Endlessly Rocking

Endlessly Rocking

Josephine Durkin’s paper chairs demand delight but beg interpretation.

Months ago, artist Josephine Durkin began making sculptures out of "fabric and felt and glue and plaster and orange peels and spaghetti." The outcome of those experiments? Four hundred and eighty paper rocking chairs.

Durkin, a sculptor who specializes in "time-based mediums," is the winner of the Target Gallery’s Open Exhibition competition. Her show "Tear, Cut, Fold and Lean" will be at the gallery in the Torpedo Factory until Nov. 26.

Durkin couldn’t quite explain how she decided to devote months to designing, then creating by hand, a village's-worth of laser-cut, folded and slotted rocking chairs only inches high. They are made from paper printed on both sides with images of the felt-and-spaghetti sculptures.

She said she’d felt her diverse sculpture projects, the product of "playing" in her studio, weren’t "resolved," but she did like the digital photographs she’d taken of them. Somehow, an interest in a wooden furniture designer — and particularly his rocking chairs — led her to begin cutting and folding her own out of paper. After 20 prototypes, she came up with a design: low in front with long legs curling behind. It was stable enough to stay upright (most of the time), but balanced to rock in a fan’s breeze.

DURKIN IS A sculptor because the medium incorporates so many of the diverse strands that twist tightly through her life.

When she was 4-years old, she began gluing together scraps of wood at Leesburg Montessori School. By the time she entered Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Durkin was interested in engineering and medicine as well as sculpture and music. She played the oboe and English Horn, and thought she would become a doctor until she found herself studying art during her free moments as a high-school intern with a Georgetown neurologist.

Later, a degree path as an oboe performance major at Virginia Commonwealth University became an MFA in sculpture.

At VCU she learned to program microchips. At Yale, she built a steam engine. "Its just great to wake up every day and realize I can make whatever I want," Durkin said. "I think about nature and the senses and theatre, the viewer, the audience, I think about photography and so forth, so it just keeps going on and on."

"She’s very mature and she does things that people our age don’t even think about doing," said Kate Horne, an artist and a friend of Durkin’s. "Her mechanical ability is extraordinary."

Horne said that tiny motors and a generous dose of sexuality are hallmarks of Durkin’s work. She has wired unassuming pencil sharpeners to moan in rhythm with the pressure on the inserted pencil, pillows mounted on a box tilting endlessly into one another and away, pins sliding mysteriously in and out of a wall and table, catching smooth loops of masking tape and distorting them until they push too far and release the tension. In "Ballet" Durkin exposed the motors. Rotating spindles pull wire V’s attached to torn pieces of wallpaper, creating the impression of gracefully pumping wings, a flock against the wall, moving in time to violin music.

"I really like the strange and the awkward and to augment those possibilities," Durkin said. "Having hat pins press into sticky masking tape. That excites me."

BUT THE CHAIRS ARE CHAIRS, their motion predicated on precise balance and subtle air currents. They cluster on the wood floor of the gallery, tilted to face an oscillating fan and bobbing irregularly in the moments after its breath sweeps past.

When people walk through the door, the air’s circulation changes and the chairs respond to the new presence in the room. Sometimes two chairs will turn and face one another, nodding back and forth. "It’s like they’re sort of ignoring what [the fan’s] got to say and starting their own conversation," said Mary Cook, the gallery manager. "It’s like this dialogue has started among this sea of chairs."

"Every now and then some will fall over," she added. "Some of them start to move over like they’re in a race or something, so I’m constantly having to go back and put them back in position. And that’s almost a Zen-like experience." She compared kneeling and arranging the chairs to raking a sand garden.

Usually, the chairs are moving listlessly or not at all. There is silence and much empty space. Abruptly, in a rustling flutter, a wave of chairs bulges up, one or two may tip. There is a disproportionate urgency to this moment, defined by the clatter of paper and the sudden idea of wind. Something crosses the green security line taped across the gallery floor and viewers become participants.

Durkin explains the piece as an audience facing a speaker, usually nodding in agreement but unpredictably expressing dissent, and that is the explanation that Cook and Susannah Parnin, the assistant manager, give gallery-goers – who are usually delighted and puzzled.

"I enjoy everybody’s surprised reaction," said Parnin, "lots of immediate laughs. People respond differently. Some people ask what it means and some people tell me what it reminds them of."

One woman saw ghost chairs on a porch, another, a cityscape.

But any neat explanation seems inadequate. "It’s kind of disappointing when you put it in a box," Cook said. "It’s nice to let people come to it and have their own experiences with it."