Navigating Time

Jed Lind channels human ingenuity, the romantic idealism of the past and the diminishing resources of our fragile planet

Fall 2009 | Robert Fones

Over the past four years, the Toronto-born, Los Angeles–based artist Jed Lind has produced a cohesive body of work that is a peculiar fusion of 1960s and 1970s ideology and technology and 21st-century concerns about environmental degradation and human survival. His sculpture has incorporated boat hulls, geodesic domes and materials that appear to have washed up on the beach of some desert island. His sculpture, video works and photographs are fuelled by the ideas and actions of romantic heroes, writers and inventors from the past—such as John Muir, Robinson Crusoe, Gordon Matta-Clark, Alexander Graham Bell, Buckminster Fuller and Bas Jan Ader. While Lind shares the commitment, ingenuity and idealism of these men, his passion is for our own historical moment and for the need to balance human inventiveness and the limits of the planet’s resources.

At Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, in 2005, Lind established two strategies that can be found in much of his work: fusing forms associated with two separate idealistic enterprises into one structure and recycling emotionally or historically charged materials. He gives all these elements a new function and meaning in his art.

The three sculptural works in his 2005 Toronto show exemplify these two approaches. Memento Mori is a kind of monument to some of the writers, inventors and idealists cited above. Books written by these figures are stacked between stones and a conchshell in a vertical configuration that appears to defy gravity. At its apex, candles heat up a beer can, which rotates like a primitive rotor when heat escapes through the turbine-like pattern cut in its top. The vintage beer can is a nod to Robert Smithson, who appears with a similar can in a film by Nancy Holt. Lind’s use of vintage materials—objects from a specific historical period—is significant: he fuses two moments in time into one and creates an emotional or psychological link to a specific earlier period, one within which the artist or inventor who inspired him lived.

Memento Mori is both an evocation of the Earth Art of the 1960s and an overview of Lind’s ideological mentors. It looks like something constructed by someone on a desert island out of reading material he or she arrived with and natural materials found at hand. As with much of Lind’s work, its references are subtle and many, and establish a matrix of associations for the viewer to consider. This sculpture has its own life and power, but it also evokes the now-absent artistic castaway who created this monument to his own lived experience.

Two other sculptural works (only one of which was in Lind’s 2005 exhibition), An Archetype for the Edge of the World no. 1 and An Archetype for the Edge of the World no. 2, also seem to relate to this castaway scenario. Lind took models of traditional galleons, carved a lattice pattern into their surfaces and then inverted them, transforming the ships from familiar shapes into triangulated geodesic shells. Rigging that had gone up to masts now goes down to the ground, both anchoring these vessels and acting as rope ladders of egress. Hulls that would typically hold cargo, provisions and sleeping quarters at sea now appear to function as dwellings on land. But the geodesic form is not from the same period as the galleons, so any historical reading of these models and their context is deliberately subverted.

The upside-down orientation of the boat hulls suggests the world view of early seafarers, who believed they might fall off the edge of the world if they ventured too far out to sea. Lind’s modified models suggest that it might not be the end of everything if that happened—a new way of surviving, using familiar technology in new ways, might emerge. There may be a lesson here for us about our own world view and how to adapt what we have to new circumstances.

Reusing or transforming familiar objects is a common strategy within contemporary art and design. One can think of the shed Simon Starling transformed into a boat and navigated down the Rhine, or the lamps Douglas Coupland made from abandoned fishing floats he found on the beach on B.C.’s Graham Island. However, the scale of Lind’s recycled ship models keeps them within a craft or hobbyist tradition, and this makes it hard to see their contemporary resonance. In subsequent works, Lind wisely moved on to full-scale boat hulls and his own uniquely fabricated models. In a work from 2005, Capsized Dreamers, Lind cut into the fibreglass hull of a small Guppy 13 sailboat using the same kind of triangular pattern he applied to An Archetype for the Edge of the World no. 1 and no. 2, merging the tensile structure used by Buckminster Fuller with the craft used by the Dutch-born Los Angeles–based artist Bas Jan Ader in In Search of the Miraculous. For this 1975 project, Ader attempted a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a 13-foot-long fibreglass boat. Ader disappeared; the overturned boat was found half-submerged off the coast of Ireland. It was picked up by a Spanish fishing vessel and taken to La Coruña, where days later it was stolen.

In 2005’s Shipwreck Shelter for 1975, Lind again merged Fuller and Ader, this time in a sculpture consisting of a geodesic polyhedron covered with sail fabric. This structure was made from the wooden tiller from the same Guppy 13 sailboat. Sail fabric from the craft was cut into triangular pieces to fill the open spaces of the polyhedron. This sculpture evokes the homemade geodesic domes of Drop City, a utopian community established in Colorado during the late 1960s. The Drop City reference (also present in Memento Mori through the book Drop City, by Peter Rabbit) speaks to an alternative lifestyle existing outside the mainstream, much like the castaway scenario evoked by Lind’s use of scavenged and recycled materials. Lind has created a structure that attempts to redeem the tragedy of Bas Jan Ader’s disappearance by offering in model form a hypothetical dwelling that the artist could have inhabited should he have survived his tragic ordeal.

In a 2008 Toronto show, Lind exhibited two works, A Canoe is a Canoe is a Canoe and Frost King. In A Canoe is a Canoe is a Canoe, the title of which evokes Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase “A rose is a rose is a rose,” Lind cut away most of a canoe’s aluminum hull, leaving behind a silhouette of chain-link fencing. He derived the pattern from photos of the chain-link fencing that encloses the Los Angeles River near his studio. Lind deliberately chose sections that were bent out of shape, stretched, cut or twisted as if to present evidence of the damage caused by the homeless people who have colonized the river’s remaining habitat. Invented in England and adapted by several American companies, including one founded in Ohio in 1898 by M. H. Frost, chain-link fencing is see-through, yet paradoxically the standard barrier against escape or unwanted intrusion. Given its association with boundaries of various kinds, including those between nations, it represents the duality of industrial progress: an economic use of material combined with the active limitation of access to land and liberty.

For most of its length, as it winds its way through the city, the Los Angeles River flows within an artificial channel built with sloped concrete sides and a flat concrete bottom. This part of the river is most familiar to the general public as the location of Hollywood car chases and as the site of the suspicious trickle investigated by Jake Gittes in the movie Chinatown. The river channel is mostly a wasteland containing scarcely enough water to float a canoe. Lind’s sculpture fuses river and canoe—both industrialized and made non-functional—into one form. Lind’s labour-intensive process of creating the negative spaces that define the fencing pattern is perhaps akin to a therapeutic act countering the years of neglect the river has suffered. The manual labour that goes into Lind’s work is commensurate with the commitment and tenacity of the creative individuals and inventors—both artistic and technological—he admires and whose ingenuity and fearlessness fuel his own.

Lind’s strategies of recycling technology and using emotionally charged materials were also evident in the second of the sculptural works in this exhibition, the tetrahedral structure Frost King. The title of this work harks back to Alexander Graham Bell’s kite of the same name, which was also based on a tetrahedral structure. It is purported to have lifted a man off the ground in 1905, producing, if unofficially, one of the first instances of manned flight. Like Bas Jan Ader’s boat, it is a craft associated with inventiveness, risk and hope. Lind made his Frost King out of aluminum he cut from the hull of the canoe and melted down. M. H. Frost, the American manufacturer of Frost chain-link fencing, also gets a second life in Frost King.

Lind’s sculpture is neither as large nor as detailed as Bell’s immense kite. Its dimensions were delimited by the amount of aluminum Lind cut from the canoe, and as a result it reads like a model, prototype or monument. The material link between the two objects in Lind’s show underscores their common function as means of overcoming normal constraints on human mobility, whether in the air or on the sea. Lind’s canoe, however, will never float, nor will his tetrahedral sculpture ever get off the ground.

A strip of pink fabric that wound through the struts of Lind’s Frost King was cut from a weather-worn American flag. Like the canvas triangles of Shipwreck Shelter for 1975, the material was once animated by the wind. The stripes that stood for the original colonies, once red, have now faded to pink, signalling perhaps both the passage of time and our distance from the idealistic enterprises of Alexander Graham Bell and many others.

A series of time-based photographs also included in this exhibition further affirms Lind’s exploitation of the notion of the artist as romantic hero. In these works, Lind himself is the adventurer, aiming his grandfather’s field camera at the night sky in order to capture on film the slow grind of celestial motion as well as the rotation of the camera. These images are not simply records of moments in time, as most photographs are, nor are they straightforward long exposures, but rather a bit of both. Lind left the shutter open for nearly three hours to record the moving course of the stars and also rotated his camera in sync with the revolution of the earth in order to generate concentric trails tracking its movement. The camera is the craft in this cosmic ocean, with Lind as navigator. The resemblance of these images to scientific astronomical photos is deceptive. Like much of Lind’s work, they record the time taken to create them, pointing to the artist’s patience and the relationship of human beings to the larger cosmological picture. These photographs tie together the concerns of many of Lind’s sculptural works by outlining a time frame within which the dramatic events he refers to took place or could have taken place. Indeed, photographs are often all that remain of extraordinary exploits.

Lind’s evocation of the castaway and the navigator suggests that his art is both a solitary process of invention and an investigation of unknown territory. His materials are carefully selected reclaimed items chosen for their links with the endeavours of other artists, inventors or thinkers from history. Lind’s artistically modified flotsam represents both a collaboration with these earlier creative individuals and, at times, a restitution of the enterprises with which they were associated, whether tragic or unresolved. Lind is an explorer, but his territory is time and ideology.

Canadian Art, 2009