It's human nature to yearn to make a lasting impression on the world. We toil away in cubicles to prove our worth to a corporation, search emphatically for a soul mate, strive to leave a legacy or indelible mark on a generation or a society. We do these things to prove to ourselves — to others — that who we are and what we do is singularly unique, to rest in the comfort of knowing that our existence has shifted the universe, no matter how insignificantly. But when we do move on, we're inevitably replaced. We aren't the indispensable aspects of our jobs or our relationships; we're merely a placeholder the system needs to survive. So why do we strive to make ourselves so essential? What does it really mean to be irreplaceable?
Los Angeles-based artist and Locust Projects founder Elizabeth Withstandley seeks to answer that question in "You Can Not Be Replaced," a two-channel video installation featuring images of the current and former members of the Dallas choral symphonic rock band the Polyphonic Spree. Accompanied by an audio track that combines ambient cosmic recordings, song, and spoken word, the video conjures images of an eerie otherworld in which we're all just cogs in a wheel.
It took Withstandley more than two and a half years to track down the 82 current and former band members. "I'd seen the band perform live before and noticed I wasn't always seeing the same people, so I decided to find out more about them," she says. "I was really interested in the volume of people that have come in and out of this
Withstandley, whose interdisciplinary work includes photography, film, and installation art, often explores self-worth and positions in society in an age when social media and the entertainment industry are at the center of culture. "You Can Not Be Replaced" is the artist's exploration of the cyclical nature of moving on — referenced by a 22-piece band that's a revolving door of musicians. The group's peculiarity, with its eclectic genre-bending music and unusual size, is amplified by the signature white robes its members don for every performance; they wear the familiar garb in Withstandley's work.
She began her quest by getting in touch with the band's touring manager, who invited the artist to photograph the Polyphonic Spree's 22 current members during a tour stop in Los Angeles. He then helped Withstandley build a list of the other 60 musicians who had played with the group since its formation in 2000. She began reaching out to them, explaining the project, and photographing the musicians who were willing to participate.
Whether it was because they harbored unresolved feelings, were moving in a different direction musically, or had simply moved on, not every ex-member chose to participate. "I tracked down every single former member because I really wanted an answer from everyone so I could understand where they were coming from," Withstandley says. "I had to figure out how to represent them in another way."
Withstandley compiled the images and created a two-channel video piece, with 100 uniquely hued rectangles representing the individual character of each member. Each square is filled with that member's photograph, only to be replaced later by a more generic image. A specially recorded version of the song "It's the Sun" accompanies the fading images, and a faint voice counts in the background, drawing attention to the large number of people who have, at one time or another, formed the Polyphonic Spree.
The exhibition questions the notion of individualism, forcing the viewer to consider whether any one member really made a difference in the band's sound. Each member adds a unique aspect to the whole, but his or her musical addition is easily replaced by someone else's. Are their contributions any less significant simply because the show had to go on?
"As you watch, it becomes more and more difficult to discern any one person. People are appearing in rectangles on one projection or the other, and you don't necessarily know where the next one is coming in," Withstandley notes. "I think this work shows that we aren't that individual, but we are all very unique even if we are put in the same constraints."
It's no coincidence that Dimensions Variable chose to exhibit Withstandley's work as its final show at its current location. One of Miami's most venerated experimental art centers, the artist-run gallery has been in its own state of flux since its founding in 2009. It moved from the Design District to a windowless downtown warehouse in 2012; now it's facing a forced relocation to a yet-to-be-determined space. It's a prime example of the disposable character Miami developers have attached to the city's burgeoning art community — encourage artists to move into a rundown neighborhood, raise its value and desirability as the next up-and-coming district, and then promptly force the artists out.
"Your replacement is part of a natural cycle," says Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, who cofounded Dimensions Variable with his wife and fellow artist Frances Trombly. "For things to continue to evolve and run their course, people have to move. Think of when you drive by the house you grew up in — the structure is the same, but everything is different. It's necessary to have a cycling of generations in order to build on something."
The gallery's impending relocation gives Trombly and Rodriguez-Casanova the opportunity to consider their strategy for sustaining their overall mission. If they choose to move to a leased space, the extra bills could alter their objectives. "Selling the work is not our primary mechanism," Rodriguez-Casanova says. "We're trying to take apart traditional systems, working with artists with relatively low exposure, and letting them do whatever they want with
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For Withstandley, Dimensions Variable draws a sharp parallel to Locust Projects, the not-for-profit art space she founded in 1998 that has since evolved into a nationally recognized arts institution. In a sense, Dimensions Variable is taking a place that Locust can no longer occupy, a space that dedicates itself to presenting the kind of risk-fueled projects that produce exciting, out-of-the-box art. It's especially fitting that Withstandley's show ushers in a thematic concept that's become quite literal for Dimensions Variable, as it vacates its home and finds a place in another.
The gallery will be replaced by a shiny new mall, but the impact Dimensions Variable had on the revitalization of downtown Miami will likely linger forever. It's just a matter of recognizing its worth.
"You Can Not Be Replaced"
Opens 6 p.m. Friday, September 11, and runs through October 18 at Dimensions Variable, 100 NE 11th St., Miami; dimensionsvariable.net.