“We’re all experts at manipulating ephemeral experiences, and we’re able to focus our attention precisely and only where we want it.”
The act of composition is a natural human impulse; we share a desire to order our surroundings and to control our environments. Consider still life painting, which, at its height, acted as a compositional exercise for artists focusing on form. The genre is closely linked to the much more complex concept of memento mori. Literally translated as “remember that you will die,” memento mori paintings served as catalysts for meditative contemplation.
The primacy of temporary composition over permanent narrative is a common thread in many new media works, and this idea echoes the metaphorical concerns of still life. In Autonomous, I hope to reveal and explore the tension between the arrangement of these very aestheticized objects and the metaphorical weight of still life as represented in the video projection, examining our tireless (but hopeless) attempts to compose and control every detail of our lives.
I grapple with these ideas by inviting each viewer to compose a still life, one whose consequential reaction is unexpectedly short-lived. By manipulating the sculptural objects, viewers will tune a staticky video feed, but even a seemingly stable moment will find a way to return to chaos. The piece rewards motion and play rather than fixity and perfection.
The overarching question of who controls this piece is essential. While the viewer’s input is absolutely necessary, this is not a true collaboration. The viewer chooses from a selection of objects and images I have created, so this choice is actually circumscribed. This question of control is a larger metaphysical quandary, echoing the issues of memento mori.
We’re all experts at manipulating ephemeral experiences …
A large white pedestal sits empty in a self-contained gallery-within-the-gallery. As you walk into the space, along one wall are shelves filled with an assortment of decorative sculptural objects. They are made from natural materials, mostly—simply carved and artfully rough-hewn wood pieces, some copper and frosted glass. They have a genteel, vaguely midcentury design look—the sort of high-end knickknacks you might find dominating an end table in some tony urban loft. Behind the pedestal, you see a projection of something like static, visual white noise.
The empty pedestal is an invitation: take some of the sculptures off the shelves and arrange them in a composition of your own. Do you see anything you like? You notice a sound, a bit like theremin, as you place objects around the display space; you see the static projection appear to visually respond to the objects. Finish your composition, and the projection switches to a video clip: ten to fifteen seconds of footage of a still life arrangement, maybe shot dead-on, perhaps rotating and shown from various angles. You could see one of three hundred to four hundred possible still life clips, a generous range of conventional favorites in the genre: a display of empty vases, or perhaps a spray of dried or fresh flowers, or maybe a bit of string unraveling from a ball of yarn. There are clips showing still life arrangements of vintage tools, timepieces, and things from the kitchen: cups and plates and jars; fruit arrangements (both rotting and fresh); still-bloody cuts of meat ready for the pot—a skinned rabbit, maybe a plucked chicken. Seeing these old-fashioned still life tropes rendered not as fixed mise-en-scènes but as moving images is unsettling.
Peter Sowinski’s installation Autonomous is visually minimalist—just the shelves of chunky objets d’art, the awaiting pedestal, and the projection screen. The tech connecting these components is hidden from view, but exquisitely responsive and complex in its responses.
Sowinski makes his living as a furniture craftsman. Explaining his inspiration for Autonomous, he says, “I’ve been struck by how specifically we control our media. We’re all experts at manipulating ephemeral experiences, and we’re able to focus our attention precisely and only where we want it.” Especially as we spend more and more time online, “we can feel our impulse for choice to the max.” We fine-tune our news sources to suit our interests and inclinations. We carefully “curate” the content of our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and we painstakingly craft a social media presence to showcase just what we want the world to see about our lives. It’s a shopper’s paradise: online purveyors set before us a wealth of consumer goods for every mood and budget, solutions to problems real and manufactured, all cheaply available and just a click away.
“All these superficial aesthetic choices,” this urge-to-decorate and customize—it may feel like empowered decision-making, but all those granular, cosmetic choices do not amount to real agency, Sowinski argues. It’s just a distraction, a coping mechanism that we mistake for our actual lives. “I wanted to see what it would be like if you offered people an unfamiliar interface—in this case, a sculptural interface—in which decision-making is invited but ultimately outside their control.”
“We so rarely get to step outside the framework of all these inconsequential choices, outside the feedback systems we’re used to,” Sowinski says. “Here, the still life provides a ballast. The genre is familiar enough to be accessible, but not very common anymore.” The imagery taps into a lot of well-worn narratives—about mortality and the passage of time, especially—but “it does so obliquely,” maybe offering an occasion for fresh reflection on choice and agency.
My sculptures and installations revolve around dual fascinations: with technology and a deep interest in material and techniques of craft. By technology, I mean everything from simple mechanical contraptions to modern computerized apparatus. I seek to create art that merges the simple beauty of a well-made object with technical sophistication, imbuing the objects with their own agency. These charged works engage complex ideas, from questioning the role of machines in our lives to pondering the seemingly universal force of entropy.
Made largely of steel, wood, and electro-mechanical elements, my projects often invite the viewer to physically interact—by turning a handle to power a machine or by participating with a slyly nonfunctional drinking fountain. At times I use technology to make my work kinetically active and to create a certain artistic gesture, such as striking a drum, drawing an electrocardiogram line, or flashing the bare bulb of a coiled work lamp.
The primary goal of my artistic practice is to inspire more considered living through aesthetic experience. There is something radical about a well-executed art object, because its value lies in the ineffable. Ultimately, the art object’s defiance of traditional valuation hints that we, too, can defy the conventions and expectations that dominate our lives.
b. 1983, Socorro, New Mexico
lives in Minneapolis
mentor: Chris Larson
Peter Sowinski is an artist, a designer, and a craftsman. While a continuing interest in public art has kept him engaged in the Minneapolis art community he founded an eponymous furniture company in 2009 focusing on highend custom work. His work has refined an ability to develop projects from an exciting concept, to a buildable program, to a fullyrealized, finished product. A recent installation at the Bakken Museum demonstrates Peter’s ability to design and build complex projects without neglecting the artistic virtues of the piece.