Inland Delta: Robert Burnier at Andrew Rafacz Gallery

The following catalogue essay was originally published for Robert Burnier’s exhibition, Inland Delta, at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago, in 2014.

“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows — only hard and with luminous edges — and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said ‘my universe:’ but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.” — Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, 1884.

Two eyes set parallel in the front of the human head provide a line of sight with limitations and subjective peculiarities. Objects observed by other methods likely appear fundamentally different. Take the rabbit who, with eyes on either side of its skull, can see 360 degrees around its body at once. Their visually immersive experience of the world nevertheless affords a central blind spot in front of their nose making any three-dimensional experience of nearby objects impossible. A tennis ball by their feet, for example, would read like a flat circle. Or consider the Barreleye fish, a strange deep sea creature with tubular lenses inside of its semi-transparent head. Its lenses are sensitive enough to recognize flitting prey as it swims overhead, like shadow puppets passing across a back lit screen. Any time they direct their attention to the ceiling of the ocean, they invariably look through their own semi-transparent gelatinous matter. Add to that their additional ability to look straight forward, over top their very small mouths. Such fish must experience depth in an entirely different fashion, but countless other examples exist. Different modes of sensory apprehension —  sight, smell, touch etc. — combine with physical constraints — the setting of one’s eyes is just one example — to engender different systems of logic, and desire. Within each logical system, the same objects appear to one another: the tennis ball, the ocean, the rabbit, the plastic bag, the human, all manifesting differently according to the subjective proclivities of its beholder.

“…Here we may glimpse the worlds of the lowly dwellers of the meadow. To do so, we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together, but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being.”[1]

But what logics might inert structures possess? At the Hyde Park Art Center, Robert Burnier’s sculpture Revokon sits in the main gallery of their group exhibit Chicago Effect: Redefining Art in the Middle, with enough presence to suggest an answer. The all gray cube balances on one corner, on the brink of motion, corners docked to reveal small windows into its interior space. One is drawn in to that interior with a desire to understand its contents, as though in doing so we might learn some concrete secret about this object. Inside you see what looks like a shelf, and ribbing alongside the shelf that would protect and secure it. This crate was built to sustain and protect its contents. Nevertheless, one cannot perceive anything particular about the wooden slats it is so vehemently protecting — every surface concealed in the same matte gray. The box, then, eludes the human eye even while it compels us to study its form.

At such times, one is forced to acknowledge the bounds of human subjectivity. Imagine the experience of an ant traveling the surface of Revokon, for example, or the tennis ball’s sensation as it rebounded against the smooth wooden surface; even the ground, bearing the weight of Burnier’s hovering crate, responds to its pressure and shade. Although Revokon is undoubtedly the same object in every instance that it appears, it nevertheless appears differently to each subjective witness. But how do we imagine those different perspectives—how to apprehend the same object through different means at once? In doing so, we may learn something more about the nature of the object at hand, while reciprocally gaining insight into the bounds of our human world. Burnier’s exhibit at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Inland Delta, exemplifies that effort. By employing a range of strategies — from wire drawings, to two-dimensional aluminum patterns, to folded aluminum sculptures, and deconstructed crates — Burnier shows a range of almost mathematical exercises, each of which aim to arrive at a more complex understanding of the object itself.

“The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.”[2]

Jane Bennett adeptly describes the way humanity has thus far privileged animate matter over the inert, a remarkably automatic postulate drawn so long ago, it is rarely reconsidered. And yet here are Burnier’s sculptures — Alia, Una Alian, Alia — a series of three-dimensional aluminum objects that hang off the wall, absorbing light with the same even coat of matte, green paint. These objects appear like the cast-off material of a minimalist exercise. They appear like reconfigured body parts of a no-longer identifiable computer; they might even seem like the detritus of tools exhausted from war without bearing the trauma a human body might convey. The series appears formally complete, not entirely familiar to human use even while they emerge among us, radiating a strange aesthetic potency that, once again, draws the viewer in with the desire to discern what indeed these things are up to.

Aferon Kvar behaves similarly; seated on the floor this time, it is nevertheless in the same distinct family as Alia, Una Alian, Alia. One might even suggest they inhabit the same “world.” Like that aforementioned series, Aferon Kvar ‘s weight is difficult to apprehend by pure observation: Is it heavy or light? Is it made of paper or metal? Will it be rough or smooth? One wants to situate the object firmly within a set of binaries, even while the object itself resists being pinned down. Its presence is tied first and foremost to the ambiguity of its material, its relationship to gravity, and even light. There remains a dogged sense that these sculptures withhold something about themselves — containing an interior reason not entirely accessible to the viewer.

To make the object, Burnier cautiously works the once-flat material by way of improvisational folds. Recognizing the originating surface as a kind of pure two-dimensional potential, he interrogates the aluminum, exhausting certain possibilities as a three-dimensional shape emerges and thus becomes its own a peculiar landscape. Burnier’s approach is almost collaborative; he is restricted in certain ways by the properties of the metal; as it responds to his interaction, it contributes to its own emergent personality. The process is systematic, yet also there is an element of chance, for certain folds will yield a more successful object than others, just as certain conversations yield more or less insight.

Burnier’s work in Inland Delta pushes his material concerns beyond a single interrogative approach, as he divines — or searches for — the same object again and again through different materials. It is as though every work emerges from a separate fancy bubble (to borrow Uexküll’s phrase), each with a separate set of proclivities. The flat unfolded aluminum pattern, Proksima Kalkulado, corresponds directly to its well-folded counter parts, like a dress pattern that points to its affiliated gown. As such, it offers a glimpse of Burnier’s process. Yet his flat templates are not simply waiting to be folded up into three dimensions, they are also complete in and of themselves; they hang as final conclusions, representing the same three-dimensional object in two-dimensional space. Similarly, the wire piece, Terra Desegna, appears as a line drawing of its three-dimensional peers. The piece hangs on the wall like the corollary diagram generated by a computer after it has scanned the three-dimensional form. Burnier thus employs different restricted vocabularies to illustrate different modes of access to the material world. Rather than viewing each sculpture as a discrete object, he encourages us instead to recognize each piece as another facet of one particular thing, like channels spreading out of the same river, and stretching into land.

In Prado, Burnier offers a seemingly different kind of object, this one made of wood. Rather than folding a material outward, from a flat surface to a multidimensional one, Burnier has instead taken a box — an old shipping crate used to house the artist’s old works — and deconstructed it, opening it up. Nevertheless, the presumed effect remains inconclusive. One would assume that, by dissecting a box, its inner workings would reveal themselves. In this case the box remains at a distance, self-sufficient, even a little smug. Here again, the crate balances on a corner, as though in defiance of gravity.

Ujo Guto Dua offers another kind of insight: using a series of connected triangular wooden panels that spread out into three-dimensional space, even while seeming flat. Its sections connect, once again affecting the presence of paper, like an origami pattern. The wooden material recalls the aforementioned wooden crates, emphasizing the negative space articulated by each triangular section. Ujo Guto Dua is perhaps the key to the other works in Burnier’s practice, for it pronounces a central emptiness, or failure. Here we see it is impossible to grasp the core of the object. Rather, we can only apprehend its various (and seemingly infinite) dimensions. Our imagination is ultimately incapable of shedding its subjective, human peculiarities, just as the object itself will forever manifest differently. Despite  sincere and rigorous effort,  at the end of every turn we nevertheless find the stubbornly blank wall — itself another material body — gazing back at us.

“Am I, I wonder, a thing among things, a body propelled along a track by sinews and bony levers, or am I a monologue moving through time, approximately five feet above the ground, if the ground does not turn out to be just another word, in which case I am indeed lost? Whatever the case, I am plainly not myself in as clear a way as I might wish.”[3]

I return to the wooden crate once more. This time, Ujo Oni, the second wooden crate installed at the Hyde Park Art Center through November. This black box is even more reclusive, with smaller cracks for viewers to peer through. Still, we know something about the space inside already. What it offers stands ever so slightly outside of language — a darkness difficult to parse. Equally black painting stretchers sit inside, unstretched; they seem empty. Although its contents are significant, the status of the original art work is absorbed into the structure, like the presence of history in the present. In so doing, Burnier is able to convey dual experiences of a single crate — on the one hand the crate exists as an abstract and self-sufficient box. On the other it contains the ghost of human feeling, as his creative, and personal past remains beneath layers of  impenetrable paint.

The titles he uses offer similar insight. Using terms from Esparanto — a utopian project developed by Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof to create a “politically neutral” auxiliary language that would establish a common linguistic ground between different nations, Burnier incorporates that linguistic system here to refer to the artist’s process of making.  Alia, Una Alian, Alia translates “The Other, One Another, Another.” So too — the objects exist between native tongues, in a constructed, egalitarian, and international semiotics. As such, Alia, Una Alian, Alia become even more alien to the English speaker. Esperanto was a failed exercise, in a way. Although learned today, it is not widely used, even if its creation reflects back on the peculiarity of language in general. Different linguistic systems engender their own sight lines. Yet even further Burnier’s titles wink at larger social and hierarchical concerns, emerging as an almost ironic wish to transcend the bounds of the historical, political structures so easily taken for granted, absorbed and propagated.

“You can see the conic sections using a flashlight and a basketball. If you hold the flashlight off to the side (as shown in Figure 15.27), you will be able to generate a shadow that is a parabola. If you adjust the angle of the flashlight as show, the shadow’s shape becomes an ellipse. If you hold the flashlight directly above the basketball, you will see the shadow of a circle. A circle is considered to be a special case of an ellipse. To picture a shadow that is a hyperbola, you need two basketballs (or you can ‘imagine’ a second ball), as shown in Figure 15.27.”[4]

Upon the discovery of new logics, strange things can happen. By proposing, for instance, that the shortest distance between two points is a curved line rather than a straight one, a whole new mathematics occurs: a non-Euclidean geometry that subsequently laid the ground for Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Suddenly space and time bend. Or further back, and against social convention, Copernicus places the sun at the center of our universe, rather than the earth — suddenly the orderly movement of our planetary bodies became apparent — their movement across the heavens was a simple rather than epicyclical pattern. In the Aboott’s romance, I’d even wager that his Flatlanders’ discovery of three-dimensional space was so revolutionary as to render their prior social hierarchies suspect. In other words, these abstract studies have real and sudden bearing on the world. To such an extent that, as Coetzee suggests, the I we are so accustomed in taking for granted is suddenly “gazed” upon by the inanimate bodies we are surrounded by. In working so adeptly to carve out different modes of seeing, Burnier effectively creates new modes for being seen.


[1] Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, Translated and Edited by Claire H. Schiller, International Universities Press, p. 5.

[2] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 14.

[3] J.M Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country, 1976; quoted by Huey Copeland in Bound to Appear, University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 116.

[4] Karl J Smith, The Nature of Mathematics, 12th Edition, 2012, Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning, “The Nature of Graphs and Funtcions,” 15.4, p. 732,+flashlight,+circle,+ellipse&source=bl&ots=11MSV2GZFg&sig=V5z-BYgpLNCw9P9Kf1hRD4oMwxQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=lnzzU8S_DYX9oAS_uoLQBA&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false