Los Angeles Times

January 20, 2011

Art review: Joel Tauber at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

By Christopher Knight

Pumping water, pumping oil and pumping a railroad hand car — those are the central images in each frame of a film triptych in a layered and marvelously provocative new sculptural installation by Joel Tauber. What emerges is an unusual meditation on history.

The triptych is projected large on a big wall in the main room at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Each black-and-white film — made with an antique, hand-crank tripod camera briefly glimpsed at irregular intervals — is grainy and scratched. Shown as a short loop, it italicizes the repetitive rhythm depicted in all that pumping, as well as heard in the film’s rumbling and dirge-like percussive soundtrack.

The loop gets manifested in the imagery too. Water provides human sustenance the way oil provides machine sustenance, while the railroad provides the engine (you should pardon the pun) for population growth, which requires more water. Tauber is visualizing L.A.’s origins, of course, layering oil fields with an unquenchable thirst for water in a semi-arid desert landscape fueled by the power of the railroad trusts. Film makes a resonant vehicle to tell the tale.

That vehicle takes shape in the installation, where a massive length of actual steel railroad track bisects the gallery on the diagonal, leading into a second room. Tauber has built a hand car –also known as a pump trolley — for the track, its flatbed perforated along the edges like the sprocket-holes of film stock. It hauls a big jug of water, while off in the distance a tumbleweed of debris blocks the path.

The tumbleweed is actually a dense tangle of steel strips, their width not coincidentally echoing film stock. On screen, the operator of the pump car wrestles with the clump to clear the way. The conceptual loop is completed by the emerging power of mass imagery, here set against an artist’s singular vision.

art ltd magazine

march 2011

Joel Tauber: “Pumping” at Susanne Vielmetter

by marlena doktorczyk-donohue

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. 

Winston-Salem Journal

September 28, 2011

Variety of style highlights show by three artists

By Tom Patterson

The artists with works on view in Wake Forest University’s Hanes Art Gallery this month — Beth Sutherland, Mary Ting and Joel Tauber — have little else in common. These works are configured so they clearly constitute separate solo exhibitions, each interesting for its own reasons.

Tauber, recently hired by the Wake Forest art department as an assistant professor, is represented by a three-channel video installation titled “Pumping.” It pays eccentric conceptual homage to the history of Los Angeles, and specifically to the importance of water, oil and railroads in creating the city in what had previously been a thinly populated desert.

All three videos were filmed with an antique, hand-cranked movie camera. As a result, the grainy, scratchy, black-and-white footage is reminiscent of the silent films that were the first products of the cinema industry, also crucial to Los Angeles’ history.

The films are simultaneously projected in one-two-three order across a wall. Their lone character is a young, bespectacled man dressed like an old-fashioned railroad worker in overalls and a train engineer’s cap.

In the first film, he manipulates an old, hand-operated water pump to fill a large glass jug. In the second, he operates a two-handled pump trolley — a hand-powered, four-wheeled railroad vehicle — on which he transports the water-filled jug along a stretch of tracks in a rural setting. His progress is impeded by a tangled mass of metal ribbons that vaguely resembles a pile of discarded movie film left on the railroad tracks.

The third film consists mostly of close-up views of an oil-pumping device in operation as it extracts crude oil from a subterranean deposit. The soundtrack for the installation consists of a whispered voice-over narrative about the development of Los Angeles from 1873 to the present.