tight spaces

Essay by renée c hoogland, PhD

Professor at the Department of English at Wayne State University, Detroit.

June 2019

Alberte Tranberg’s solo exhibition at Simone DeSousa Gallery in Detroit at first sight appears to be as decidedly understated as is its title: Turning the First Sod, a phrase used for the traditional groundbreaking ceremony that celebrates the first day of construction for a building or other project.

The exhibition constitutes an installation comprised of no more than eleven sculptural works and a soundscape. Most of the pieces are made of steel, one contains steel but largely consists of long strips of pink fiberglass insulation material, and one smaller work, a buste, is a solid chunk of roughly sculpted cast iron. 

The one immaterial work in the installation is a sound recording that is linked to the most prominent piece in the front of the gallery space, a large steel table [32”x38”x74”], potentially also a mattress, standing on thirty-five, tall, spindly, hollow legs. Slightly shaking the top of the table, one can make the legs shuffle around on the concrete floor to produce an almost chant- like sound that travels through the gallery space and delicately pulls its companion pieces and the viewer alike into a slightly eery yet reassuringly sensual hold. 

The jarring presence of the solid piece of cast iron sitting almost under the table, facing its legs, disrupts the equilibrium of the table/sound scape. The piece [12”x12”x6”] is roughly hewn, recognizable as a human head and shoulders, but de-individualized, a solid shadow, whose surface suggests the violence of the tools that went into its making and shaping. The glossy material, the sharp edges on its surface, the heaviness of the object as such, all form an unnerving reminder of the ways in which materiality impinges on, molds, transforms, entraps, and occasionally violates, (our) vulnerable human being. 

Facing the table/mattress from the left are two wall pieces, large, thin, rectangular sheets of steel in different sizes [5”x18”x24” & 5”x34”x45”], whose folded borders morph into frames or window panes. Just as the forbidding materiality of the steel table/mattress is shot through and destabilized by the familiar forms it evokes of domestic and intimate objects, so is the opaque quality of the hermetic grey sheets partly undone by a horizontal line that splits off the top from their bottom halves. The split/line aligns with the horizontal divide between the two-toned paint on the underlying wall. The pieces do not allow one to merely look at them: the inevitable lure, the promise of a horizon, depth, distance, perceptually draws me in—if not quite through the solid steel. 

The front and the back of the gallery space are partly walled off by the oversized soft pink quilt hanging down from a steel rod. Four wide strips of stitched-through fiberglass [5”x12”x13’ each] evoke both the familiarity of the traditional quilt, and the old-fashioned string curtain fly screen. But, again, the materiality of the piece pre-empts an easy reassurance, a straightforward homeliness, for accepting its invitation to touch or even stroke, the fiberglass—which, in its soft baby pink, forms a stark contrast with the overwhelmingly present grey of the unrelentingly steel pieces—would leave me with immediate sharp cuts and bleeding hands. The implicit yet paradoxical darkness of this piece, as well as the by now pervasive impression that things are clearly not what they seem is carried through in the right back corner of the gallery space. 

In addition to the quilt curtain/wall, this area is separated from the lighter front space by a substantial chunk of (half)-open steel brick wall [6”x60”x60”], lying on its back, so to speak, and curving up from the floor. While easily recognizable in its representational function, this wall defies, albeit in a different fashion than the other pieces, the familiar aspects of its materiality (wall, brick, steel), as well as its dimensionality (flat, solid, upright) and hence, of the sensory and perceptual expectations we habitually bring to them. 

The two back corner walls at first appear to feature wall pieces similar to the two window frames in the front: framed steel sheets. Unlike the earlier two, these sheets, however, are of identical size [5”x3’x4’]. They form a series, rather than companion pieces. They are solid grey: no dividing line suggests any kind of horizon, a potential Hinterland, hence offer no escape into virtual depth or distance. The longer I look at them, the more they begin to feel like dumb mirrors that stubbornly refuse to give back anything, any reflection, any image or Imago, as little as they allow me to ignore their solid impenetrability. The externalization of the material object, the turning inside-out of the sensory and perceptual experience, in its simultaneous familiarity and strangeness, deceptively comforting and disturbingly alluring, comes to a full stop here. The thin steel plate, in all its flexibility and lightness—each frame/window in the exhibition hangs from one small nail in the wall—confronts me with the resistance of the material, with the tension between the extensive and the intensive, between me, my perceptions and sensations, and the realities of shape and form that constitute my environment. 

The last work in the exhibition forms, perhaps, a three-dimensional metaphor of the interplay between interior and exterior, between material and form, between the familiar and the strange, between das Heimliche and das Unheimliche. It is a fixture hanging from the wall, a solid steel rod [2”x4”x52”], with an ostensibly impossible figure-eight knot in the middle. 

Rather than a turning of the first sod, a mere beginning of what might yet become—a structure? a home?—Tranberg’s installation of sculptural objects ropes us in, actualizes, shapes itself around us as an immersive environment in which our perception itself is being turned. No understatement, indeed.