Art and Literature

Tracing the “desire lines” in artist Terry Berlier’s career-long exploration of queerness and ecologies

Terry Berlier

There are no “wrong turns” for interdisciplinary artist Terry Berlier as she laboriously pieces together hundreds of wooden boards to create intricate, abstract möbius strip sculptures. Describing the möbius strip as a “queer form” that deconstructs the binary of inside and outside, Berlier embraces failure and play in her process. Besides including the essential möbius “flip,” the freeform sculptures allow Berlier to explore shapes beyond the traditional “strip” structure that twist, break, ripple, and curve, influenced by queer theorist Sara Ahmed’s idea of the “desire line.”

The desire line, a term pulled from landscape architecture to describe unofficial paths made by people who leave the main trail and create alternate routes, can also be seen as a queer path. In her Nonorientable Series, which was on display at the Stanford Art Gallery in early 2020, Berlier uses contrasting wood to laminate desire lines into the möbius sculptures, playing with interruption and deviation. The wooden sculptures rest on pillows Berlier makes by printing images from nature, such as moss from the Kokedera Temple in Kyoto, Japan, creating “soft landings” for the hard forms and incorporating Berlier’s longstanding interest in the mutual “impressions” humans and the environment make on one another.

The Nonorientable Series is only one of many projects invested in exploring queerness and ecologies that Berlier shared with attendees of two recent events hosted by the Clayman Institute. At the Institute’s annual Artist’s Salon, Berlier traced the desire lines that thread through her artistic career, beginning the talk by describing her graduate thesis, Two Pan Tops Can Meet (2003). Responding to a homophobic saying from Jamaica, “two pan tops [vaginas] can’t meet,” Berlier collected more than 200 pan lids from thrift stores to create “pan lid couples,” which were hung from speaker wire in an interactive sound installation. 

Berlier commonly uses recycled materials in her kinetic and sound sculptures. Describing her experience during a residency at the San Francisco dump as akin to that of a “kid in a candy store,” Berlier reclaims items society has cast away to provide critical commentary on the social, emotional, and environmental toll of consumer culture and both the “harmonious and dissonant” human interactions with material landscapes.

A Kind of Ache

The concept of the “desire line” was the explicit focus of Berlier’s presentation to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows in a talk titled “Cruising Desire Lines.” Charting her own queer path, Berlier discussed a series of ceramic sculptures that explore her gender expression as a child, recasting a childhood affinity for specific hats through a queer lens in pieces such as Butch Cowboy and Butch Sailor. A return to the past was also evident in her most recent project, a collaboration with composer Sarah Hennies and musicians The Living Earth Show titled A Kind of Ache. Revisiting the pan lid as a type of “queer object,” Berlier made five sound sculptures for a 65-minute multimedia performance installation which uses discarded objects to reimagine a world that is designed from and for a queer identity. Though common threads can be traced throughout Berlier’s work, a new iteration of A Kind of Ache is on the horizon for the coming year, promising new twists and turns in the ever-evolving desire lines that run through Berlier’s art practice.