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See This Art: At Big Medium, devices to get you through any disaster

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
“147 Devices for Integrated Principles” can be seen at Big Medium Gallery.

Natural disasters spark the survival response in all of us.

Be it a flood, fire, twister, earthquake or slow-moving plague, we reach for whatever might keep us alive.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, artists Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand, whose creative art practice goes by the name Hillerbrand+Magsamen, needed to assemble a “hurricane box” of emergency necessities such as canned food, batteries and bottled water.

Yet after the storm passed and the floodwaters receded, the couple realized that survivor stress did not dissipate entirely. As anyone who lived through 2020 can attest, a prolonged public health crisis — compounded by exceptionally divisive social and political pressures; lingering economic insecurity; and personal, work and family traumas — can feel like one unending disaster scenario.

So Hillerbrand, Magsamen and their children have invented, collected, collated, adapted and combined household items and made them into an evolving work of art, “147 Devices for Integrated Principles.” Live and video performances, with extra material from Austin playwright and novelist Kirk Lynn and composer Peter Stopschinski, join photography and sculpture in what becomes essentially a room-sized work of acute art.

About 30 square feet under a high ceiling, the Big Medium Gallery seems ideally suited for this particular show. Executed in pristine black, white, gray and silver, the collective grouping consists of three zones of attention.

1. Two white chairs sit in front of a video screen. The artists have divided the looped film into a grid of changing images. Shown separately in that grid, the four family members open things, poke through things, pluck things, assemble things, wrap things, subtract things, wear things, roll things and brand a plank of wood with the word “HOME.” Periodically, to Stopschinski’s toy-like music, family members poke their heads out a sort of trap door to look around, perhaps to see if the metaphorical coast is clear. Perfect for our lockdown times.

2. Six three-dimensional objects make up this second zone. A bejeweled kiddy car revolves on a disk as if exhibited at an auto show. A Rube Goldberg machine made of kitchen gadgets goes in and out of motion. Photos of assembled devices are arranged into a sort of mandala on a black blanket. 

Two gallery windows display poetry in reverse-out white letters on black fields. The instantly compelling phrases tell of anxiety, inaction and, perhaps, escape.

It opens with: “For me it was as if a bird / had to come build a nest in my ribcage / and laid several very fragile, very delicate eggs / and so I thought: / We had better get prepared.”

A transparent record spins more simple Stopschinski tunes on small portable player. Easy to miss, a flat white wreath of extension cord outlines — or is it a crown of thorns? — hangs near the door.

3. The third zone consists of what I would call “The Big Wall.” It includes luminous photos of devices, the actual metal “HOME” brand, some sculptures of agglomerated things, family portraits (including Hillerbrand with a pine bough strapped to his head with a thick belt) and more photos of family members in costumes, masks or other material. Also, fitting for our era, there's an intricate gas mask.

An uneasy humor pervades this show. Not the winking “insider” humor that one encounters in so much of today’s art, but rather a modest, self-effacing playfulness that complements the artists’ impeccable images, words and sounds.

“147 Devices for Integrated Principles” can be seen by appointment only, noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Feb. 27 at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, Building 2, No. 101, bigmedium.org.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

About This Story

You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.