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It was the idea to physically hang a boxing ring upside down from the rafters in the gallery of Space 4 Art, the converted art space in East Village, that grabbed me.
Sure, I found the concept behind Lea Dennis’s art brilliant — playing with the notion of passionate but futile effort, turning the idea of conflict on its head. But I wondered if she could pull off her logistical challenge.
My studio is there at Space 4 Art, so I had a good vantage point from which to see if it could be done, or if Dennis would be forced to figure out a different way to translate her concept to an audience of art lovers. And if so, what would she do?
A professional rigger, Brendan Berg, volunteered to help lift the 360-pound piece. He had no doubt he could get it in the air, but would it stay together?
“The structure is the main problem,” Berg said before attaching ropes to the ring one recent Saturday morning. “Things break when they are moving — it’s the dynamics of movements. If it’s going to break, it’s when we lift it.”
The piece, called “Tremendous Effort” is an integral part of an exhibit opening this Friday at Space 4 Art. In the warehouse’s smaller gallery, artist Judit Hersko is showing “Pages from the Book of the Unknown Explorer.”
Both San Diego artists explore the juxtaposition of strength and translucence.
Hersko, an associate professor at California State University, San Marcos, examines the history of Antarctic exploration and science. In the piece, which includes suspended, translucent objects, projections, and cast silicone book pages, Hersko inserts a fictitious woman explorer into real historical events.
In Dennis’s “Tremendous Effort,” a series of handmade boxing gloves symbolizing strength and aggression is undermined by the delicate nature of the material used to make them: paper. Photographs document the process of creating the frail, sensual gloves. And, of course, the exhibit features that full-size fighting ring that Dennis created and was trying to suspend from the ceiling.
That work was done on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago. I showed up at 9 a.m. to watch the process. When I got there, Dennis was wrapping translucent warm-brown tape around the boxing ring’s exterior. It was made of 2-by-4-foot posts and 4-by-4-foot posts, a lot of screws, nearly 10 miles of fishing line and a bunch of other supplies she picked up at a surplus store in National City.
And it was still on the ground. Dennis had been building it for four days and getting only three or four hours of sleep each night.
“My work isn’t about boxing, but boxing as a metaphor for strength, for effort,” Dennis said, “for what acceptable aggression means.”
She had no doubt that the upside-down boxing ring would be suspended from the ceiling.
“Inversion is an act of taking control of what’s acceptable and not acceptable,” she said. “A reflection of how conflict can disrupt your entire world.”
Ruby Cougler, the assistant director for Space 4 Art, predicted the ring would be up within two hours. She had faith in rigger Berg, who is her husband.
“I’m not worried; it’s super-balanced,” Dennis said confidently. In the next breath, though, a little doubt crept in: “Of course, it’s a brilliant idea until it falls on someone – then it’s a Darwin award.”
Bob Leathers, director of Space 4 Art, said one of the reasons he was attracted to the old warehouse they refurnished earlier this year was because of the high ceilings and strong trusses. He looked up at the ceiling, where Berg was walking the narrow beams setting the block-and-tackle systems.
Berg, Leathers reminded me, does this kind of thing for a living.
“He did the Usher show Wednesday night and has done the Super Bowl halftime,” Leathers said. “This will be fine.”
As calculations continued to be made, and speculation volleyed, Dennis just worked. She wrapped the legs of the ring in black tape.
Then, about 10:30 a.m., anyone close to the ring had to put on hard hats. Everyone else was rushed away from the “fall zone.” The ropes were set.
“I want to thank everyone coming here and Space 4 Art for believing I could pull this off,” Dennis said.
Four people, including Dennis, held lines. Berg stood in the rafters.
Berg: “One, two, three.” They pulled.
And the ring went up – one foot, five feet, six feet. Within 10 seconds, it was above our heads.
“So effortless,” Leathers sighed.
And yet futile. The ring hadn’t gone high enough.
“Strike one,” shouted Berg. “Get it down.”
And all 360 pounds came back to earth. It was 11 a.m.
“We have to reset the block and tackle and do it again,” Berg said. “At least we know we can lift it.”
The 6-foot-tall structure needed to be nine feet above the ground, Berg said. The first effort lifted it only six feet.
As Berg darted around on the narrow rafters, Cougler got nervous. She left for Home Depot to buy paint for the gallery walls — even though she didn’t need it right that minute.
By noon the rigging had been reset.
“Man your stations,” Berg shouted, and everyone took a rope again. They pulled. The ring bobbed in the air. And then it held, far enough off the ground this time.
“I’m really pleased,” Dennis said. She was especially happy Berg was able to give the ring a bit of an angle.
Cougler returned and looked into the air: “What a trip.”
Berg told everyone they could take off their helmets.
Dennis said she thought she would go home after the ring was up, but the lift had been so exciting; there was no way she could sleep now.
“This was the only unknown variable, and now I’m so happy.”
More about the show: (I’ll be there since my studio is one of the more than 30 artist studios that will be open this Saturday night.)
Space 4 Art is at 325 15th Street in downtown San Diego. Space 4 Art will celebrate the ethereal work of Judit Hersko and Lea Dennis with a reception and live Americana music by John Meeks and Casavell from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4. There will be food from Sea Rocket Bistro and beer from Ballast Point Brewery. During the reception, guests will have an opportunity to visit a Handmade Holiday Pop-up Shop and wander the maze of open artist studios. The Hersko/Dennis show runs through Feb. 4, 2011.
Dani Dodge paints, writes and likes to watch things, such as pelicans and boxing rings, soar into the air. You can reach her at Dani@DaniDodge.com, see her work at www.danidodge.com or become a fan at: facebook.com/DaniDodgeArt. Oh, and she tweets, too.