Carlos D. Szembek

A truth is a truth no matter how it is arrived at. My trajectory for seeking truths has propelled me through a bramble of artistic disciplines (painting, printmaking, installation, electronic arts), across fields of scientific inquiry (meteorology, oceanography, statistics) accumulating experiences, perspectives and skills along the way. What follows is not only an artist’s statement but an artist’s assessment as well—a charting of where I have been to where I am going.


Physical Memory

Electronic connectivity, digital communication, and virtual commodities: the common currency in an increasingly technology-driven culture. But within this digital context what role does the body assume? The body as both object of and subject to these new technologies has been cast into an ever-accelerating evolution: surgical, chemical, and genetic interventions; vanity modifications; bio-enhancements. The rate of change of these utopian impulses is now decoupled from the evolutionary pace inherent in the body. The body’s own collective physicality is cast into suspicion—a collection of organs to be modified and improved upon. A knee-jerk reaction extrapolates the current pace of change such that the body becomes a mere biological anchor point from which speech, touch, sight, and sound evaporate in a digital ether of connectivity.

However the body insistently resists.

The smell of bread pulled fresh from the oven…a drop of honey elongating then softly caught on a waiting tongue…the tingling balance of pain and pleasure easing into a hot bath…the whirring buzz of cicadas on a steamy, lazy summer evening…heat lightening pulsing in the distance….

Memories grounded not around distinct events but around sensing. Memories vividly pushed to the foreground, both immediate and physical.



Disruptive Senses

The gallery, a white room, a containment space designed for the audience to view art—the gallery as a tomb. Into this space the earth, soil and insects and plants are transported, filling the space with the stir of growth, death, promised renewal. A niche in another room is entombed with a 16-foot high wall of bread; the smell wafting and lingering throughout the building, permeating the walls. My work seeks to physically disrupt the audience, to interrupt the passive gaze, to flood the senses. These stealthy disruptions stem from positive core associations of food and nourishment—the materials and trade of my father, a European pastry chef. The mass and scale of these pieces seeks to mirror back to the each audience member his or her own scale, own body, own senses. The sterile gallery heightens the disorientation of encountering a mass of bread, the sudden act of walking on soil. These disruptions are less confrontational than an unexpected punchline to a cryptic joke, provoking a giggle or sense of awe, lowering the guard of the viewer. In this lowering-of-the-guard, ideas sneak in as a whisper for the audience to unspool long after they have left the gallery.



Carnal Quarantine

The sensory pleasures of the body are, of course, only half the story. The mind cannot recall a sense at will. One remembers the smell of vanilla, but cannot truly re-sense the aroma. It may seem a sad limitation of our minds and bodies – however, who would want to instantly sense a past fever, a deep cut, an odor of rot and decay? This limitation is simply a healthy protection mechanism. But what occurs when this mechanism fails? How can the diseased body be controlled or managed? What becomes of a society when the society itself becomes diseased? How does one grow, mature and experience pleasure in a time of plague?

As an openly gay man coming out in the 80′s in the age of AIDS, sex and sensuality became vilified. Out of ignorance, fear, and distrust, each body became a Cordon Sanitaire. Plague mentalities made a touch suspicious (contagion from the Latin, con-, ‘with’ and tangere, ‘to touch’). Comfort, care and compassion become the most basic nourishment for human dignity. Bread becomes a fragile surrogate…its essence wheat, the staff of light blighted and left to rot in the field. In plague times absurdity can become a protection mechanism…the surreal becomes a comforting balm.

 


Breaking

In plague times, simple gestures emerge to counter the irrational weight of societal fear.

Companion, from the Latin, com-, ‘with’ and panis, ‘bread’ — person with whom one breaks bread with.

The body reaches out to another body. Disrupt fear, breach the gallery, act out…

Here I must break the narrative. After the losses of both my parents, I left the Arts to pursue a degree in Atmospheric Science. In mourning and grieving their passing I sought the comforts of my childhood… growing up in New Orleans, laying on my bed, charting the path of a hurricane as it churned and spun deep over tropical waters. Rain, wind, clouds...the climate surrounding me, a force outside of me. I hurled myself into this new pursuit. To truly comprehend climate, to fully understand the dynamics of weather beyond mere talking points, I realized I needed a new skill set — quantitative skills, expanding my role from observer to participant.

 


Memory Traces

Climatology, the statistics of weather, is a field driven by numerical modeling. In long-term climatology, the natural world is quantized into coarsely gridded spatial and temporal units for the purpose of running global models simulating tens-of-thousands of years. The body, as such, is no longer relevant at both these temporal and spatial scales. However, man-made forcing upon the climate is readily traced, an inexorable momentum of impacts which, if not curtailed will lead, within a generation, to perceptible changes in not just the climate but on the landscape and ecology. The body disappears but its trace remains. Numbers and statistics, while evincing the truth of the climate debate, hardly chink the armor of the populace. Somehow a disruption is needed.

After ten years of study I realize limitations in both the Arts and the Sciences and have begun to glimpse at the potential of their intersection. Re-entering the studio from my total immersion in the sciences I was instantly struck by the pleasure of making — a reactive muscle-memory impulse. The touch and smell and look of molded materials…disruptive senses lowering the guard and reminding my body of its simple pure physicality. The lowering of the guard when a whispered idea can sneak in…

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