"Let's say 30," answers Jesse Sugarmann, trying to remember the number of times he's been in a car crash. He isn't a stuntman, nor is Sugarmann the unluckiest driver still living. Putting cars into compromising positions is his thing. It's his art. His body's relationship to these auto traumas is purely incidental to the gestures being made.
Since 2008, the artist has worked exclusively with the automobile and the imagery surrounding it. It's a pricey medium to work in, says Sugarmann, referring to performances in which vehicles are often totaled (or battered beyond the point of general wear and tear). "This is what I spend all my money on," he admits. It's money spent burning out engines and making wrecks; pumping exhaust and suspending hulking metal transports in a surreal ballet.
Some of Sugarmann's earliest works in the medium were a direct response to encountering an overwhelming curatorial focus on sustainability and the environment. "I was annoyed with the permissions that the sustainability movement had granted itself," he explains, "So I started making work about sustainability, but in the most environmentally caustic ways that I could think of."
"Fresh Aire II" connects the exhaust pipes of six cars into a central chimney, and a video documenting the piece shows Sugarmann suffocating the black plume with handfuls of dryer sheets. The sheets spew into the air like confetti—some blackened, others ejected white—presumably suggesting that "saving the environment" is likely an impossible idea.
More recently, "Red Storm Rising" elevated and toppled a vehicle using the lift power of dozens of inflatable mattresses, and "Light for Lee Iacocca" put a black light inside a tower of tinted windows (speaking to the simultaneously public and private environment of the automobile and its manufacturers, while acting as an homage to former Chrysler CEO Iacocca).
Lido (the pride is back), Sugarmann's TBA 2011 installation and performance, combines the physical gestures of "Red Storm Rising" with the mythology of "Light for Lee Iacocca," parking three Chrysler minivans on 42 air mattresses and culminating in a slow-motion pile-up. Sugarmann says it's "a celebration of the minivan designed to honor Lee Iacocca," and assures me that both himself and the audience will be at a safe distance from his crashing minivans. Wouldn't want to make it 31... amirite?
Lido (the pride is back), Washington High School, 531 SE 14th, live performance Sat Sept 10 & Sun Sept 11, 4 & 7 pm; opening reception Thurs Sept 8, 8-10 pm, Fri Sept 9-Sun Sept 18, noon-6:30 pm, free, through Sun Oct 30, see pica.org for post-TBA dates and times