Skunk Hour's Awkward Pleasure

See for yourself at Soil Art Gallery.

Twelve white sneakers occupy the center of Soil gallery, crowding into a semicircle of white pleather and Velcro fasteners, topped with what look like the ankles (only) of pale blue sweatpants. Strung with black cord to a white box hung from the ceiling, the group of shoes is (at first) still. After a moment, the robotics-powered sneakers begin to tap, at first one and then several, until they get loud, tapping in unison against the white linoleum flooring set beneath them. You hear a hint of noise from the box above before the spastic movement begins, and the thrumming of rubber soles. "As they dance," the gallery attendant explains, "they walk themselves into different clumps." This work by Michael Simi, half of the artist duo Fire Retard Ants (with Fred Muram), is called Skunk Hour, part of their two-man show, "We 8 Ourselves (for your Urgent Need)," which intends to explore (as the artists' statement explains) "adolescence and its nostalgic persistence as a vehicle for creativity." The white sneakers are as nondescript as possible: generic, unbranded. Looking as if they date from the '80s (or perhaps the '70s), these anonymous shoes conjure the image of an awkward group of teenage boys huddled in a circle. You have to wait for the shoes to start moving, and the waiting feels like an uncomfortable pause in conversation. (Or perhaps one teenage boy, self-conscious, hears his own toe-tapping as overly loud.) Speaking with the artist later, I'm told that "the shoes are trying to spell out" Robert Lowell's poem "Skunk Hour" in Morse code. So those long pauses are line breaks and stanza breaks. After being struck by Lowell's work in high school, Simi heard it again recently via NPR's weekly poetry podcast. "I sort of think of it like his [Lowell's] ghost," Simi says of his sculpture. Explaining the programming of the shoes, he says "they continually fail" to re-create the poem perfectly, and that the piece "knows what cadence [Line] A should be, or [Line] B should be" but "it confuses itself; the more it goes on, the more distance it will put between" the poem's meter and the rhythm tapped out by the shoes. "When you communicate," Simi explains, "what really gets through anyways?" 

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