Artist Tyler Coburn’s Words Mean Nothing

Born and bred in New York City, educated at Philips Andover Academy and with a comparative literature degree from Yale, one may assume performance artist Tyler Coburn’s pedigree could work against him. The art world does, after all, appreciate a bit of scrappiness in its up-and-comers, rather than a well-groomed dandy like Coburn. And with three group shows this summer alone, Coburn’s definitely up-and-coming.

Whether his rarefied attitude’s inherent or not, the twenty-five year old is definitely up to playing the upper-crust part. “I rowed crew and shopped for corduroy blazers with elbow patches,” says Coburn of his Andover days. “If I hadn’t played the part I don’t think I would have gotten the full experience.” And it’s that sense of performance – all-encompassing, compulsory – that makes Coburn’s work an experience in and of itself.

One of Coburn’s most compelling videos, Cinephilia, which originated as performance piece, depicts the artist giving a film lecture as iconic film scenes project behind him. “I speak as the amateur who wants his interests to be taken as authority,” he says, quite conscious of how his own notions of irony infuse his work. “I’m interested in the idea of ‘fandom’ and how fans engage in culture.”

In the 2007 piece, Coburn plays the part of the novice fan-cum-professor, a man whose authority rests solely on inaccessible academic jargon, words plucked from literary theory, semiotics, psychoanalysis, ad nauseum. A sense of camp and spectacle prevails, but beneath the contrived lexicon lies an exploration of language gone wrong: alienation from so-called enlightenment.

Another piece, 2008’s Fuckall, takes a vastly different approach that Cinephilia, presenting a curtain-framed Coburn staring straight into the camera at his feet. He speaks seductively and directly at the viewer about sex, monogamy, love – the tribulations two people face while negotiating a relationship. Or, perhaps, trying to deduce its demise. As the soliloquy quickens, the viewer loses track of the words, which drift into the rhythms of his voice, the undulating waves of tone which sooth and stimulate. The words are emptied of meaning as they take on a sculptural quality.

Refusing to limit himself as simply an “artist,” Coburn also spends time reviewing art shows for Rhizome and UK’s Art Review. Some scoff at these side gigs, but Coburn’s adamant in the critical importance of his critiques: “My comparative literature studies at Yale helped me realize that writing and criticism is coextensive with artistic practice,” explains Coburn. “They are realms in a continuum and both vehicles for creation or production.” And, while he continues to write as well as develop new stories, his ongoing shows at Sloan Fine Art, Exit Art, and Jack the Pelican are a good introduction.

– Justin Conner –

Here are two of Coburn’s videos. The first goes by the name “Dark Continents 2,” while the second is a commissioned piece for Grizzly Bear’s track “Deep Sea Diver.”