The Aesthetics of Recycling
- NY Arts
Danny O: Ball Walk at Mass Moca's "Game Show"
"There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean. Precisely what the first analysts of narrative were attempting: to see all the world's stories within a single structure." Roland Barthes, S/Z
A very large pile of playthings lives in the 50 by 60 foot GE Plastics Gallery of North Adams' Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts. Over 17,000 found balls of seemingly endless colors, sizes and shapes create a gorgeous, heavy heap. The hard-won objects lie snugly together, forming a rough, organic circle. Though thirteen windows grace the space and afford ample light, there is a dark, eerie presence to these forgotten ghosts of fun. Each ball was lost by some real person; each has its singular narrative. Some are completely deflated, punctured, or falling apart. They embody Elizabeth Bishop's melancholy words: "so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster... The art of losing isn't hard to master" Indeed, their collective "lostness" is the public's gain, but has proven, contrary to Bishop's dictum, exceedingly difficult to master.
The recently realized piece is the brainchild of Boston artist Dan O'Connor (known as Danny O), who has worked with found objects since the late 80's. Danny O acknowledges that he is hardly unique in his use of the objet trouv'. Countless contemporary artists utilize the found object/image to lend an air of nostalgia and automatically imply a dozen modern giants, from Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters to Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. The prevalence of this process has not been a deterrent however. O'Connor is committed to his long-held preoccupation with found art and alternative mediums: he has saved countless lost gloves and mittens, umbrellas, balls and littered paint cans and plastic bottle caps from the oblivion of urban trash and rural roadsides. While studying art at Cooper Union, he gave two deliverymen from the Bronx ten dollars to help him take home a huge wooden plank, a forgotten police barricade in faded blue paint, a palimpsest stomped over with decades of construction worker traffic. "It looked like a Cy Twombly," Danny O says now. "It's long lost again, left hanging above the fireplace in a sublet on 10th Street and Avenue B."
Led by O'Connor, teams of enthusiastic ball commandoes have been scouring Boston and environs for the past six years. (The highest-yielding repositories prove to be along riverbanks and beaches and surrounding playgrounds.) O'Connor and his teams have turned up local balls from as far afield as Winchester, Malden, Sagus and Revere, Massachusetts. They can even boast global spheres from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Italy and China.
Danny O's decade of collecting first went public with the 1999 "On the Ball" group exhibition at the DeCordova Museum. Creating a four story tall drawing named "Have You Seen My Ball?" based on his 1988 photograph of a 6-year-old boy named Matthew from Milwaukee, the artist and a fleet of assistants covered hundreds of panels with paint and 2,000 tennis, billiard, bowling, cricket, base, basket, and beach balls.
At the DeCordova Museum, using paint and balls, the artist successfully bridged the gap between sculpture and two-dimensional art. With "Ball Walk" he has upped the stakes by combining the sculptural with the conceptual, the spiritual with the earthly. In his own words, he uses balls "as a computer uses pixels to create an image." The result is a tour de force of perfectly childish brilliance.
What distinguishes the ball works of Danny O from so many others is the sheer monumentality of his near-religious efforts to glorify the "highest form in the found object family," the "sphere emanat(ing) the most joy- the one perfect shape." Ultimately his work goes above and beyond the ready-made. By sheer abundance alone the "Ball Walk" installation overturns Duchamp's overdone dada denigration of high art by forging an entire environment of mutliples as a monument to the ready-made. O often chants as he searches for lost objects, and in this light "Ball Walk" is a veritable cathedral of both one-of-a-kind, used multiples and purely coincidental ready-mades. It is as near as one can comfortably come to 21st century artistic asceticism, as near as one can come to spirituality in art. Landscapes unfold within Danny O's canvas of floorboards. Almost anybody's childhood is alluded to, every walk-off homerun, every dodge-ball trauma, every hooked tee-shot: some 17,000 memories.
O'Connor also recognizes that the accumulation of similar objects, from Walter de Maria to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is a long practiced conceptual technique for artists. Christopher Draeger's Puzzled, for example, effectively uses an impressive pile of puzzle pieces topped off with television sets in the "Game Show" exhibition. Yet while Danny O's aesthetics utilize the omnipresent detritus of our discardable age, they are closer to old- school outsider/visionary techniques of using the cheap materials close at hand (Simon Rodia) than the depressing recent phenomenon of artists exhibiting the flotsam and jetsam of their studios (Tomoko Takahashi).
In a sporadic email diary of the "Ball Walk" project, O'Connor taps out nostalgic, compulsive prose, at times describing his hunting and gathering with the enviable verve of a latter-day Delacroix. Two early August entries bear repeating: "We arrived in Everett around four and set out into the Mystic and its reed-lined shores. I worked in the reeds throwing balls out into the river as Don collected them by raft. After a few hours I became "ball dizzy" and with the sun setting and our energy depleted we made one more attempt, arriving with a total of 613 and a new record for two people." And later that week: "I found 250 balls in 35 minutes near the dam in Everett. The victory was slightly tainted when the cops pulled me over shortly after leaving the parking lot. After popping the trunk and explaining my story (they) told me about a swamp that would likely be good turf, stopped traffic to allow safe return to the highway and wished (me) good luck."
"Ball Walk" has drawn considerable attention from the small North Adams, Massachusetts community. The catalogue essay for the exhibition urges vistors to contribute to a ball depository outside the museum's entrance. Curator Laura Steward Heon says the "alarmingly well-equipped" North Adams community has embraced the exhibition. She tells of a thrilled three-year-old named Charlotte who found a silver ball that is now perched precariously on a group of rotten tennis balls. Another local dreamed of finding a large pink ball; he found it within days and added it to the bin. The exhibition catalogue caught the attention of Toronto sculptor Michael Davey, another avid ball collector, who contributed 1,000 balls to the project, pushing O over his initial goal of 16,000 (the estimated amount of soon-to-be displaced Fort Point-area artists suffering in the wake of Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel project).
A month before seeing the installation at MASS MoCA, I went in search of just one New York City ball to add to the effort. I stepped into a playground on East 94th Street. A girl smacked a tennis ball against a wall, a high school boy shot free-throws, a boy and a girl went head to head in a strikeout match. I didn't find a ball. What I found instead that afternoon was the carefree experience of the all-mighty, omnipresent ball before it's lost, in its ultimately boundless utilitarian glory. I returned to the empty park six hours later and still no found ball turned up.
I looked for a ball for weeks. I decided New York kids are too shrewd or too stingy to abandon a toy and realized that one cannot force this process of Danny O's. This project requires the artist to be in the exact right place at the exact right moment thousands of times over.
While consumed with his hunt for found balls, O'Connor has left the Fort Point, Boston studio he has occupied for seven years, secured a new studio in the Berkshires and an apartment Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He has also landed a long-term contract creating Berkshire landscapes with Boxcar Media. So don't be surprised if you see a flotilla of brightly colored orbs floating down the East River. He has nowhere to store his behemoth and would be proud to give his treasure back to the spirits. This project is far from finished.