Tavares Strachan’s best-known piece may be the 4½-ton block of ice he cut from a frozen river in Alaska and displayed in a refrigerated case at a grade school in his native Bahamas. It was a simple act, but it touched on a range of issues that continue to drive his work. They include the sway of technology and the achievements of science, environmental responsibility and the imbalance of power in a postcolonial world. The title of Strachan’s ongoing “Orthostatic Tolerance” project, inaugurated in 2009, refers to the stress experienced by astronauts and divers from changes in atmospheric pressure. For a recent installment, presented at Grand Arts, Strachan traveled to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, where he participated in training exercises.
The show, which was entirely devoid of color, opened with a pair of black-and-white photos of training equipment, which were mounted on either side of a narrow doorway. Lighting and a wide-angle format give the images a clinical yet magical and slightly sinister feel. One shows a centrifuge—looking like a huge, gray metal milk bottle on its side—in a circular room with clerestory windows. The other records the model of a space station with bulbous and cylindrical chambers positioned over the deep pool where it is immersed during space-walking exercises. It allows astronauts to experience the weightlessness they will encounter in space.
Strachan took a turn with both devices and recorded the process on a soundless, black-and-white HD video that played on six monitors in the following gallery, painted black to suggest outer space. The videos—staggered to show different stages of his training simultaneously—capture every detail of the artist’s carefully supervised sessions. Strachan undergoes medical tests and dons the complicated space suits with assistance from the professionals on site. They also help him to enter a tiny capsule, where we watch his face and expressions as he submits to 16 Gs, roughly what astronauts experience during liftoff. At the pool, Strachan is fastened into a diving suit and lowered into the water. Being weightless renders him awkward, and he again requires professional assistance to enter the submerged station.
Another gallery featured a large tank filled with 900 gallons of mineral oil. Suspended within it was a glass sculpture; barely visible, it looked like a skeleton but is in fact a representation of the human circulatory system. In the final gallery things fell apart and, in typical Strachan fashion, came together again. Finding My Way Home is a wall relief of hundreds of plastic and steel fragments from an exploded space suit. The image is repeated in a large drawing on Mylar titled Many Things Existing at Once, in which each of the tiny fragments is meticulously numbered.
Strachan’s involvement in this highly specialized world is disconcerting. Unloosing the whole space game from its trappings of power and competition, he revels in its details and possibilities, subjecting them to his humorous and melancholy imaginings, and his benevolent vision.
[Strachan has a show at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Mass., through July 11.]
Photo: Tavares Strachan: Training in Six Parts, 2009-10, 6-channel video; at Grand Arts.