Arts Desk

Vitamin A: Avery Lawrence’s “Arranging Suitcases”

In which one of our art critics highlights a favorite work on view in a local gallery.

“Arranging Suitcases” is the latest video from Avery Lawrence, who won some acclaim during the (e)merge art fair for “Moving a Tree,” an absurd video about a man in a suit who fells a tree limb by limb, and pauses long enough to change into a polo outfit before lugging sections of stump and limb across a field only to reassemble the tree with a contrived scaffolding.

Like its predecessor, “Arranging Suitcases” (now on view at Heiner Contemporary) is poetic and strange. The artist, seated in a highback tufted chair, reflects on a dance he performed to win the chair. At the conclusion of the flashback, the artist is confronted by a pile of steamer trunks of varied dimensions. Noticing one missing, he hurls the load onto his back and humps them over a canal and down a street, unloading them in a yard where the last remaining trunk is found on a pedestal. The artist unpacks the trunks, and assembles a contraption that includes an exercise bike, a Sousaphone, and a scaffold that enables a person to simultaneously exercise and play the instrument, which exactly what the artist then does.

The video is a part of a much larger assemblage of stuff. Promotional photos of the video performance are on the wall, along with concept drawings and character studies. The blue trunks from the film, each crafted by the artist, are piled along the wall. The contraption—an exercise bike Sousaphone with swivel bell—stands in the middle of the gallery. The chair, custom upholstered for the video, is in the corner, with matching wallpaper on Masonite dressing the walls. Considering the physical relationship a spectator can have with the objects from the video, it should be no surprise how immersive the video becomes, despite the absurdities.

The opening flashback, for starters: Lawrence applies several conventions of early cinema within the first part act of the video, which retells the tale of a man who dances to win the heart of a chair he fancies.  While the pantomime is reminiscent of Keaton or Chaplain—complete with suit, straw skimmer hat, and a shoe-polish mustache—the dance is distinctly modern.

The second act of the video, the moving of the trunks, as well as the third act, the assembly of the contraption, are also performed with silent-film schtick , and it's possible to appreciate this video solely for its strangeness. It could be a commentary on art-film tropes themselves: After all, who hauls luggage a few thousand feet to unpack and play its contents, or for that matter who cuts down a tree only to move it a few hundred feet and reconstruct it? But, despite a couple of editing goofs, the craft of the work is too meticulous to be a pointless or abstract act of surrealism. Or, maybe it isn’t.

When I visited, the gallery offered that the artist was working in response to stories about his grandparents, and gallery literature says Lawrence is “preoccupied with notions of futility and the absurd.” Let’s run with it and consider the work symbolically. The chair is grandma, who waxes romantically about earlier days of courtship (the first act). The luggage is grandpa, who whisks grandma away. Together they encounter challenging moves and eventually settle down. Once settled, they reflect on how anti-climactic it all was. You can almost hear the artist say, “That’s it?” He exhales and dead-pans off camera with a look of bewilderment.

Was all of that activity pointless? Perhaps. But so is life. Don’t dwell on its pointlessness: It's more fulfilling to reflect on achievements and experiences, no matter how challenging or fleeting. And, considering the contraption, the trunks, the drawings, and the handcrafted wall paper,  it’s not the pointlessness that should be celebrated. Like a Rube Goldberg Machine, it is just how pointless it is that makes Lawrence's work enjoyable.

Avery Lawrence's Arranging Suitcases is on view 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday to April 21 at Heiner Contemporary, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

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