Joel Tauber: "Pumping" at Susanne Vielmetter

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Pumping (installation view)
2010
Three channel Blue-ray video installation, custom steel handcar, water jug,
railroad tracks, film strips/pile of metal
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Just as his “tree” project spoke to the sustainability of human intimacy, our relation to nature, and the concrete zeitgeist of LA, Joel Tauber again intimates those themes and others in his newest video-photo-sculpture installation. Called “Pumping” (referencing both water and oil–resources key to our history and now at risk), this mis-en-scene is more of a nostalgic movie set with simulacra recreating the mood if not the letter of LA at the turn of the century. Tauber uses a steel handcar displayed on 80 feet of coiled railroad track surrounded by “period” videos and photographs to conflate LA’s very real social history with its enduring seductive mythos as both Hollywood and ever-fecund oasis. Invoked poetically and indirectly are such factual, destiny-turning events as the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Owens Valley aqueduct, the eradication of indigenous American legacies, the creation of MGM and other bigger-than-life movie studios–all pet projects of special interest tycoons like Otis, Doheny and Stanford, who funded train transport, oil digging, and water diversion hoping to transform (for profit) the desert of LA into the illusion of maverick potential. Adding to this ether of doom and boom–almost as if you are entering a silent film newsreel–is a three-channel video projection shot with a 16mm hand-cranked camera precisely for that “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” effect. Insistently performative in all his work, Tauber records himself in period dress riding a hand-powered railcar through a pre-development desert-scape, wielding an old-fashioned water pump; a barely audible voice ruminates on the LA of the late 1800s, and speculates as to its technologically bright future and corporate promise. Still photos of similar images, distressed and staged to have that pictorialist smoky feel popular back then complete the historical and emotive rhetoric.

Familiar Tauber tactics and themes recur–alienation, obsession, the mixed blessing of progress–but this is his most poetically evocative, visually lyrical and least slapstick project. Because history and fantasy, past, present and future intentionally converge–an epoch is intimated, never firmly articulated–we see and feel promise and promise deferred, we realize our city’s techo-slicko veneer was not always thus, we long for a simpler past, look to the future, and worry after the limited resources, fiscal meltdown and fragile distortions underlying our city, her dream industries and her power brokers.