On my drive to Gregor Turk’s exhibition Terminal Velocity, which reveals the artist’s interpretation of place and place-marking, I got terribly turned around on a road I’ve driven down a hundred times before. I had missed the turn for the Museum of Contemporary Art because the road on the left side of Peachtree is called by one name, and another on the right (with quite a smaller sign, I might add). The infuriating detour seemed almost serendipitous, however, when I arrived at the exhibition only to see Turk’s multiple maps of Atlanta highways laid out on the wall.
The maps identify what most Atlantans will recognize as the anatomical and existential heart of the city: the outline of I-285, subdivided by the ventricles of I-20, I-75, and I-85. The first of these cartographies, Metronesian Tectonics, is made of an impressive array of car plates announcing the ever-ambitious model names of various vehicles. Turk cleverly arranges these tags into categories. One row—I think the vein representing 75 North—reads in succession, “Legend, Mystique, Intrigue, Esteem, Triumph, Acclaim.” The grandeur of these aspirational names, especially coming from an Atlanta native such as Turk, are so clearly devoid of meaning when considering that other than being gathered into Metronesian Tectonics, the only other accumulation of this many model tags would occur during five-o’clock traffic. No one is a legend in that context. The person with the sexy sports car in the next lane loses an awful lot of mystique when you’re stalled next to him long enough to hear he’s listening to a Phil Collins CD. And you sure as hell don’t esteem the asshole in the minivan who just cut you off.
Turk levels the field in the second work of the Metronesian series, ridding the map of branding and focusing on the politics of Atlanta as a driving city. For this second installment, Turk has wrapped the mimosa wood that forms the outline of the city with inner-tube ribbons punctuated by air valves at each point that an exit would appear on the actual highway. Metronesian Stick Charts references Micronesian stick charts, described in Turk’s artist statement as “handheld wood and seashell constructions that depict nautical routes by indicating wave swells and water currents rather than standard distance.” Micronesians explored the vast oceans with their crude tools, and Atlantans navigate their own city streets with tools that run on crude oil.
Metronesian Replacements, the third and final work in this series, serves somewhat as a commentary on the first two pieces. Found leaves, cut into exes, are tacked into the wall by their frail stems—in this way they appear to be plunging, like miniature skydivers having just reached their own terminal velocity.
The fragility of the leaves and the absurdity of using them as map-making tools emphasizes the coy message of Tectonics and Stick Chart by illuminating that place is filled with personalized connotations. As MOCA GA’s brief on the exhibition reveals, “Since childhood, Gregor Turk has been endlessly fascinated by maps. However, this appeal is less about the actual geographic information communicated in maps and more about what that information tells us about ourselves as individuals and collectively as a culture.” Like the intricate Micronesian ocean charts which are so highly nuanced that only their makers can effectively use them, Turk’s diagrams subvert the concept of a map as universally symbolic and legible (as they are presumed to be); rather, he presents them as a tool to assess one’s personal sense of place—the glowing “You Are Here” sticker carried around in our consciences.
Turk’s more personal attitude toward place is revealed through the Fetish series, which is, according to his artist’s statement, “an attempt to understand the burden of place—to reconcile the conflicted sentiments of revered sites.” These collected pieces of wood, bandaged together with inner tube, appear like a smattering of chromosomes or lopsided crucifixes along the rightmost wall of the room. Like the leaves in Metronesian Replacements, their exes mark the spot. But because the exes are made from bound wood gathered at a memorable site for Turk, each signifies a place of importance within the mark itself, instead of suggesting a treasure buried underneath.
Each ex, wrapped in rubber save for one, varies slightly from its neighbor, implying the various weight of each memory. The more foreboding works have nails struck vigorously through them, sometimes clustered entirely in the center where the wood meets; in others the nails neatly line the crossbars. Perhaps these identify more painful recollections, or ones that Turk feels require recollection the most. Or maybe, at a certain point, memories start folding together like a deck of cards being shuffled and therefore need placeholders to separate one from another in the mind. The nails also exemplify the burden of place as a concept we feel indivisibly attached to because it maintains memory by providing it with a setting. As the car plates with the ambitious titles like Explorer and Legacy elucidate, place is often glorified as the position we would like to occupy in the future. Venturing into unknown territories, using a map stamped with familiar landmarks of the memories associated with a place, reveals how where you have already been facilitates and influences where you will go.
Solidifying past occurrences by pairing them with the location in which they were made also contrasts with the concern with forging new memories represented by the rubber tubing repeatedly used in Terminal Velocity. Another universal experience of living in a driving city that Turk alludes to with his semiotics is the dreaded nail-in-tire problem. They symbolize the purposeful, mental obstruction that occurs when you reminisce about a place; connecting that spot to a single incident can limit any alternate meanings the destination could hold. Turk’s tubing, on the other hand, is meant to insulate the idealized sense of possibility that accompanies traveling to a new destination. These two constructs of place are bound to clash for the viewer, if where you’ve been—the nail—prevents you from getting somewhere else on your rubber-wrapped map.
Terminal Velocity presents place as inconsistent despite our best attempts to cement locations and the memories associated with them. When we’re stuck on a highway in Atlanta, as Turk’s maps show, place is the destination we are trying to reach, not where we currently find ourselves. The place we mark in our minds as important means more than the place we occupy. But maybe we have only a certain amount of space in our heads to file away these places, and thus their flexibility is a virtue. Selective mark-making forges cultural as well as personal identity, in such a way that I can read Turk’s map of Atlanta but not his memories, though neither represents a less legitimate location for him.
Gregor Turk is one of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia’s recipients of the Working Artist Project award. His exhibition Terminal Velocity will remain up for viewing through Saturday, July 14, 2012. MOCA GA is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10AM to 5PM.