Henry Simonds has devised a taxonomical system for every strain of the Super Ball®. Those crafted to look like pool balls are called Hypersphaerae billiardus; ones made with marble compositions and primary colors are dubbed Hypersphaera primomarmoreus. They’re all arranged in tidy, neat frames like butterflies in museums. It’s an absurd methodology, and the underlying meaninglessness of the practice is precisely what Simonds explores. The Pittsburgh-based filmmaker’s Requiem for the Super Ball®, a mixed-media exhibition, runs at Charles Bank Gallery through September 11.
An erratic, often unpredictable toy, the Super Ball has been a staple of America’s consumption-loving imagination since its inception in 1965. Simonds is attracted to the toy’s inherent sense of intrigue, and he seeks to capitalize upon the beauty he sees. A three-channel video installation of neon orbs bouncing against invisible walls loops continuously. With a collective running time of just over an hour, the videos offer an odd, hallucinatory play of form. Six photographs – still images from the videos – are mounted on the wall, each one a somewhat abstract close-up of the many Super Balls.
The process of creating these videos, of course, was an arduous one, but Mr. Simonds describes it with a sense of glee – he speaks endlessly of the different angles, depths of field, and focal points from which he and his team of collaborators had to shoot. Blueprints for the videos rest next to the pneumatic canon he used to shoot the balls. Old tins of Super Balls Simonds has owned since childhood sit on shelves in the exhibition. A number of framed arrangements of Super Balls, labeled with engraved taxonomical titles below them, line the rest of the exhibition’s walls – the smiley face Super Ball, the amberous ribbon core cyclone Super Ball, the psychedelic cyclone Super Ball.
The Super Ball is, clearly, a form that thrills Simonds – he’s willing to use myriad modes of visual expression to convey the wondrous qualities of this toy. That said, Simonds combines his childlike fascination with the mind of a grown businessman. He’s recently launched what he calls the The International Sphaeralogical Society, or the ISS, a forum for others to share their ideas and experiences about the Super Ball. Ideally, he’d like people to upload videos of the different activities they’ve participated in with the Super Ball, participate in discussions based on the Super Ball, and explore the endless possibilities for articulating what this toy means to them. He’s termed this study Spheraology.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, a place he feels has been aptly titled “a microcosm of the rest of America," Simonds isn’t ashamed that his project is, essentially, a glorification of America’s consumer culture. It’s unabashedly celebratory in tone. “I’ve never been about manifestos and philosophies,” Simonds confesses. “I find Kool Aid propagandist tools as intriguing as, say, Russian constructivism.” He believes that the best conversations don’t have to be steeped in the high intellectualism that seems to cloak artistic discourse. Simonds received degrees in both Film and Studio Art from Middlebury College and, after graduation, made a career out of documentary film production; he soon created his own production company, Headwater Films, to finance his production work. The company’s credits include Romance & Cigarettes, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, and numerous other fiction- and documentary-based projects.
Simonds seeks to profit from the whimsical, capitalistic exuberance this toy trade has brought upon himself and others; he does so by choosing mediums that are aesthetically appropriate to enhancing his subjects. “I mean, how cool would it be if you just saw a hipster in Williamsburg wearing an American Apparel tee with one of these pictures on it?” he asks me, pointing to the still photographs on the wall. Though there are six photographs on display, his inventory runs to thirty-one large prints for sale. Simonds’ work is playfully entrepreneurial in scope and spirit, and he hopes to pass the ISS on to someone else once it’s well-established. Viewing himself as an interpreter – his last exhibition consisted of a series of photographs of Rodin sculptures – Simonds does, in effect, reinterpret the Super Ball’s history as a commercially successful fad.