March/April 2006

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Adam Putnamās Body Dispersal


One of the things that drew me to Adam Putnamās work is its underside or surplus÷you know, what happens outside the studio. Aside from producing drawings, videos, photographs, and magic lanterns, Putnam is constantly working on other things. Last spring, he organized Passing Time, a program of lectures in which a number of artist friends riffed on topics as varied as memory (Jesse Bransford) and immensity (Seth Kelly). He repeated this lecture series, with some variations, in Oslo last November as part of the Astrup Fearnley Museumās exhibition Uncertain States of America! A few years ago, Putnam produced Into the Abyss, a zine for which he invited a group of artists and writers to reflect on the connection between sexual and suicidal fantasies and the landscape. Putnam set the tone of the project in the preface:

ćDuring my recent trip to Iceland, as I was stepping over volcanic fissures, crawling into dripping caves, pondering the ejaculations of ancient geysers and being enveloped in ethereal vapors I was struck by the PORNOGRAPHIC NATURE of it all. At the same time my need for total oblivion was paramount and I began to feel the murderous call of the LANDSCAPE.ä

I initially sought to connect Putnamās out-of-studio efforts with the collaborative and relational work that has emerged over the last decade. When I asked him about this, however, he stated that the creation of an open platform for cultural production was too forced a description of what he was doing. To work collaboratively was just an obvious thing to do, and investment in the structure itself was not the point. These publications and lectures simply allowed him to make ongoing private conversations public, thereby inviting rigor into a thought process in order to sharpen ideas already in circulation. I like his description of these projects as a sort of materialization, a way of giving actual form to late night bar talk. This gives private conversations a ghostly quality÷they both haunt public presentations while existing in an immaterial, ephemeral state. This spectral presence registers throughout Putnamās project. Everything that he produces feels haunted.

The paranormal has always had its place in Putnamās output. Untitled (Psychic Power), 2000, an early video where special effects transform the body into an aberration (two torsos and no legs), invokes the cursed space of Medieval witchcraft or the morbid wonder of the nineteenth-century cabinet of curiosities more than the technofetishism of mutation.

Adam Putnam, still from Untitled (Psychic Power), 2000, video, color,
5 minutes (courtesy of the artist)

At once lo-fi and unequivocally of the digital age, the video marries the old creepiness we still use to express the anxiety caused by our bodyās negotiation of increasingly technological world with the very technological artifacts and processes that are making this body obsolete. Think of it in relation to the phantasmal quality that is increasingly lodged in technology÷say, in the EVP recordings of ghost hunters, or the cursed videotape in The Ring movies. In Putnamās video, itās as if the body were haunted by its own double÷a techno-deformed version of itself, so similar and yet such an aberration that it can be cast in the freak show of the future. And the future, we know, is always now.

In the late 1990s, Putnam worked on a series of performances that were documented in small, damaged black and white photographs that resemble old pictures of nineteenth-century haunted houses and crime scenes.

Adam Putnam, Dish Cabinet, 1997, black and white photograph, 5 x 7 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Keep in mind that Putnam is 6 foot 8 inches÷this is essential to understand the works. In them, he attempted to stuff himself into small domestic furniture, like dish cabinets, wardrobes, and bookshelves. His long limbs are folded and contorted in visibly uncomfortable ways. Itās striking the physical lengths to which Putnam went to stuff his body into this furniture. Something had to give, and the body always ultimately took on an unnatural form in order to fit into the world around it. Here, again, allegory subtly materializes to speak of the bodyās need to adjust in the wake of technologyās take-no-prisoners incursion into everyday life.

Adopting a much more Victorian look, more recent works do away with the body altogether. A series of cyanotypes from 2002 depicts forlorn architectural details and strange presences. Absent, except for vague shadows, the body nonetheless haunts this work at every turn. It is precisely this ćpresentä non-presence that is the workās subject matter. Immaterial, the subject is absent from both the scene of the photograph and the world.

This works has, so far, yielded a particular interpretation: critics state that Putnam attempts to make architecture perform. The Shadow Room videos, 2005, empty rooms charged with oppressing atmospheres, provide muscle to such a claim.

Adam Putnam, still from The Way Out, 2005, video, 10 minutes (courtesy of the artist)

This reading nonetheless glosses over an essential point. Putnamās architecture is performing, precisely, the absence of the body. In other words, these rooms are charged up by missing bodies and the traces they leave behind÷shadows, markings, and sounds. The rooms only take on a character by showcasing the missing body through palpitating shadow-blobs or eerie soundtracks. Locating the loss of the body in the rampant technological advances of the post-Hiroshima age, Putnamās project is the sticky underside of all the paeans to the cyborg. His work begins with all the anxieties that technofetishism tries to hide.

Adam Putnam, Untitled (Initiation), 2004, c-print, 8 x 10 inches
(courtesy of the artist)


Adam Putnam, Embrace, 2005, c-print, 16 x 20 inches
(courtesy of the artist)

I initially thought that the loss explored in Putnamās work had a political lining, like most paranormal reconfigurations of the body. I saw this as a loss of a sense of agency, also registered in the carved bodies of summer slasher films. Now that the body is back in the cupboard and the ghost has been let out of the bag, however, the loss registered here may be at a stratum even more fundamental than the political. Putnamās videos and photos, channeling the Victorian in all its creepiness, may be marking that threshold where our bodies÷even if we canāt quite come to terms with such merciless knowledge÷are becoming something radically other.

Gean Moreno is a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS. His studio visit with Lorenzo de Los Angeles was published in our July-August 2005 issue.


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