Jacueline Surdell: Participation Trophies

July 7 - July 28, 2018

Jacqueline Surdell,  Coaches Award,  2016, Pink resin on gym floor plank

Jacqueline Surdell, Coaches Award, 2016, Pink resin on gym floor plank

The work of Chicago based artist Jacqueline Surdell is just that: work. Across scales, forms, and materials, Surdell’s practice seeks to affirm and direct our gaze toward a kind of fugitive or withdrawn materiality in the objects of labor. Whether it comes: in the form of thick rope nettings, dislocated patches of gymnasium floors, an old cast or even bits of human hair, the indicators of labor that Surdell chooses to target and highlight share a common state of disembodiment from a set of actions that has either yielded their production, or that they themselves aided in the production of.

            Hanging over these pieces is a spectral air of memory, sweat, and endurance on behalf of the maker and the object itself. Where the human action of labor is ephemeral, the material consequences and subsequent marks made in the world are much longer lasting. When the construction site is closed for the night or the pavement work stops, the tools for the next day remain there, visible to the passerby as the index of what we otherwise may have ignored or stepped around. When the bodies are gone, we may look, and what we see are the aftereffects – objects discarded and awaiting their next activation, invested with the legacy and memory of being handled and put to use the next day. Labor is not meant to be touched or seen for that matter, a laboring body runs counter to the vogue of the contemporary technocracy that late capitalism embodies – with the specific exception of athleticism.

            An athlete herself, Surdell played volleyball for most of her college career. Hours of practice, strength training, and the triplicate rhythm of “bump, set, spike” (coda) are engrained in her works confronting the ne’er spoken of border between art and athleticism. Sculptures formed with tangles of thick rope evoke a net caught in itself, or the baskets that hold balls before they are brought into play. Strips of Astroturf and a clock evoke the track field, but their disbursement suggests a mutability of speed, and instead offers a conciliatory gesture to slower and closer looking. Gym floors, dislocated from their larger bodies sit propped against walls, perpendicular to their original orientations like tablets or low reliefs carved by the footprints of the figures that sprinted across its surface. In the spirit of the classic slasher film, the eeriest part of entering an empty gymnasium are not the objects that lay around, pantomiming their purposes to themselves, or the cavernous architecture, but the silence. The materiality of Surdell’s work is imbued with an absence not just of bodies acting upon these surfaces and objects, but the sound that accompanies action. Patches of gymnasium floors, propped against the walls like Richard Serra at a Dick’s Sporting Goods silently echo the squeaks, creaks, and pounding of feet sprinting, jumping, and gliding across the surface between the sounds of a crowd, the trample of bleachers and scoreboard buzzers – as if the luminescent layer of epoxy the floors are coated in could fossilize the sound, like a mosquito trapped in amber.

            Labor takes strength, and not just the physical kind, there is a type of mental and emotional toughness associated with all varieties of labor from the most strenuous tasks of physical exertion to the peaks of emotional labor that require the same resolve of nerves to handle. Surdell’s work does not eschew any of these points or varieties and she wisely chooses materials and objects whose capacities for inscription and absorbing memory are richly in line with her own history and sensory experiences. Conversely, Surdell equally understands the necessity and importance of the existence of objects beyond themselves as part of a larger system of industrial production, where certain codes, forms and gestures are repeated in multitude and identically produced objects perform equally diverse tasks on a globalized scale. Where gymnasium floors sits water logged and warped in one part of the United States, it is pristine and being played upon in another, rope serves innumerable purposes and the same batch from the factory could be atomized anywhere in the world performing countless tasks of utility, play or even violence.

Where memory and human action are concerned there is a type of agency and power. Where hair is cut with specific techniques, ropes are woven, tied, and knotted at various points, and athletic performances are choreographed and executed with equal amounts of machine-like precision and improvisation. Surdell directs our attention towards the agency and possibility latent in objects and their capacity to have a sense of agency in their own use. Sociologists Bruno Latour asserts form is “simply something which allows something else to be transported from one site to another… to provide a piece of information is the action of putting something into a form.”[1] The form of an object often indicates some inkling of its purpose, or potential usefulness, but the objects and infrastructure of labor need a structural and unseen - but implied - integrity to reap the full benefits they pack.

The floor of a gymnasium (Coaches Award) needs to be strong enough to hold the weight above it, the impacts of bodies, projectiles and crowds. Similarly, rope if we hope to establish or construct anything of merit or use, must at least be commensurate in strength to whatever it is that it is trying to hold up or erect. If we were not conditioned to force labor to the periphery of our vision, these objects may not need to wait for themselves to be elevated or endowed with speculative cultural value for their associative and memorial values to be brought to light.

            In a deeply Bergsonian sense, these works evoke a sense of duration[2] – incomplete in so many ways, these forms and materials are constantly at work reconfiguring themselves to our memories, histories, and in the case of many of the rope sculptures: holding themselves together beyond our visual capacities on a physical level while we look at them. The ghosts present in Surdell’s work are the leftovers and remembrances of labor that would otherwise haunt the sites and efforts they construct – were they not brought to our attention. It is through this (re)presentation that Surdell irrevocably separates them from their usefulness and renders objects as images, silently gesturing and performing their past or concurrent lives in the minds of the audience rather than in the hands or field of action and its production.

            These objects – then dispossessed of their utility – situate themselves into a kind of abstract functionality, disassociated from their original purpose and fall into the realm of image rather than object, ornament rather than tool. Surdell allows memory and materiality to negotiate with one another in the spaces where utility is forgotten in favor of objecthood, and the memory of these materials in their utilitarian applications allows her objects, masses and figures to become something else – something they are always on the cusp of being, but are just dislocated from far enough to maybe never even have been in the first place. Perhaps this is what an image is: never a replique, never a mirror, but something very much part of a system that constitutes how we know an object in the world – but one that we can never quite except to be commensurate to the thing it aids our understanding of.


[1]  Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39.

[2] Bergson, Henri, and Frank Lubecki Pogson. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001).