The New Phenomenology: BUILT at Brutus (Rotterdam)

Installation view, BUILT at Brutus.

By MIKE MAIZELS, November 2022

“All authentic materialism is dialectical materialism.”

—Catharine Malabou

Through the history of modernism and subsequent decades of concatenated prefix modifiers (post-, neo-, post-post), art built out into space has typically taken one of two angles of attack.  The construction becomes either an intervention in space as such or a novel enframement device for the viewer. We might think of constructivist Tatlin and corporeal Duchamp, (“infra-thin” like an ass in a seat), or the materialist Smithson contrasted with the bodily Nauman.  One could schematize more recent makers in a similar matrix. Kara Walker, Rafael Rozendaal and Anish Kapoor lining up across from Patty Chang, William Pope L, and Jordan Wolfson. East vs West All Stars. 

These two strains of practice come together in a provocative, two-person exhibition entitled BUILT that recently opened at the Brutus artspace in the Rotterdam. BUILT synthesizes work drawn from two previous presentations: Akeem Smith's No Gyal Can Test (which earned high marks from Artforum, Frieze and others) as well as Tommy Malekoff’s Forever and Forever, an immersive video installation recently mounted the catacombs beneath Rockefeller Center.  Both prior shows were organized by curator Max Wolf, who New York readers may remember from his tenure at Red Bull Arts.  It was quite an act of institutional finesse to orchestrate compelling presentations of avant grade poetry and brash media installations in an erstwhile corporate lobby, and his latest exhibition doesn’t disappoint.  

Representing the nexus of space and the personal body, Akeem Smith’s Queens Street draws on a trove of autographical material from the artist’s upbringing split between New York and Jamaica. The piece itself comprises a bomb-shelter like enclosure—made from scrap zinc siding and wood detritus the artist scavenged from locales from his bimodal past.  The piece is studded with video images of women modeling the designs of OUCH, an iconic fashion collective founded by Smith’s grandmother.   

The inclusion of such intimately personal materials—especially as one finds oneself in tight bodily proximity within the installation—feeds into a sense of almost claustrophobic intimacy.  Nauman’s Corridors surface as an historical comp but fail as an analogy.  What was clinically generalized for Nauman becomes irreducibly, burningly personal for Smith.  

The work no doubt succeeds in its recuperative gesture; lost remnants of African diasporic making spread across fashion, music and art are reimagined within the halls of Brutus. A lugubrious score by sound artist and DJ Ashland Mines (aka Total Freedom) complements the sensation of the reliquary. The sacred artifacts of a past disappeared over the horizon are preserved in both form and ritual. Personal history reverberates through the raw space of the galleries.   

Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test (2020)

But the work nevertheless transcends the personal. Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition for Smith’s work comes from a related piece from the earlier No Gyal Can Test installation. An un-named female character reprises the pose and the formidable eye contact of Manet’s iconic Olympia. The original piece touched of a scandal for the way that it transected the problematic gazes of race, gender and class in one look from which it is impossible to turn away. In both pieces, we have a self-possessed, impassive stare from a marginalized subject writing herself back into history.

This question of the writing into and out of history predominates in Tommy Malekoff’s  Forever and Forever, a towering video installation that comprises the artist’s contribution to BUILT. Most of the footage for the multi-channel piece was filmed over a two-year stint in the everglades swamps. Floridian flora and fauna pass through slowly through poetic frames, the pace serving as a metonym for the negotiations between “man” and “nature” such creatures must navigate through days and decades. The overall effect will be familiar from the works of Godfrey Reggio or Werner Herzog, but all same, it is haunting.  The implied commentary is subtler too. As curator Max Wolf put it, the piece “sidesteps the familiar, moralizing narrative of ecological decay,” instead focusing on difficult to categorize moments of encounter. For example, a coal plant warms and pollutes the marshy waters, but protects the vulnerable manatees in winter.  Sightseers flock to watch, tracing back over an intractable feedback loop in what is now a permanently shared ecosystem.  Or whatever permanent ultimately turns out to mean. 

Installation view, BUILT at Brutus. 

Significantly, this crux of the temporal and the architectonic informs the context of Wolf’s  masterfully dialectical exhibition.  The show coincides with the International Architecture Biennial of Rotterdam held across the street, organized under the the theme of “The Time is Now.” “BUILT reflects the genesis of Brutus to be able to react quickly to the zeitgeist“ explained director Sanne ten Brink, “ and host a show that is truly contemporary to build upon the momentum of these artists..in the context of the Architecture Biennial across the road.” Indeed, both venues have run an ambitious slate of programs around the aegis of ephemerality having come for architecture. Talks on the new morality of death punctuate exhibitions beyond Wolf’s self-destructive robot sculptures and new forms cast from melted fax machines and obsolescent dishwashers.  What is old is made new again, as the solid melts into vapor. 

But vapor is more dynamic than solid, and the shows reveal, likely to condense back down again.  Indeed, this construct—of timeliness within timelessness—is the site of hope, both within BUILT and beyond. Cement crumbles like videotape, but crowds gather wherever they find shelter until the party roves on elsewhere, and a new energy comes to fill the void left behind. WM 

Mike Maizels

Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures.  He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution.  He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.  He is currently the Head of Research at Abra, financial services and technology company based in Mountain View, and an affiliate at the metaLAB, a think tank and creative technology lab at Harvard University. 

 

All views expressed are the author’s alone and may not reflect the views of Abra or of the metaLAB. 

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