Arts & Life

Clayman Institute spotlights Terry Berlier’s wordlessly eloquent conceptual sculpture

Feb. 9, 2022, 10:43 p.m.

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words; for the interdisciplinary artist and Stanford associate professor Terry Berlier, this sentiment extends to three dimensions. Where words fall short, Berlier creates expressive art installations.

Berlier, who is the director of undergraduate studies in art practice, spoke about her work on Tuesday when the Clayman Institute for Gender Research hosted its latest annual Artist’s Salon talk. The series invites the Stanford community to dialogue with a featured faculty member to show “how the arts contribute to the larger mission of gender equality and research.”

Berlier highlighted human emotion as a concept integral to her work. With clever use of auditory and kinetic elements, she said, “I’m trying to emote those feelings that are felt but never discussed.” Engaging the senses, sound and shape can be alternative vehicles for that which we seldom verbalize.

In addition to creating sculptures, Berlier teaches several art practice courses, including ARTSTUDI 153: “Ecology of Materials” and an introductory seminar titled ARTSTUDI 150N: “Queer Sculpture.” These course offerings reflect her art’s dual thematic focus on the current “climate catastrophe” and shared LGBTQ+ experiences.

Berlier’s climate-centered projects flourished during her time as an artist-in-residence at San Francisco-based waste management company Recology. Tasked with using the waste center’s garbage for her art, Berlier found herself stunned at the sheer volume of trash. It inspired the creation of “Smart and Final,” in which leftover cement was molded to fit inside a grocery cart. “I was thinking about the weight it has on us as individuals and the weight it has on us as a culture,” Berlier said.

A man poses with "Smart and Final," a sculpture of a shopping cart filled with concrete, by pretending to push the cart. The sculpture is a manifestation of the weight of consumerism. (Photo courtesy of Terry Berlier)
“Smart and Final,” a manifestation of the weight of consumerism. (Photo courtesy of Terry Berlier)

Berlier also explores the way queer identities forge novel, alternative forms of existing in a hostile environment. She cited her own experiences growing up in a conservative Catholic family in Ohio. Berlier told the Artist’s Salon audience about her great aunt, who lived most of her life in the closet with an illicit partner. At age 84, the aunt penned a letter revealing she was gay and confronting homophobia within the family.

For her piece “I Would Not Change It,” Berlier traced and embossed the letter, resulting in a copy that is viewable but hard to read. This was an intentional choice: “If you take the time to stay with it you get the reward of that personal, intimate connection with her,” Berlier said.

An emboss of white paper showing handwritten cursive letters.
“I Would Not Change It” presents a letter from a queer loved one: Berlier’s great aunt. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

Berlier’s installation titled “Two Pan Tops Can Meet” also challenges homophobic attitudes. It is based on the Jamaican saying “two pan tops can’t meet,” in which pan lids are an innuendo for vaginas. She scoured thrift stores to create numerous couples of perfectly fitting pan lids, then hung each pair from the ceiling. Inside each joined pair, a speaker plays clanking pan lid sounds.

Pan lids make a reappearance in a later piece: a collaboration with transgender composer Sarah Hennies and the musicians of the Living Earth Show titled “A Kind of Ache.” Berlier used the lids — along with other percussive objects like hand bells — as instruments to generate an erratic rhythm. The thrifted collection of pan lids and bells, which she dubbed “queer objects,” took on personality and were able to “speak out.” Importantly, she told the Artist’s Salon audience that the installation was about emulating “a world designed for and from a queer identity.”

Metallic right that suspends pink metal tubes of different lengths around it, forming a regular patter of pinks and silver.
Terry Berlier used bells and chimes, among other objects, to create instruments for her collaboration “A Kind of Ache.” (Photo courtesy of David Andrews)

Berlier also discussed her piece “Waiting for the other shoe to…,” another play on idiomatic language. The saying “waiting for the other shoe to drop” denotes a feeling of impending doom, a dread that one’s present situation will worsen. In the installation, an assortment of single shoes hangs suspended from the ceiling. A computer program manipulates their strings: one by one, each shoe drops to the earth. Then, each is slowly lifted back up to the ceiling. The mechanical motions repeat in a 20-minute loop. At the end of the loop, the shoes all fall together in one collective drop.

Shoes of various different colours and brands are hanging from the ceiling at different heights.
The “Waiting for the other shoe to…” installation is in a constant up-and-down motion. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

The long cycle of fall and rise conveys a broader societal concept, according to the artist: Berlier described it as the “illusion of progress that lulls us into complacency.” She specifically pointed to the precarious state of human rights for BIPOC, queer and trans folks. The collective drop at the climax, then, represents a call to action.

The perpetual autonomous motion of the piece marks a similarity to “A Kind of Ache,” in which most of Berlier’s instruments were mechanized and programmed to a set duration. Importantly, however, Hennies did manually roll one of the instruments around the stage for “A Kind of Ache”. The idea came about when the collaborators were deliberating the piece’s focal point, and “it became this really beautiful play of Sarah and the wheel walking in circles with each other and it was dependent on Sarah touching it,” Berlier said. This also gets at an important conceptual distinction between the two pieces — in “Waiting for the other shoe to…,” motion serves to convey a heavy dread, while motion in “A Kind of Ache” builds a burgeoning vision of utopia and belonging.

One of the most compelling projects discussed in the talk was based on queer theorist Sara Ahmed’s definition of desire lines, a deviation from the societally expected (i.e. cisgender and heteronormative) life path. Having often felt like an outcast, Berlier “really fell in love with this idea that desire lines are a queer experience.” In her Nonorientable series, Berlier modeled the concept spatially by connecting countless wooden joints into an unpredictably twisted Mobius strip — a paradoxical one-sided loop which, she added, represents a rejection of binaries.

Wooden, irregularly shaped mobius strips made out of small sectors of wood; the sculpture lies on top of a blue pillow.
“Nonorientable (Abyssal Plain),” a winding one-sided strip of maple and cherry wood. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

Unlike the timed and active works “A Kind of Ache” and “Waiting for the other shoe to…,” each installment of the Nonorientable series is one static, final piece. Yet there is a certain flow to the wood’s twists and turns; one could go on tracing the loop’s single side for eternity. Its imposing endlessness defies time to bring it into conversation with these other pieces.

Terry Berlier’s passion for expressing human emotion through innovative nonverbal mediums provided great impetus for her thought-provoking Artist’s Salon discussion. One of her favorite parts of the creative process, she said, is that “You have no idea the surprises, accidents and wonderful deviations that are going to happen as you begin to make.”

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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