The Clayman Institute highlights the silently eloquent conceptual sculpture of Terry Berlier


The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words; for interdisciplinary artist and Stanford associate professor Terry Berlier, this feeling extends to three dimensions. Where words fail, Berlier creates expressive art installations.

Berlier, who is director of undergraduate studies in artistic practice, spoke about her work on Tuesday when the Clayman Institute for Gender Research organized its last Artist salon conference. The series invites the Stanford community to engage with a featured faculty member to show “how the arts contribute to the broader mission of gender equality and scholarship.”

Berlier emphasized human emotion as a concept integral to his work. With clever use of auditory and kinetic elements, she said, “I try to express those feelings that are felt but never discussed.” Engaging the senses, sound and form can be alternative vehicles for what we rarely verbalize.

In addition to creating sculptures, Berlier teaches several artistic practice courses, including ARTSTUDI 153: “Ecology of Materials” and an introductory seminar titled ARTSTUDI 150N: “Queer Sculpture”. These lesson offerings reflect the dual themes of her art on the current “climate catastrophe” and shared LGBTQ+ experiences.

Berlier’s climate-focused projects flourished while she was artist-in-residence at a San Francisco-based waste management company. Recology. Tasked with using waste from the dump for her art, Berlier found herself stunned by the sheer volume of waste. It inspired the creation of “Smart and Final”, in which leftover cement was molded to fit in a grocery cart. “I was thinking about the weight it has on us as individuals and the weight it has on us as a culture,” Berlier said.

“Smart and Final”, a manifestation of the weight of consumerism. (Photo courtesy of Terry Berlier)

Berlier also explores how queer identities forge new and alternative forms of existing in a hostile environment. She cited her own experiences growing up in a conservative Catholic family in Ohio. Berlier told the Salon de l’Artiste audience about his great-aunt, who lived most of her life in the closet with an illicit partner. At 84, the aunt wrote a letter revealing she was gay and faced homophobia within the family.

For his piece “I Wouldn’t Change It”, Berlier traced and embossed the letter, resulting in a visible but hard-to-read copy. It was an intentional choice: “If you take the time to stay with her, you get the reward of that personal, intimate connection with her,” Berlier said.

A white paper embossing showing handwritten cursive letters.
“I wouldn’t change it” features a letter from a queer loved one: Berlier’s great-aunt. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

Berlier’s installation titled “Two Pan Tops Can Meet” also challenges homophobic attitudes. It is based on the Jamaican saying “two pan lids cannot meet”, in which pan lids are an innuendo for vaginas. She scoured thrift stores to create many pairs of perfectly fitting pan lids, then hung each pair from the ceiling. Inside each joined pair, a speaker emits pot lid sounds.

Pot Lids Reappear in a Later Piece: A Collaboration with a Transgender Composer Sarah Hennies and the musicians of Living Earth Show titled “A Kind of Evil”. Berlier used the lids—along with other percussive objects like hand bells—as instruments to generate erratic rhythm. The thrifty collection of pot lids and cloches, which she dubbed “weird objects”, took on personality and was able to “express itself”. Crucially, she told the audience at the Salon de l’artiste that the installation was intended to emulate “a world designed for and from a queer identity.”

Metallic straight that suspends pink metallic tubes of different lengths around it, forming a regular pattern of pinks and silver.
Terry Berlier used bells and chimes, among other objects, to create instruments for his “A Kind of Ache” collaboration. (Photo courtesy of David Andrews)

Berlier also discussed his piece “Waiting for the other shoe to…”, another piece about idiomatic language. The saying “wait for the other shoe to fall” denotes a sense of impending doom, a fear that the current situation will get worse. In the installation, an assortment of individual shoes hang from the ceiling. A computer program manipulates their strings: one by one, each shoe falls to the ground. Then everyone slowly ascended to the ceiling. The mechanical movements are repeated in a 20-minute loop. At the end of the loop, the shoes all fall together in one collective fall.

Shoes of different colors and brands hang from the ceiling at different heights.
The installation “Waiting for the other shoe to…” is in a constant movement from top to bottom. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

The long cycle of fall and rise conveys a larger societal concept, according to the artist: Berlier describes it as “the illusion of progress that lulls us into complacency”. She specifically highlighted the precarious state of human rights for BIPOC, queer and trans people. The collective drop at the climax therefore represents a call to action.

The piece’s autonomous perpetual motion marks a similarity to “A Kind of Ache,” in which most of Berlier’s instruments were mechanized and programmed for a fixed duration. Most importantly, Hennies manually rolled one of the instruments around the stage for “A Kind of Ache.” The idea came about when the collaborators deliberated on the focal point of the piece, and “it became this very beautiful game of Sarah and the wheel going in circles with each other and it depended on the fact let Sarah touch her,” Berlier said. It also serves to draw an important conceptual distinction between the two pieces – in ‘Waiting for the other shoe to…’ movement serves to convey heavy dread, while movement in ‘A Kind of Ache’ constructs a emerging vision of utopia and belonging.

One of the most compelling projects discussed in the conference was based on the queer theorist Sara Ahmeddefinition of desire lines, a deviation from the life path expected by society (i.e. cisgender and heteronormative). Having often felt like an outcast, Berlier “really fell in love with this idea that desire lines are a queer experience”. In her Nonorientable series, Berlier modeled the concept in space by connecting countless wooden joints in an unpredictably twisted Mobius strip – a paradoxical one-sided loop which, she added, represents a rejection of binaries. .

Irregularly shaped wooden mobius strips made up of small sectors of wood;  the sculpture rests on a blue pillow.
“Nonorientable (Abyssal Plain)”, a winding one-sided strip of maple and cherry. (Photo courtesy of John Janca)

Unlike the timed, active works “A Kind of Ache” and “Waiting for the other shoe to…”, each installment in the Nonorientable series is a static, final piece. Still, there is a certain flow to the twists and turns of the wood; we could continue to draw the single side of the loop for eternity. Its imposing infinity defies time to make it dialogue with these other pieces.

Terry Berlier’s passion for expressing human emotion through innovative non-verbal means provided great impetus to his thought-provoking discussion of The Artist’s Salon. One of her favorite parts of the creative process, she said, is that “you have no idea of ​​the surprises, crashes, and wonderful deviations that are going to happen when you start making.”


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