Visitors Attack Shark

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Michael Salter, “ANDY: Autonomous Nautical Deepwater stYrobot”

Before my internship at the Jordan Schnitzer, I hardly noticed museum security at all. Except for that one time in Germany when a uniformed lady ranted at me for getting too close to the art (or at least I’m assuming that was the reason), I’ve never had run-ins with them.

Now that I know the entire staff of a museum, I’m much more sympathetic to the plight of those lovable, stony-faced art guardians. At our last opening, they had to keep an eye on two precarious bundles of sticks, a giant carpet made of sliced-up paper and this enormous but featherweight polystyrene shark.

“I’ve been watching people nudge those all night,” said one of our art minders of the aforementioned stick sculptures, which were clever tributes to the Schintzer’s history. “They’ve been shifting around like crazy.” If only all artists were as laid back as Carl Andre, who encourages people to climb on his sculptures.

Michael Salter‘s 20-foot shark is the eye-popping centerpiece of the new exhibition, which is called The Long Now and brings together pieces by the faculty of the UO Art Department.

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The mechanical monster was glued together from the inside out, one piece at a time. It recalls Salter’s other massive “stYrobots,” which were accompanied by armies of tiny minions to keep visitors from knocking them over.

At the staff preview, Salter said that he tries to dive deep into the shallow pool that is pop culture.

“Sharks sort of exist in pop culture to a level of invisibility,” he said. “My gut reaction is always to go to that invisible, saturated level. Sometimes I think that my colleagues pursue conceptual, intellectual ideas in a very legitimate way, and I pursue the most silly thing in a legitimate way. Hopefully a legitimate way.”

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Salter’s explanation was full of Jaws references, of course. He alerted me to these cool photos of Bruce, the fiberglass shark that was used in the movie. The swooping frame of Bruce’s tail (click the link and flip to the second shot) was one of Salter’s influences. You can see similar lines in the parts of the sculpture that Salter carved, which sometimes form mysterious hieroglyphics or extrude from the work as peculiar antennae.

Of course, Salter’s message has a lot to do with his medium. Styrofoam is one of those materials that will basically never biodegrade. Is this a comment on the immortality of our pop culture symbols, or a protest against our society’s excesses? The shark will probably eventually be taken apart (many of Salter’s pieces are destroyed after his shows), but all that white, foamy crap will sit around forever. The same goes for our plastic Justin Bieber albums and Happy Meal toys.

Speaking of junk, I have your next challenge, Professor Salter. You know all that debris from the Japanese earthquake that’s headed for the Oregon coast? I bet there’s a lot of polystyrene in there…

BONUS: Michael Salter on minimalism and where he gets all that junk is here.

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