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Gary Sczerbaniewicz's Installation at Big Orbit Gallery

Gary Sczerbaniewicz's installation is a tunnel through which one travels on a rolling cart, passing through aural landscapes and vignettes along the way. (photos by Gordon Pelligrinetti)


Gary Sczerbaniewicz’s artwork installation at Big Orbit is a précis version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Though it’s not clear just how much this parallel is intentional by the artist. The work is more immediately and explicitly referred to a story by Franz Kafka, “The Burrow,” a discourse by a mole—the little furry kind—on the subterranean abode he has constructed for himself, and the memorable Steve McQueen movie about a prisoner of war camp tunnel project, The Great Escape.

Moreover, Sczerbaniewicz’s previous work has expressed—and this work as well expresses—strong anti-religious sentiments, possibly in reaction to the artist’s traditional religious upbringing (just a guess). Whereas Dante’s epic is the epitome religious poem, a literary version of a medieval cathedral, with rows of stained glass windows presenting a summary complete course of instruction on the legends and teachings of the Catholic Church.

The new work is about burrow, tunnel, escape, but its considerable power derives more (than from Kafka or Steve McQueen) from a central paradigm of the western literary tradition, reaching back to Homer, ahead to James Joyce, but most dramatically and comprehensively expounded by Dante—the paradigm of death and rebirth. Descent into the dark nether world, region of the dead, but then—exceptionally—exit, return to light, to life.

The piece is basically a winding tunnel you traverse on your back and backwards on a little roller cart of the sort auto mechanics use to insert themselves to work under a vehicle. It’s dark in the tunnel (most of the way, anyway), and there is garbled audio (snatches of the Kafka story, I was told) and a number of tunnel wall or ceiling dioramas of dream-like or more often nightmare-like scenes including a rustic cabin interior; a church interior horror scene, a tide of what looks like blood flowing down the church main aisle; a post-natural disaster devastation scene, like the Jersey shore in the aftermath of Sandy; what could be an abandoned mine shaft, a road not taken perhaps; and a stage set Freudian nightmare bedroom scene, with huge double bed, strangely pierced by a kind of twisted rope of white bed sheeting.

Bed sheeting is a feature and motif of the work, twisted and suspended from the ceiling along the whole length of the tunnel. You can use it to pull yourself along on your ride—upside down, backwards, on the roller cart—but at some point, maybe just after the strange vision of the similar rope of sheeting through the bed, you understand it as an umbilical cord. And the tunnel, the burrow, as a birth canal.

But then, following a final diorama presenting a small, indistinct picture, framed, or maybe mirror, imageless, suddenly, surprisingly, you pass from the area of darkness to an area of brilliant light, or more precisely, lights, plural, reminiscent of Dante’s heaven, his visual experience of which—through thirty-three epic cantos—is entirely of lights. Da luce a luce.

Further features of the installation include two towers, like the guard towers around the German prisoner of war camp in which the Steve McQueen character was detained; audio, garbled again, of dialogue from the movie (again I was told); and a pair of camera-like, periscope-like, attachments to the exterior of the tunnel that seem to—but don’t really—provide views into the interior.

An accompanying sheet of excerpts from the notebook of fictional Tunnel Master 2nd Class (and artist alter ego) T.D.H. Castle consists of declarations (with copious italicizations and capitalizations) ranging in style and substance from relatively straightforward (“The Tunnel is a feat of Subversive Engineering”) to slightly paranoid-sounding (“It is an open act of Rebellion in Defiance of a Monolithic Enemy”) to dubious as to meaning (“Outwardly it dons a peculiar yet unassuming presence; meanwhile its Interior is rife with Diligent Agency directed toward a Desperate Bid for the Forest of Freedom”).

The tunnel is an artistic refuge and survival mechanism vis-à-vis a world hostile or indifferent to the artist’s unique vision and aspirations, but the main effect aesthetic experience of this tunnel piece is a birth/rebirth experience, not as fantasy delusionist religious babble (with right-wing political overtones), but in an artwork that reimagines and reworks—consciously or unconsciously or subconsciously—the Dantean paradigm.

The Gary Sczerbaniewicz installation continues through June 9.

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