A.K. Burns: Fear of Commitment

Shotgun Review

A.K. Burns: Fear of Commitment

By Anton Stuebner September 25, 2014

A.K. Burns’ current installation at n/a opens with a startling visual: a bouquet of wildflowers strewn across the floor, the stems and petals dry and brittle, their leaves nearly pulverized beyond recognition. The show’s title, Fear of Commitment, prompts images of lovers spurned and deferred couplings, making the flowers even more curious. Are these the remnants of a romance gone sour, or are they another artifact altogether? Closer examination reveals an even more remarkable discovery: a new bud, in full bloom, sprouting from one of the seemingly dead stems. Is this flower an intentional part of the installation or a happy accident of environmental conditions?

Burns offers no conclusive explanations for this phenomenon, and many of the works featured in Fear of Commitment are similarly unmarked or untitled. The absence of familiar conventions of naming, though, allows for these pieces to be viewed less as defined objects and more as what Burns describes as sites for “potentials” and new opportunities for the production of meaning. Created with the artist in residency at n/a, the installations in Fear of Commitment represent multiple approaches to describing experiences of liminality—the quality of occupying spaces in between existing paradigms of materiality and, by extension, being. Some of the works here, such as the flowers at the beginning of the show, posit a tension between deterioration and regeneration. Others suggest the mutability of material substances, as with a pair of metal objects positioned against the rear wall: two flattened plates of metal, covered in scorch marks, which look like compressed tin cans and still bear the contoured lines of their original three-dimensional forms.

A.K. Burns. Fear of Commitment, 2014; installation view, n/a. Courtesy of the Artist and n/a, Oakland. Photo: Kristine Eudey.

The most direct commentary on these transitional materialities and spaces comes in the form of a video installation, A Smeary Spot (2014). Described in the closing titles as a series of screen tests for an unnamed video piece, A Smeary Spot features multiple participants reading excerpted passages from critical works about revolution and transition—from Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity to Joanna Russ’ essay “The New Misandry.” The performers throughout are depicted in states of between-ness—in bed between waking and sleeping, or in front of mirrors applying or removing makeup. Many of the performers may be recognizable as trans and/or gender queer, but the video refuses to define any of its participants through such assumed constructs of gendered identity. Burns’ insistence on multi-vocal performance suggests that boundaries of subjectivity can, and possibly should, be blurred.

If a thesis can be derived from Fear of Commitment, it is that no subject should be forced to commit to a singular socially constructed identity. Burns’ work epitomizes queer scholar Gayle Salamon’s assertion that all subjects, transgendered or not, embody a “specificity that is finally not reducible to the material.”1 Burns’ installation at n/a, by extension, offers multiple sites in which the imaginary materiality of our existences, both bodily and otherwise, can be interrogated, deconstructed, and—like those flowers—constantly regenerated and redefined.


A.K. Burns: Fear of Commitment is on view at n/a, in


, through October 5, 2014.


  1. Gayle Salamon, Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010: 8.

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