Review: Tom Burr – Circa

Tom Burr – Circa

Bortolami, Oct 29 – Dec 23, 2015

Attempting to find a public restroom in New York City most often amounts to a grail quest bound to an epic failure. Tom Burr’s exhibition at Bortolami will not solve that problem for you during your Chelsea gallery stroll, but his piece entitled Unearthing the public restrooms (1994) grippingly illustrates the merely unstoppable disappearance of these public edifices. Burr’s concise typology makes use of photography’s most primary function to record the slow vanishing of these supposedly obsolete public structures: monuments to our pressing human needs or desires.

Located in the gallery’s main room, his series of small and straightforward black and white photographs of public restrooms is conventionally presented as a row of eight framed and matted silver gelatin prints. Hung across the East wall of the gallery, their conservative presentation is activated by the organic presence of branches from Circa ’77 (1995), which comes to gracefully obstruct the view of the photographs when seen from a distance.

Reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s earthworks, Circa ’77 was originally installed at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 1995. This pseudo “non-site” consists of a sizable section of soil and trees contained within a large pine wooden crate, where found objects such as a beer cap have inconspicuously been placed. The fictively displaced park sample reconstructs a part of Zurich’s Platzspitz Park, a place formerly known as a hot spot for Zurich’s gay community back in the 1970s. Informed by the significance of the recreated park sample; peering through the branches, and out towards the photographs of restrooms, one could easily imagine scenes not dissimilar to those presented in Kohei Yoshiyuki’s scandalously voyeuristic infrared photographs from the same era. While Yoshiyuki’s photographs of gay men taken in Tokyo’s parks in the 1970s and early 1980s are subtle and oneiric, devoid of any explicit or graphic content, Burr’s work manages to retain even more information. This technique of withholding is pushed to the point where the underlying content could go unnoticed, if it wasn’t for the informative yet skillfully written text found on the opposite wall of the gallery.

As reflected in the distortion mirrors placed on the edges of his Partitions (1995),  all of the elements present in this main room, whether they are photographs, sculptures, or text pieces create a whole, where each of these elements also remain autonomous. Correspondingly, the overall installation avoids pure theatricality meanwhile highlighting the way ‘things’ are not necessarily what they appear to be. Angularly positioned, the two panels of Partitions, could indeed be looked at without evoking Times Square’s dismantled peep shows and other porno bookstores.

Burr’s surreptitious strategy if it can be called as such, is perhaps best exemplified in a previously unseen grid of small color Polaroid photographs of these peep shows, theaters and stores presented beside the two minimalist wooden structures. These photographs Untitled (from 42nd Street Structures) only depict carefully selected fragments of architecture, details of painted facades, and portions of decorative elements, without ever directly confronting us to an actual peep show or porn theater. Instead, the Polaroid photographs, through their fragmentary nature, stand in for what they do not show, they act as a peep show without a peep show; leaving us perplexed as to where we should insert a quarter for the show to begin.

Emile Rubino

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