Null and Void

Courtesy of HPAC

On Easter Sunday, Conrad Freiburg, an artist-in-residence at the Hyde Park Art Center, sat atop his twelve-foot tall harmonograph eating rabbit paella. Occasionally he put aside his lunch to strum his ukulele, or, when the machine’s spiral drawing was finished, to tend to the three formerly swinging pendulums that hung below him. “Pendulum Driven Drawing Machine,” Freiburg’s interpretation of the 19th-century invention called the harmonograph, uses the motion of pendulums to create geometric images. The pendulums hang from a triangular platform that is surrounded by a heptagonal fence. The sculpture dominates Gallery 1 at HPAC. Yet even with the imposing presence of the harmonograph, Freiburg’s exhibit “It Is What It Isn’t” somehow feels spacious.

According to the artist, “It Is What It Isn’t” is an attempt to “systematize and compartmentalize a huge concept: the void.” Freiburg breaks the void down into three categories: absence, loss, and the unknown, which respectively correspond with the numbers seven, five, and three. Absence, Freiburg claims, connects to musical harmony (Freiburg’s research for this exhibit included an investigation into funeral music), and the number seven corresponds to the number of notes on a harmonic scale. Loss breaks down into five types–or objects–of love (self, lover, family, friend, and absent). The unknown contains three “philosophical manners” (active, passive, and absent). His classification of the void is certainly complex, but Freiburg succeeds in conveying a sense of the void that feels, strangely, complete.

This multifaceted understanding of the void manifests itself in the physical structure of the exhibit’s pieces. Seven heptagonal “Chimes of Pythagoras” hang along three of the gallery’s walls below a row of 108 spiral drawings (one drawing for every harmonic interval between two notes) that Freiburg drew with a smaller version of his harmonograph. The spiral drawings differ only slightly from one another.  “Each represents a 3/16-inch increment of height of a pendulum,” he explains, and “in phase or out of phase motion creates the difference between a perfect spiral and a straight line.” These drawings, hung well above eye level, are only accessible through the “Telescope of the Indirect,” a gesture towards astronomy and its understanding of the void as outer space, interstellar emptiness.

While much of the exhibit, and in particular the harmonograph, focuses on geometric organization and continued creation, Freiburg also explores destruction. Standing next to the exhibit’s second-largest piece, the “Self Contained Unit of Entropy” (SCUE) he asks his visitors, “Would you like to smash something?” That Sunday, he instructed them to build sculptures from scraps of wood and then placed them on the apparatus to be destroyed by a falling cement slab. With this mechanism, Freiburg offers his viewers an immediate experience of loss by allowing them to destroy their own creations.

Although Freiburg himself is not usually part of the exhibit, he emphasizes the human element in his art–both in theory and in practice. On Sundays, Freiburg participates in his own exhibit. While he’s there, he interacts with his viewers as if they were his good friends and explains his exhibit to them directly. On Easter, he pointed out that a student’s glasses were the same brand as his and photographed two brothers’ sculptures before helping them smash their creations. His creations are, by his own definition, human-powered mechanisms. According to the artist, both the harmonograph and “Citizen Void #1,” a scroll drawing which depicts the only human figure in the exhibit, represent the “development of a geometric language and its relationship to the human body.” And Freiburg fits within his algorithm of the void: he claims on HPAC’s website that nothing is in his bones.

Art, Freiburg suggests, cannot exist by itself, independent of its context. It cannot be separated from its artist or from its audience–“Pendulum Driven Drawing Machine” and the “Telescope of the Indirect” would be nothing without someone to set the machine’s pendulums into motion or to look into the telescope’s eyepiece. “A picture of a mountain,” Freiburg says, “fails to be a mountain. Art is inadequate as a metaphor but it can hold up as action.”   The void is anything but action, of course: the void is emptiness, darkness, absence, and nothing. But yet, “It Is What It Isn’t” reveals an active quality of the void that is present in everything.

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S Cornell Ave. Through June 26. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 12pm-5pm. Free. 773-324-5520.

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