Brett Swenson's Potential Difference explores the notion of transmutation. Physicalities of time, material anomalies, and a focus on electromagnetic phenomena provide the opportunity to experience objects and situations that vibrate between opposing states of being.
Tall grasses and low trees surrounded us. The ominous hum of a well-travelled bridge touched my ears. We walked until we found a beach beyond the path’s end. Low tide revealed a surprisingly ordered mess of shoes in one section of the beach, glass bottles in another, and tools and construction materials down the line of silt–like sand. Farther down the water’s edge, a hardened flow of asphalt appeared, with brick, glass, and other debris trapped inside as an unintended time capsule. This beach revealed a landfill from a time when glass, metal and leather were the castoff bits. The trash seemed noble in its seductive patinas and vintage forms—not like today’s plastic and brightly colored throwaways.
There is something very satisfying about finding a place like this in New York City. This area was once known contemptuously as Barren Island. Salt marshes had separated the city’s dumping grounds and its inhabitants from the rest of south Brooklyn from the 1850s until the 1930s when waste filled in the surrounding marshes and the last residents were evicted. Today, previously submerged human activity reappears.
Artist Brett Swenson sees the potential for these materials to “work” again. The title of the show, “Potential Difference,” is a term synonymous with voltage. It refers to the difference in energy between two points. The scavenged spark plugs seen in “Strewn” lay dormant as potential energy burrowed in sand—unwanted bits from a past life reincarnated as leeching material set in plaster. In “Reignition”, a plume of gas rises from a single spark plug, literally reborn as a conductor of energy. Electrolysis is used to delicately remove rust and corrosion from the ferrous metal. An electric current coursing through the water results in microscopic bursts of hydrogen gas that break down the hardened shell of corrosion.
“Door is Opened, Power is High” departs from the Barren Island site, but similarly engages with the phenomena of electromagnetism—defined here as an invisible web of physical inter-connectivity. This network of non-visual energy can strike in the form of a lightning bolt, which can turn silica-rich earth into glass. This mutated material is tangible evidence of the transference of energy from one point to another. Brett simulates the elusive phenomenon of ball lightning by microwaving material high in silica and iron oxide laced with hair-thin wire. The resulting man-made fulgurites propagate on two sheets of high-temperature glass that rise like miniature monoliths out of the red desert earth piled on the floor.
In the “Standards of Measurement” series, Brett displays three Erlenmeyer flasks of different volumes. When subjected to extreme heat the flasks become deformed by the expanding volcanic glass they contain. The flasks fuse with and contort around the contained material forming a thin skin. The once linear measurements of the flasks become undulating strata, tracing the mutated surfaces with organic rather than precise calculation.
“…silicovolcanoconiosis (Hypochondria)” is a video displaying an endoscopic view of an organ-like object that appears to be aggressively breathing. Suspended in a fiery crucible, the volcanic material is fueled by the radiating heat, constrained only by a crude steel cage that bends and distorts with each breath. The piece’s title refers to a respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to airborne silica. It is an occupational hazard of many industries, particularly those using glass. The video provokes both a sense of wonder and foreboding. It begs the question: How much is one willing to risk in order to pursue his own curiosity?
In all the works in the show, the notion of curiosity and consequence intertwine. The evidence of energy and matter moving and shifting by natural or human forces is present in these micro studies. There is cold comfort in these examples of cause and effect. We know that one thing leads to another; that a charge moves along a conductive surface or that a body of water becomes a landmass as matter displaces water or that a body becomes ill when exposed to toxins. But how do we feel about the perceptible and imperceptible changes that alter our bodies, minds and surroundings? This inexorable march of happenings is daunting—yet we cope and continue on because there is no way to get from point a to point b without movement.
Emily Henretta is an artist living and working in New York. www.emilyhenretta.com
Brett Swenson lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010. For more information, visit www.brettswenson.com