems to be a hidden chorus of voices sitting on loop leg chairs — the chairs up on cane handles as if dancing on stilts; several chairs have wandered off for a stroll or have set themselves up to monitor the traffic or to guard the entrance. The threshold is important here, we've entered another often noisy world.

Neatly stowed away, a blanket of sleeping canes form figure eights, a series of moebiuses that suggests a suturing of head to foot to head. The canes fill the floor of a small room, locked in their own quiet embrace — "nevaslip" rubber stops on both ends.

In an adjacent room, mattresses triangulate a boxy space. Chairs face each other standing on pillows which lay on mattresses; canes protrude antenna-like from the chairs, dangling their handles down to form small circles or connection points.

Several prints are draped over chairs. Sanderson's primary discipline (1990 MFA Printmaking, University of Washington) was not sculpture but printmaking. In her recent series of close-up photographs of flesh illustrated with hand drawn hairs, she is working towards an image that represents or foregrounds physicality. The eye feels impeded. We are thrust so close that we get disoriented.

In Lag, we followed a continuous bed of pillows, leaning or laying flat, filling the entire floor and ascending a staircase — leading to a dramatically lighted chair on the landing, canes protruding. So, while canes and chairs explore the physical possibilities of interaction, beds and pillows cushion the pain, completing the furnishings of these rooms. Like a dream of an ascension, chairs climb atop their canes — and vice versa — canes clothing the chairs, forming bridges and interconnections between themselves, building relations.

The internal space can seem orderly and chaotic at the same time.

There is something unsettling in the otherwise harmonious form of chairs and canes. Maybe it is the fact that the chairs are second hand, openly displaying the scars of their long life. The chairs have a certain nostalgia unlike the canes which show no signs of age. This tension between the new or generic canes and these old and weathered chairs provides a balance which seems appropriate for a nursing home — the sanitary and impersonal (that along with television often dominate these places today) versus the worn and diseased.

There are many hidden stories here that will never be told. We come to this installation and discover our own stories, easily imagining patients playing cards, or tapping toes to phonograph records. As Sanderson explores the dysfunction of the chairs, they work with their canes to stand and walk and finally dance; they begin to attain a life of their own. A sense of joy and pain is evoked.

The artist's work is to struggle with materials — in this instance with these chairs and canes — to choreograph a dance. With LIMBUS, Sanderson infiltrates the museum to celebrate noise as an interference that can increase the significance of the message.

— Robert Mittenthal, 2007

Portions of this essay were adopted from an earlier article written on Lag — A Holding Pattern in Building Nine (1999)

Nathaniel Mackey. "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol" in Callaloo, No. 30. (Winter, 1987), pp. 29-54.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual. Translated by David Bellos. Boston: David R. Godine, 1987. Originally published in French in 1978 by Hachette.

Michel Serres. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.