Joel Tauber

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Keith Plocek

Joel Tauber, Pumping, 2010; installation view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Pumping, 2010; three-channel Blue-ray video installation, custom steel handcar, water jug, railroad tracks, film strips/pile of metal; courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Joel Tauber, now almost forty years old, produces art inflected with Peter Pan syndrome. In 2001 the Angeleno decided he wanted to fly, so he undertook a project that began with the simple act of jumping off large rocks and culminated with the artist floating 150 feet above the California desert, attached to helium balloons and playing bagpipes. In 2005 he fell in love with a lone sycamore in the middle of the Rose Bowl parking lot, and his obsession progressed from installing unsanctioned protective railing around the tree—jackhammering the surrounding asphalt guerrilla-style—to working with the City of Pasadena on conservation efforts. Now, in Pumping, an installation of videos, photographs and sculpture at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the puer aeternus appears in three flickery projections looking very much like a tyke in an engineer’s outfit complete with striped hat and overalls. Presented on the gallery’s longest wall, the three-channel video, featuring whispery voiceover from Tauber, is the most powerful part of Pumping, which explores the history of trains, oil and water in the dusty landscape that would become the sprawl of Los Angeles.

Filmed with a 16mm hand-cranked camera, the videos look like they could be from the early twentieth century, save for the anachronistic feel of Tauber, who is somewhat dressed for the part but looks entirely too clean. On the left channel we see him pumping water from the ground into a glass jug; in the middle he pushes up and down on the handle of a steel handcar, cruising down the tracks in a barren landscape; and on the right we see an oil pumpjack in action followed by images of the artist turning the crank of a camera. Up and down, round and round, these repetitions and cycles, combined with the anonymity of the desert, catapult the viewer to a timeless place, an arid past and an untold future. “1873. Los Angeles. 6,000 people living in a semi-desert,” Tauber intones, his voice bouncing off the concrete floor, competing with the sounds of creaking metal and spurting water. “Dreams of trains rumbling through the landscape, ushering in civilization.”

Stretching diagonally across the gallery is eighty feet of track atop of which sits Tauber’s handcar and a pile of tangled metal scrap, industrial detritus that brings to mind tumbleweeds and discarded film. These additions are presumably meant to add weight to the installation, and, as usually happens whenever an artist puts something big and dirty inside a clean building, one is left wondering how it was done. Regardless of the answer, the presence of the tracks doesn’t add any conceptual heft. The same goes for the ten LightJet prints mounted on aluminum, cash ‘n carry works that show Tauber in action but do little to advance the narrative projected on the wall. Such is the challenge with using video in installations, since nothing grabs the eye quite like flickering lights and motion. Tauber’s films are such a compelling portrayal of the city’s perpetual infancy they leave everything else in the dust.

Keith Plocek is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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