Sondheim Finalists 2015: Benjamin Kelley's artifact-like sculptures with little context or meaningful explanation feel obtuse and distant

Benjamin Kelley’s pieces look like they were plucked from an exhibit in a natural history museum: Low to the ground, in the middle of the room is ‘The Steward,’ a very long, extruded column of dirt encased in a backlit, gray-painted display case; on a nearby wall, in ‘Vault,’ a white platform holds an old manual that is opened to a page on how to measure the capacity of the cranial cavity. The book is protected by a clear acrylic case, with an abstract aluminum-cast form sitting on top of it. The aluminum form looks both bodily and geographical. Encasing the pieces in glass and acrylic, Kelley treats his two works like artifacts (except for the aluminum piece), and it’s up to the viewer to figure out how it all fits together.

Though this association with artifacts encourages us to spend more time with each piece individually, ‘The Steward’ and ‘Vault’ feel a bit obtuse. Looking at art should be like an excavation or a study, just as art-making is an exploration of different combinations of form, material, surface, and concept. But there are missing pieces here, so we fail to extract some of the potential grander concepts behind these works—like the way that art and science and history are all linked, or how any of this can relate to us as human beings, or the environment and what we’ve done to it. These are all wispy associations we can make while looking at this work, but we can’t find a place to confidently stake any of them down.

So we are left to guess at what made Kelley stop at this particular page in this book (“Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume III Part 2”), while we ponder the mild ridiculousness of this guide to measuring cranial capacity (quantified in graphs that show weight, and not volume). We wonder what question prompted the experiment, and what was learned, and what it meant for future scientists or doctors or, well, anyone else. And the aluminum piece, which is painted black, piles on more questions, in part because we can’t name it. One side of it looks a little like a water mammal’s tail, or maybe a liver; part of it looks like some other organ, with some kind of ligament attaching both sides.

We’re unable to pick up what, exactly, unites each part of Kelley’s work, and we have to be told, via the label, that ‘The Steward,’ which we described as a “gigantic earth poop” in our notebook, is a “deep earth core sample obtained by the JOIDES Resolution (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) from the Gulf of Alaska in 2013.” Still not finding answers or intrigue, we turn to Kelley’s description, affixed nearby, which talks about “a ‘land bridge’ in this location that allowed for migration from what is now Northern Asia to what is now North America” and for a second our elementary school education about the Bering Strait partially comes back, though we still picture a literal footpath on which fur-coated Russians hobbled over. Having questions while looking at art is no problem, and in fact it makes it more engaging, but we can’t help feeling distant here. 

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