2:32 pm Jun. 16, 2010
Like a lot of people his age, John Powers, a boyish-looking 39-year-old sculptor who lives in Brooklyn, saw Star Wars when he was a kid. He was living in Chicago's South Side back then, just a normal, comic-reading six-year-old kid, when his older sisters dragged him to see one of the biggest movies of all time. "I just wanted to stay outside and play," he recalled recently. "It was a great, sunny day. The last thing I wanted to do was go to the theater."
After that, he said, for the rest of his life he and his sisters talked about Star Wars. And while his childhood featured piles of Star Wars toys and tie-in merchandise (he declined to say just how much), he was never obsessive about it: "All my friends I would break 'em apart and rebuild 'em," he said. "I'm really abusive to my things. I'm not really a precious collector."
That same spirit of vigorous engagement animated Mr. Powers' recent presentation of Star Wars and Modernism: An Artist Commentary at Philoctetes, in Manhattan. An audio-visual project he described as "fan non-fiction," Star Wars Modern is Mr. Powers' attempt to connect the visuals of George Lucas sci-fi film to modernism, the international school of architecture, urban planning, and other far-flung topics.
Powers, whose work has been shown at PS1 and other spaces, has been honing these ideas for eight years, first publishing them in a much shorter form last year in the art journal Triple Canopy. Among his hypotheses: Abstract art is the Force; artist and essayist Robert Smithson, best known as the creator of Spiral Jetty, is modernism's Luke Skywalker; minimalist artist Robert Morris is Obi Wan Kenobi; critic Clement Greenberg is the Emperor; and far from being a blockbuster-chasing Hollywood hack, the George Lucas of Star Wars was close in spirit to Yippie Jerry Rubin. Throughout the 50-minute presentation, a slideshow and lecture set to a John Williams-meets-Philip Glass score by R. Luke Dubois, Mr. Powers' simmered a cross-cultural stew containing bits of Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, the Vietnam war, the Kent State massacre, construction of the World Trade Center, Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, Richard Nixon, Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and HUAC among many, many others.
To judge from the appreciative chuckles and "a-ha" vocalizations of many of the attendees, the combination of pop sci-fi and art crit went together like chocolate and peanut butter ("Hey, you got art theory on my popcorn movie!"; "You got popcorn movie on my art theory!"). Among the attendees was Felix Salmon, Reuters' resident gadfly blogger, who declared the artist (an old friend, it turns out) "a genius."
Some, however, found it a little distasteful. One attendee objected to Powers' characterization of Greenberg as the Emperor, the movie's evil overlord of Darth Vader and the rest of the darkside Siths. (It probably didn't help that Powers quoted Lucas comparing the Emperor to Richard Nixon and threw in his own comparison to Robert Moses for good measure.) Another person raised serious (that is to say seriously nerdy) concerns about Powers' use of the digitally-altered remastering of Star Wars.
To an attendee with little knowledge of art history or the Star Wars series and who wouldn't know an X-34 landspeeder or a Richard Serra Tilted Arc if either one hovered over his foot (this reporter surely couldn't have been the only one), the proceedings swung confusingly between grad-school seminar and sci-fi convention, each of which drew its own subset of frighteningly informed, pasty faced fanatics.
For his part, Powers seemed aware of this, at one point listening intently to a question about Fredric Jameson and asking rhetorically, "Do you get any sense of how geeky this entire enterprise is?" (Enterprise? Even a fool knows that's Star Trek not Star Wars!) "It's like two brands of geek that hardly ever overlap: We're like the perfect Venn Diagram!"
Powers is still figuring out how to best present his full fan non-fiction project, mulling book ideas or an installation. The fact that it's in 14 parts and clocks in at about three and a half hours and uses enough copyrighted visual imagery from the films and other sources to keep a team of lawyers in billable hours for years doesn't seem to worry him. He's even thinking about his next project.
"Maybe I'll wait until they re-make Lost into a six hour movie and it actually makes sense," he said.