The Ghost Riders
By: Hilary Stunda
Performance Art Journal:A Journal of Performance Art #69 • September 2001 Volume #23 Number 3
Eric Ringsby isn’t afraid to make a statement. When he was a student at the Chicago Art Institute he once wheeled a nine foot cross one mile down Chicago’s Miracle Mile as a protest and to question the glorification of victimization throughout popular culture. It was on the anniversary of the Stations of the Cross, when Romans forced Christ to carry the cross for his own crucifixion, and then crucified and killed him.
Ringsby is 37 years old. Throughout his career as an artist he has explored such issues as victimization, authority, and the impact of media technology and academic political correctness. Blown out torsos of mannequins replaced with TV monitors, religious icons-turned phallic. Performance pieces; and commissioned pieces, such as his 12 foot long dental tool for the Hu-Friedy Corporation in New York, the largest manufacturer of dental tools.
In 1997, Ringsby was awarded the National Prize of Mexico for his collaborative installation piece with Carmen Mariscal,”Conservacion Termodinamica, (Thermodynamic Conservation), a complex, multi-dimensional piece” that investigates the relevancy of atheism in contemporary art.” Central to the work is a 1920’s Frigid-Aire refrigerator. In front of it, based on a cold marble pedestal, sits the video projector, itself built into a vintage metal ice chest. Open and humming with electricity, erotic images of a man and a woman are projected inside. The refrigerator becomes a fat human with open arms – desire, sexuality and eroticism contained within a mechanized body.
“My primary interest in making art is in the creation and understanding of personal identity,” said Ringsby. “I am constantly exploring the philosophical, scientific and physical worlds to expose the paradigmatical structures.”
His latest show, “Rodeo Series, 2000” is a subtle cultural statement of Western art and an affirmation of his roots.
As a fifth generation Coloradan, Ringsby believes that the traditions of the American West are not only relevant, but also relevant subject matter for contemporary art. In April 2001, he was acknowledged before the Texas House of Representatives for his piece, “Rodeo Series 2000,” and will be honored in a one-man exhibition at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, January and February of 2002 as well as the Coors Western Art Show at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo January the same year.
“Artists have to redefine their visual language every day,” said Jean-Christophe Ammann, Director of Frankfurt’s Museum fur Moderne Kunst, in The Art Newspaper. (No. 113, April 2001) “They have to learn how to treat time like a material, a canvas. The artist must relate to time as a substance…we have to rediscover humanity – what is man.”
“The challenge is to make contemporary art using classic Western imagery without falling into cliches…” said Ringsby. “…How to make it fresh and new while retaining its mythic timelessness. I used to avoid the western floor of art museums because I thought it wasn’t worthy – as if all good art has to come from New York or other cities.”
Ringsby splits his time between Aspen, Colorado and McFadden, Wyoming, where he serves as Director of Rafter Six Ranch Art Center at the base of Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. While his roots are in the west, Ringsby is a cultural hybrid, having imbibed the countries he has lived in: Paraguay, Chile, Austria, England and Canada. ” People try to make themselves market-friendly,” he said. “As if there’s one label. I’m a contemporary artist who also does western art. Because I’m doing this western “cowboy art,” some think I’m too traditional. Others say I’m too contemporary because I’m a new media artist who’s using different materials that are non-traditional. I’m using cutting-edge technology that combines video, performance, sculpture and installation. They don’t know what to do with me,” he said.
Ringsby’s west is not the west of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Charles Russell. While some western artists are limited by hackneyed “western” genres that memorialize the myth of the west, Ringsby’s take is visceral.
His show, “Rodeo Series 2000” presents a familiar theme, yet as he states, “it might as well be a ritual from a foreign land. If you look at a cave painting we have this idea of what it must have been like to hunt buffalo or woolly mammoth, but do we really know what that experience was? Not really. If I can engage in the actual experience rather than the idea of the experience, I have totally eliminated the whole nostalgia trap. The challenge is how to engage them in the actual experience. I think the video does this.”
“Ghost Riders” is a video of cowboys riding saddle bronc projected on to a double raw hide screen 28″ x 32″ x 6″ large. Thick, clear rawhide stretches over the front of the screen, curling up along the sides of the rugged wooden frame. Beneath the first layer is a second layer of white rawhide. When the video projects against the screens, the image only partially penetrates the semi-translucent rawhide. Some of the light stops at the second layer, creating a three dimensional, “ghost ” effect. The video is projected bigger than the frame so the riders appear to be breaking out of the confines of the video screen and onto the wall.
Ringsby contemporizes and authenticates the classic Western imagery by using a virtual context.
As paradoxical as this may sound, the finished product appears “old,” authentic. “It’s a reasonable compromise – it’s still something you can hang up on your wall. You don’t have to plug it in. It lasts forever. It’s less expensive. It’s easier to move.”
Where Paleolithic art is static and evokes a curiosity about the foreign culture, Ringsby’s installation evokes a sense of mystery and timelessness, as if you’re seeing the rodeo movements for the first time. “I’m trying to create a hypnotic effect. My goal is to make the media more transparent, so you’re not looking at an “art object.” His idea of creating user-friendly video, video liberated from the dark viewing chambers of the past, serves his ambition. “I like the viewer to be comfortable, to be able to see the whole room and see where they’re standing,” he said. Ringsby rejects sound, gratuitous sex and violence in exchange for pure aesthetics. “I want the viewer to be lost in a dream.”
The blend of digital black and white format and the raw hide materials takes us beyond voyeurism. At 4% the real time speed, the viewer has time to dissect the primordial dance. The riders are in the moment. The viewer is in the moment. It is a game of death, a game between man and beast and man against Time.
The most intriguing part of the exhibition is watching the interaction between rider and animal. The rider contorts, twists and back-bends his body in any way that allows him to stay seated for eight seconds. While an eternity for the viewer, it’s a flash of fear, exultation, and finally, relief for the rider. No matter how well the rider does, the animal ultimately wins. The beast is not conquered. It is equalized.
“This show is shockingly detached for me,” he said. “In the past my work has been so personal. I was trying to work out issues. I’ve had a life-long preoccupation with authoritarianism. Yet, with this show, I want to show the ritual dance of mortality; the primitive rite of passage. Modern people miss this, hence the modern primitive movement. People want to scar or pierce themselves because they want to feel it rather than just hear about it.”
American rodeo is as American as apple pie. Ever since the great American Western artists have captured the raw, unpeopled landscapes and the Native Indian inhabitants, Artists have been besotted with the idea of the American myth of the West. For photographer David Levinthal, John Wayne and Tonto are the 50s. The large format Polaroids of his western dioramas of toy cowboys anthropomorphize – a photograph of a cowboy figurine in wide-legged stance, the lassoed rope suspended above his head like a halo, is Levinthal’s deification of the west.
But Ringsby is not so much longing for cultural myths as he is searching for the experience of what once was the west. Levinthal’s toys are as much metaphors of culture itself, the image containing the duality of reality and illusion, as Ringsby’s “Rodeo Series,” is direct – there’s no blurring of what we’re experiencing. It’s the celebration of the authentic.
“The whole country idolized the west and the western ideals of self-reliance, independence. You could be eccentric, you could have your own opinion. All were perceived as quintessentially American. But now, the country is becoming increasingly middle-class. The working class heroes are gone and the middle-class heroes are in,” said Ringsby.
“The artist, the writer, the TV producers…they don’t have any connection with things of the west. So, the challenge is, how do you take a moribund art form and put life to it? My Rodeo installation is about trying to take something which is largely considered schlock in contemporary art, and to be nothing but a cliché and find some value in it.”
Ringsby’s work is autobiographical. Having been educated abroad in four continents in three languages has fed his visual template and his emotional temperament. A collection of WWII photography given to him at age twelve launched a life long interest in understanding totalitarianism and the meaning of democracy. Ironically, in 1981 he spent the year living under two fascist dictatorships in South America, General Stroessner in Paraguay and General Pinochet in Chile. Both families he lived with were members of the upper class. “I was aware of what was going on and the implications. I was trapped. I was in a situation where I had obligated myself to be there,” he said.
What became “an innocent little headache in Paraguay” manifested into a progressive neurological disease that lasted seven years. Slowly, Ringsby succumbed to the physical and emotional entropy. “Everything you can imagine happened.” Appendectomy, internal parasites, Gonorrhea. “I was in and out of doctor’s offices and getting physically weaker,” he said. Towards the end, Ringsby could only make limited movements from the neck down. “After a week of acupuncture, the insides of my feet burned because the feelings were coming back,” he said.
Before the seven year-long migraine, Ringsby planned on being a doctor. But after being bedridden in the hospital and given cat scans, spinal taps, X-rays, dyes, allergy medicine; and being visited by psychiatrists, psychologists and neurologists without solutions or cures, Ringsby became disgusted by Western medicine and decided he would never step into another doctor’s office. “I started making sculpture as a way of dealing with my disease- as a way of communicating what was to me, terminal,” he said. “It was good therapy. At the time, I was trying to understand these different political systems and trying to understand my own existential crisis.”
Living without any civil rights in countries that routinely imprisoned, tortured and murdered with impunity changed him – it would be the foundation for his art. Ringsby would be forever aware of the threats to personal freedom by those in power.
Although an academician, having taught film, video, installation and performance art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1994-1997, Ringsby’s art became a rage against all authoritarian powers: political, academic, “satirizing those faux revolutionaries out for personal gain.”
One of his art installations while at the Art Institute challenged the academic political correctness. ” Citing Martin Luther’s’ Thesis, Ringsby created a petition to kick him out of the University for being “politically incorrect.
“The Rodeo Series, 2000” which debuted at the Cornell DeWitt Gallery in Chelsea, New York in April 2001, shows a subtler side to Ringsby. This time, rather than railing against the patronizing and smug academicians, he champions action over “virtual.” Theories. Academic jargon. Multiple languages. With this show, he cast off the rational, hyper-conscious trappings of his former life. Back at the family ranch in Wyoming, Ringsby decided to ride rodeo broncs. He was reborn.
After attending the Lyle Sankey Rodeo School in Lubbock, Texas, Ringsby learned to ride Bronc. While attending rodeos in Wyoming, Texas and Alberta, Ringsby shot the riders on video to scrutinize their techniques. While digitizing the Hi8 videos on his computer, slowing down the speed to 4% real time, he had a revelation. This was the prehistoric dance. The play between man and beast. The excruciatingly slow frames that consist of the two-hour video footage of his “Ghost Rider” installation reveals the side of the dance lost in its eight-second adrenaline rush. Frame by frame the viewer watches as rider wrestles with the primordial beast.
“People are already familiar with Rodeo. But I’m trying to get people interested in the reality and physicality of it. There’s a living quality to it, but it’s disappearing. I stopped in a tiny cowtown in Wyoming. They were really looking forward to their rodeo. It’s still a part of their culture. It’s not like a remnant of something a city would carry on as a sense of tradition.”
To complement the “Ghost Rider” video, Ringsby has created large rodeo prints on canvas (48″ x 64″) using a special giclee (dry-pigment ink jet) process. . The digital color ink-jet prints are stills taken from videos of rodeo riders, including himself. Disinterested in photo-realistic reproduction, the prints appear like watercolors. Ringsby has created a process that takes the color digital image and makes it pointillistic. Printed on the canvas, the image retains its graininess – the pixels enhance the abstract, dreamlike quality which takes it out of the vicarion realm of say, watching the National Final Rodeo on the Sports Channel. Here Ringsby captures the men who risk their lives saving the riders: the clowns. Wearing cowboy hats, football cleats, face paint and wrangler jeans split into kilts for mobility, these archetypal protectors dodge, dance and display their courage and skill for as long as it takes to distract a fallen rider from the horns.
“How many places do you see men risking their lives for another?” he says.
By participating in the act of riding and the act of making art, Ringbsy began re-assembling the fragments of his being – his self- his body – his work.
The alpha male is no longer the cowboy, the mechanic, the working class mench. “The new creators of culture have no connection to the west – they’re not from the farm anymore. They didn’t grow up riding horses and stacking hay. They’d be lucky if they have a garden. Most kids want to stay inside and play Game Boy,” he said.
The working class male hero may have been replaced by virtual manipulators with fat wallets and slim shoulders, but Ringsby’s show reminds us of a time and place where the vitality of maleness in its pure form is as alive and authentic as the bucking bull on a raw hide video screen.
Hilary Stunda is an Aspen transplant from New York City. A writer and editor with an epicurean soul, when she’s not interviewing artists or celebrities, she’s a travel writer and content editor for various websites.
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