How I learned to stop worrying

The Fakelore of Sarah Belknap and Joseph Belknap
by Katrina Chamberlin

The Belknaps are inseparable – conjoined in a Midwestern tall-tale kind of way. In the past
five years, not a day has gone by without one seeing the other, no personal time is spent
away separately, and if you speak to one, the other is bound to know the contents of your
conversation. They go to the market together, teach together, make art together, eat together,
and sleep together. As a collaborative, their art speaks to these kinds of larger-than-life
In the vein of classic American folklore, the Belknaps’ new body of work appears as a boasting
match versus nature, where human exaggerations loom large. In It’s Getting Hot in Here, all
of nature is shrunk to a manageable size. You can physically climb onto a glacier like a child’s
playground ride on springs. The planet is so compressed that a hole in the ground is cut to
reach the glacier that sits underneath the gallery floorboards. A series of digital prints profess
to proportionately beat the size of the world’s largest forest, desert, lake and glacier. It’s simply
exhausting to contemplate. The title, Mine is bigger than yours (2012) is not being coy about the
human ego.
The Belknaps’ work has seen a shift in medium over the years. From working with natural
woods and fibers, to fearlessly introducing industrial products to their art, their current work has
both everything and yet nothing to do with nature. This is not a “back to the land” movement.
This is where a glacier made of fiberglass is confronted with a plastic oil spill. This is a factory
of plastics, polyurethanes and fiber-glass. As if humans said, “Hell, if I’m going to tame you
- It will be through what I’ve invented!” This is a chemical conquest, an atomic reordering, a
miniaturizing and infantilizing of nature. It’s a cheeky taunt.
But can the playground ride on springs really ever live up to its expectations? Have you ever
seen a grown adult trying to build up momentum on a vehicle that isn’t going anywhere?
Behind the bravado, the work offers moments of humility; revealing imperfections and
idiosyncrasies that define us as humans more than the subject being taunted. Take the child’s
playground swing, The leavings of the frozen sea (2012), it is aged, rusted over and suspended
in a block of ice. The work seems to be a metaphor for human time, memory and motion
trapped in nature. The swing set is sad, pointing to an ego that is more fearful than confident.
The more we look the more the work is about nature’s power over us and our vulnerability.
Like legendary characters of the frontiers, in 2011 the Belknaps cut, splayed and displayed
their own mountain in My Fault. In the work, drywall bends back under pressure of an imminent
landfall. The epic story continues in It’s Getting Hot in Here, instead of cowering under nature’s
intimidations, the Belknaps shrug, prepare for some bruises and ride the tumbling (hand-made)
rocks all the way down.