During a visit to see Dave Cole’s The Music Box at the Reinberger Galleries at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I found the closest bench just a few feet from the door, unloaded my bag and organized my materials. As one of the few people who reads every single piece of text in an exhibition before taking a closer look, I stayed at that bench reading through all of Gallery Director, Bruce Checefsky’s introduction to the exhibition. While glancing up at the massive 13-ton machine, a Caterpillar Vibratory Asphalt Compactor, I read the details of how Cole and his assistants gutted the CAT and replaced the front compactor with a cylinder spool to make music.
When my friend, who like many people prefers to look first then read, moved closer to inspect Cole’s work, she triggered the motion-activated spool, which spilled out sound. This unexpected outburst of disturbing and disquieting music floored me.
Intrigued, I positioned myself in the potential path of the CAT with its compactor—I mean, its music-maker—rotating towards me emitting sound and seemingly closing in on me. The music, an ominous version of The Star Spangled Banner, felt just as heavy as the 13-ton machine. The CAT remained on its base as the rotating spool moved freely but the combination of the industrial and auditory weight made the CAT both threatening and disarming.
My thoughts immediately resonated with the awesome power of the CAT and that of the United States, embodied by The Star Spangled Banner, our country’s song of allegiance, pride, and bravery. Considering how any power has the potential to be dangerous or menacing, I connected the potential danger of the CAT with the potential danger of the policies of the U.S. at home and abroad. I would not call myself a very political person but David Cole certainly is.
His body of work consistently blurs the line of the industrial and domestic as well as the political and benign. Cole constructed an American flag entirely from bullets and bullet fragments in 2008 (Bullet Flag). In the same year, he fastened two loaded 12-gauge shotguns onto a wall as sewing needles to create a blanket, Knitting with Loaded Shotguns (Safeties Off).
The commissioned Music Box does not digest easily. Avoiding an easy message or even an easy to listen to sound, Dave Cole poses the challenge of critical discourse to the viewer.
The show, Scale + Form, also features a retrospective of sculptures by Barbara Stanczak, a prolific artist who taught at CIA for over 30 years. The show runs through May 19th in the Reinberger Galleries.
Gretchen Ferber is an artist and writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. View more articles by Gretchen Ferber.