This essay was written in conjunction with Cupola Bobber on view at CUE Art Foundation February 1 - March 10, 2007.
Cupola Bobber is Tyler B. Myers and Stephen Fiehn. Though sometimes described as performance artists, their work has much more in common with experimental theater. Despite their experiments with endurance and task-based performance, their absurd form of comedy takes cues from the work of avant-garde theater giants like Richard Foreman and Tadeusz Kantor. In their 2001 piece Subterfuge, in which they systematically create and destroy a forest of two-by-fours, Fiehn clomps around with a stool strapped to his foot and Myers inflates his shirt like a balloon. Their 2004 performance Petitmal features text from the film Footloose; running on treadmills they are exhausted; and a spelling bee.
The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment, their performance piece to be featured at the CUE Art Foundation, follows a similar pattern. Myers, simulating a train, carries Fiehn onto a cardboard stage and attempts a brief tap dance. They riff on a classic scene in Buster Keaton's film The Scarecrow. Just as Keaton and his roommate prepare a meal with the use of pulleys and levers-a victrola becomes a stove and condiments hang from the ceiling. Myers and Fiehn embark on a conversation about space and train travel while using Keaton's lever-and-pulley system to pour and drink sherry. This precarious bit-pouring sherry in tethered glasses and swinging them through the air-is repeated blindfolded. Conversation is lost over the roar of a train. The comedy thinly veils the tension and melancholy in the work. Underneath the surreal slapstick, The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment is a meditation on the tenuous nature of human communication; its clumsy nature is tragicomic, blocking our ability to convey our innermost hopes and desires.
According to Myers and Fiehn, the name Cupola Bobber refers to an architectural lookout point, the cupola, and a fishing cork or float, the bobber. However, it also refers to the cupola on the small two-axle caboose, called "bobbers" in the 1800s. This "cupola bobber" would be a vantage point from which a rear engineer could not only monitor the track switches but also watch the train tracks recede into the horizon. The engineer, on longer trips, would complete his daily journals in this space, reflecting on the journey. In this way, the name Cupola Bobber conveys the sense of an observer, locked into a certain vantage point, able to look anywhere except in the direction he is traveling.
It isn't surprising then that the subject of much of the text of The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment centers on the importance of trains and the history of technology and transportation. Especially significant is the driving of the golden spike upon the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, a moment, as Myers points out during the performance, "that changed everything." It was at this moment, he suggests, that humanity awakened to the idea of travel, traversing greater and greater distances.
However, Cupola Bobber does not simply riff on the zeitgeist of the Industrial Revolution and the fledgling days of travel. Their dialogue seems to stand outside of time, as if Myers were trying to synthesize knowledge extracted from the technological timeline and impart these ideas to Fiehn. References to Jimmy Carter and Thomas Paine stand next to each other, and talk of train travel is just as relevant as theories about what a star may or may not look like up close. In this context, all transportation is essentially the same in its attempt to compress traveling time; and while long-distance train travel stands on a technological timeline with the space race, their exact chronological order is either forgotten or irrelevant.
The title The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment echoes that of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Cupola Bobber shares the movie's surrealism and whimsy in its treatment of space travel. It also parallels the title of Ilya Kabakov's 1985 installation The Man Who Flew to Space From His Apartment, where the inside of a shabby Soviet apartment contains the evidence that a man had launched himself into space through the use of what seems to be a primitive slingshot. Cupola Bobber's "Man" embarks on the equally improbable task of building train tracks that reach to the stars.
Kabakov's other The Man Who... pieces-The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away and The Man Who Disappeared Into His Picture, particularly-reflect a similar sentiment of longing, of meditating on an unknown destination. While Kabakov's "Man" reflected the Soviet Union's political agenda toward the space race, Cupola Bobber's "Man" is not restricted to any one nation, time or identity. What remains important is the attempt to traverse the void and arrive at the ultimate destination, by whatever means necessary.
While The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment may physically mimic Buster Keaton's comedic style, it also addresses semiological concerns shared by Keaton. One of the most striking aspects of Cupola Bobber's form of presentation lies in the failure of communication. Throughout the performance, Myers tries to impart knowledge to Fiehn-something regarding time, space travel and an unachievable destination-but the idea proves too abstract, too indescribable. Just as Keaton kneels to tie his shoe and a neighbor girl wrongly assumes he is proposing, throughout the performance Fiehn's assumptions about what Myers is trying so hard to describe are wrong every time. Rather than transmitting exactly what his idea is, Myers can succeed only in communicating what the idea is not.
The ineffectuality of communication is also explored in Cupola Bobber's installation Conversation for Two Silhouettes as a Horizon Line, also at CUE. Silhouettes of Myers and Fiehn, reminiscent of the silhouettes sounding out words in the 1980's children's television show The Electric Company, engage in a "conversation." This conversation is represented by changing lines and forms within the vacant space in each head. As they converse, the "ideas" morph, increasing and decreasing in complexity-a conversation is evident, though its content isn't clear. Instead, the audience is privy to changing abstractions shifting from head to head. At one point during the performance, Myers confesses, "I don't want this knowledge to die with me." While the subject of the conversation may be ridiculous, the audience is meant to feel the tension caused by the inability to communicate vital knowledge.
Tension is created not only thematically, but also in the physical form of Cupola Bobber's props. InSubterfuge, the audience anticipates the ultimate toppling of every two-by-four. In The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment, the audience endures the anxiety caused by the precariousness of the papier-mâché and cardboard props. Alongside these fragile items, Cupola Bobber's particular style of choreographed clumsiness plumbs the best of Richard Foreman.
Cupola Bobber takes bold chances, engaging in tasks that may or may not result in disaster. Will Fiehn be able to balance on the stack of cardboard boxes? Will the glass or bottle of sherry break as they are swung back and forth? Though Myers' and Fiehn's actions are deliberate and methodical, they are constantly at odds with the precarious nature of the world surrounding them. They claim that Cupola Bobber's performances are highly subtle and subjective and that, within the strange world they have built for themselves, they are forcing the audience to feel, if not fully understand, the fine line between order and utter chaos.
Cupola Bobber may never be able to reach the stars to know them intimately. Even their ability to communicate the grandness of this destination may be unattainable; speech is too imperfect, and technology just as unpredictable as their cardboard and papier-mâché props. Perhaps, in the end, the goal is not important, but the journey is. Let Cupola Bobber pour you a glass of sherry and tell you all about it.
This essay was originally published in January 2007.
The writer, Tiffany Funk, is an artist and critic based in Chicago. She received her M.A. from the University of Chicago in 2005, with an analysis of the new- media installation work of Tony Oursler. Funk teaches humanities courses at the City Colleges of Chicago. The mentor was James Elkins, who teaches art history, theory and criticism, as well as visual critical studies, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He writes about the history and theory of images in art, science and nature. His books on fine art include What Painting Is and Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? Other books—The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them—are about scientific and nonart images, writing systems and archaeology, while How to Use Your Eyes is about natural history. Elkins' other interests include optics, microscopy and stereo photography.