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Brent Fogt's Cellar Dreams @ Gallery Project

B Nick Sousanis, Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Gallery Project’s upstairs is bright, full of color on white walls and shiny wood floors. The basement below is a different story altogether, and this raw space has been left open for installation purposes, which Brent Fogt makes the most of it, with almost the least.


“Cellar Dreams” consists of a lit candle, sitting on the concrete floor not far off from the stairs. Extending from it is 18,600 feet (about three and a half miles!) of candle wicking which are then gathered in neat coils on the far opposite end of the room, lit by a single electric light, the only other source of light in the room in addition to the candle. The candle light brings to mind a chiaroscuro painting, perhaps as typified by Vermeer. (It’s odd to have the experience of the real thing conjure up thoughts of a simulacrum which is of course intended to evoke that very real thing now being experienced. There should be a word for this reversal.)


Fogt’s installation is spare and ambiguous which invites multiple readings. There is the open flame, of course (not often allowed in an art gallery.) Is not the mastery of fire a significant division between humans and the other animals? Furthermore, it is this capacity for metaphor, as was first stated by Aristotle, to read such meaning into something as simple as a lit candle in an empty room, which truly sets us apart.

Perhaps then we must go to Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, and his metaphor of shadows on the cave wall. Is this flame illuminating just the barest glimpse of existence, when so much more remains outside of our gaze?


But Shakespeare might offer another clue, from Macbeth, “Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." Is the fleeting nature of the candle’s flame a metaphor for our own brief lives? (I tried hard to block out “Candle in the Wind,” but despite my best efforts the song keeps recurring in my head.) And if this is so, what then of the wick? Greek mythology rather than philosophy might provide a possible interpretation in the form of the Fates, the three-in-one-goddess who were responsible for spinning, measuring, and ultimately cutting the thread of one’s life.


That said, we can hardly discount the tremendous and specific length of the wicking. To go to such great, umm, lengths, as to coil up three and a half miles of the stuff, there must be some significance to it being 18,600 feet long and not say, 18,599. It would seem then to be a reference to the speed of light, roughly 186,000 miles per second, and doubtfully coincidental in an artwork involving light and little else. And in considering light, no matter what the medium, visual art is nothing more than the optical experience of light reflected or projected from something and striking our optic nerves.


Perhaps though, all such thoughts are reading far too much into Fogt’s piece. Perhaps it is just about the quality of light and the use of space. And as the title states, he certainly creates the feeling of a cellar, particularly for those of us who grew up with a storm cellar, which we did in fact retreat when twisters threatened to carry us away from our Midwestern homes, huddled together as a family unit. And thus this cellar is not creepy in the Poe “Cask of Amontillado” sense, but a place of shelter, of safety. It is a bit of a respite from the world above, the “not in Kansas anymore” gallery filled with bright colors and shiny materials and the bustle that is Ann Arbor.


Hidden below the midst of it all, Fogt has with but the simplest of tools, transported his viewer back to a tranquil moment and lets us reflect upon that space, and thus about who we are.