Utopian longing is the major driver of Kara Uzelman’s show 2013. Positioned in the present, rather than in an unrealized future, Uzelman displays materials collected from the area in which she now lives, a remote region of Saskatchewan in central Canada. The artist uses her previous training in archaeology to root her new body of work in the gallery space of Sommer & Kohl. The key work in the show is a set of objects, on a low white plinth, which recall archaeological finds. Earth Radio (2013) comprises a working radio, the aerial of which extends through wires that connect the diverse artefacts, including various bottles, forks, spoons and, humorously, a potato. The radio, though, is tuned only on static. What is plucked from the air is devoid of human effects. It may be analogous to the sound of the wind – in Berlin perhaps, or in Saskatchewan. Along with two other pieces in the show that reference radio and aerials, Earth Radio radiates a tragic potency and a tragic poignancy. It is not to be used for contacting a distant civilization, but rather is an emblem both of a society left behind and the struggle to create another form of life, removed from civilization.
Uzelman has packed the gallery with viewpoints: from photographs of found objects to photographs of objects that Uzelman herself has built and positioned, like public sculpture, in the wilderness: from an electricity pylon, gouged into a gallery wall, to a pair of rubber boots which, empty, hang upside down from the gallery ceiling. These works give the exhibition a plaintive appeal, almost as though the artist were asking our approval for her backwoods project.
The American dream lives on in some parts of North America: the survivalist movement being a case in point. Removed to Canada, and from its typically right-wing political agenda, Uzelman’s survivalism takes its bearings from the ‘psychedelic’ movement, which found its origin partly in the Canada of the 1950s. This connection is played up in the sculptural assemblage Morning Glories (2013), a set of decorative building blocks made from ‘homesteader’s concrete’ – a mixture of clay, sand, linseed oil and wood – used by hopeful hermits to build their remote dwellings. The motif inscribed in these blocks is the ‘morning glory’, a common name for over one thousand species of flowering plants, many of which contain ergoline alkaloids, such as the psychedelic ergonovine and ergine. When taken in large doses, the seeds of these plants produce an effect similar to that of LSD.
Uzelman appears convinced of the viability of a return to the wilderness, even if she shows some skepticism in works like Karlson Stack (2013), a box constructed out of plywood in which found speaker cones are situated (this time there is no sound emanating from the sculpture, not even static); or in the eloquent Spirit Level (2013) – a strut of warped wood with a bottle of moonshine (brewed by the artist herself) cut into it. Despite the warping and the unorthodox type of spirit, it must certainly be possible to use this tool for hanging pictures, with a few calculated adjustments.
It is with this idea that the show as a whole primarily engages: that the freedom of the plains may be a hackneyed old dream, but a dream that is still capable of inspiring. Things may be improvised and inaccurate, but that is part of the point. This is reality, not a melodrama written by Joseph Beuys. Instead it brings to mind Andrea Zittel, particularly her more community-oriented works, such as the Wagon Stations series (2003–ongoing). Further, an unmistakable homage to Robert Smithson’s late-’60s gallery works appears in Bark Covered Vessel with Reflection, Harmona (2013), which shows a less than symmetrical gourd placed in front of a set of small mirrors stuck vertically into fresh snow. Reflected in one of the mirrors is the top of the gourd, which evokes the shape of an inquisitive human head and shoulders.