Brian Davis: Try And Try Again at Flashpoint Gallery

By Michael Dax Iacovone

The first thing you’ll notice when walking into Flashpoint Gallery is the noise. It’s a quick jarring contrast, completely unexpected in a white walled gallery. There’s a stack of video monitors, a sculpture in the middle of the room, a tranquil video of clouds projected in the back, and a couple hundred ping pong balls scattered across the floor. Then you hear it again. The noise is from an air compressor in the back that, every minute or two, shoots out a couple ping pong balls across the gallery, and causes an involuntary flinch. Welcome to Brian Davis’s installation Try And Try Again.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in the room alone, as I was, it won’t take long for you to start anticipating the timing of the noise and the ping pong balls while investigating the contraption, and the accompanying videos. The sculpture in the middle of the room looks like a scale model of a water tower. It’s made out of steel beams and a repurposed vacuum cleaner that will suck the ping pong balls from the floor, up the tower, and then deposit them into a track sloping down the wall to the other end of the room behind the video projection of the blue sky and clouds, where the air compressor then shoots them back across the room.

It’s too clean and well made to evoke Rube Goldberg comparisons, but it’s not too far off.

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There are also a couple live video feeds that show close-up views of the inside of the vacuum, and the machine that shoots the balls back out. The live-feed videos are a little confusing at first as they appear to be separate pieces, but their purpose reveals, although mysteriously, some of the mechanics of the installation. When pushing a ping pong ball into the hole at the base of the contraption, you can hear the vacuum suck it up to the top, and the video shows a live feed of the ball rattling around inside the vacuum body, before falling down the the ramp into a well, where they wait their turn to get shot out again.

The projection of clouds in a blue sky calmly counteracts the noise and the ping pong balls shooting out, and it also hides the air compressor and the trough collecting the ping pong balls well enough that you can’t see them until you walk up to investigate. Davis allows the artiface to conceal the machinery from a distance, but also seems to welcome the viewer to investigate and see how it all works by not obscuring it enough that it can’t be seen or understood if you were to go look.

In order to spend more time taking it all in, I took one of the four brooms that are hanging on the wall, and started sweeping the balls into the vacuum. It was a lot harder than I expected. The balls are so light, it’s hard to corral them with the big straw broom. I felt like a hockey goalie trying to get 8 or 10 of them towards the hole, while also blocking the ones shooting out from getting too far away.

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The process also revealed how futile it all is, because those balls are going to keep coming. It’s endless – Sisyphean, but not entirely futile. There is a feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. When a ball gets close to the hole, and the vacuum turns on and sucks it up, the sound acts as a signifier and reminds you that your work isn’t entirely fruitless, but it is unnecessary.

Try and Try Again is like a zen garden for people who don’t like to relax.

If you decide to take some time to experience the work, and interact with it, you’ll find yourself with time to consider the mechanical sublimity of it all. You’ll transform into a custodian for the contraption, knowing that it will still continue spitting out ping pong balls regardless of how many you pick up. And you’ll also find that there’s too much tension with the noise and the action of the ping pong balls to ever find it calming.

Somehow Davis has elegantly manipulated ridiculous futility into relaxing busy work. This installation is so well done that the viewer can consider the task of the contraption versus the optional task of returning the ping pong balls without ever feeling manipulated.

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Brian Davis: Try And Try Again was at Flashpoint Gallery through June 4th.

Author Michael Dax Iacovone is a DC based artist who works in photo, video, maps and installation.