"The Best Art In The World"
Coming of Age
An Exhibition Curated by Caroline Picard
Sep 09-Nov 19, 2017
2337 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago IL 60647
Featuring Rebecca Beachy, Rhonda Holberton, Essi Kausalainen, Takahiro Iwasaki, Aki Inomata, Ebony G. Patterson, and Tsherin Sherpa
By GIOVANNI ALOI, NOV. 2017
The libidinal flux of the teenager has left a permanent mark on culture, normalizing radical consumption in service of an endless will to change. With the end of earth’s resources in sight, this paradigm needs revision. Presented by The Green Lantern Press, Coming of Age presents the work of seven artists from different parts of the world that subvert our material and cultural landscape with meditative gestures. Whether looking at Takahiro Iwasaki transforming a toothbrush into the site of an electric pylon, Aki Inomata’s alternative housing for hermit crabs that recall a sense of itineracy, Essi Kausalainen’s table top performance, or Ebony G. Patterson’s coffin procession, these works acknowledge a predominant state of violence while calling for greater optimism. Rebecca Beachy inserts a taxidermied bird into the gallery walls as a time capsule-cum-relic. Tsherin Sherpa uses traditional Thangka painting techniques to swirl subjects in a reflection of instability, and Rhonda Holberton presents a virtual desert, recalling the ambiguous possibilities of digital space and its impact on daily life. In the following conversation, art historian Giovanni Aloi and curator Caroline Picard discuss the exhibition and the ways it refracts through our ecological consciousness.
GA: Can you start with the title of the exhibition, Coming of Age?
CP: I wanted to map the archetypal transition from adolescent to adulthood onto today’s global moment. Whether it's connected to a rise in terrorism, an awareness of limited Earth resources, or the mass migrations that challenge definitions of nationhood and national identity: current factors create a pervasive stress that challenges traditional thinking. I feel we're at a crossroads: whether to try and shore up the power structures that brought us to this moment or rather adapt those systems. Such changes might change our view of the individual’s relation to the entire human population, for example, or how the human population relates to its nonhuman kin.
GA: It's interesting you've used the word crisis, suggesting that we might be at a point of major change because from my perspective—having moved from the United Kingdom only three years ago—Chicago is a very different ethical and creative base from what I experienced in London. It's harder for me to understand how much the world has changed over the past three years or how much I've changed my world by moving from London to Chicago, and being somewhat suspended between the two—
CA: Yes, that makes sense. Part of that difficulty reflects the difficulty in shifting between the “big picture” and one’s immediate vicinity, local versus—
GA: Yes, that's exactly the issue, I think.
CP: Especially as far as London and New York for instance. There's so much foreign investment sustaining the major city that it becomes a different place. Chicago's becoming more expensive to live in as well and with that added expense, residents’ sense of freedom and agency shifts—
GA: I can see a sense of coming of age with this notation of identity, fixity, locality. Capitalism reveals itself as an influential force: notions of identity, locality, and tradition are all up for grabs. I've seen London change dramatically over the past ten years. Right now, there's a clear sense of fragmentation and a sense of appropriation. These shifts have an impact on the cultural fabric, not just on the geography, or topography of neighborhoods that are being sold, kept, or demolished.
CP: Pulling back into the view of the individual, it’s hard to mobilize a sense of agency within those forces.
GA: Yes, absolutely.
CP: I also wonder about the sixties and the first Earth movement—the age of Aquarius was purported as a grand, collective awakening, another coming of age. How does that moment compare to where we are today?
GA: Is there an aesthetic dimension to Coming of Age that inspired the selection of works as well? Can we go as far as claiming that a new aesthetic is emerging from this paradigm?
Caroline: I wonder…[laughs] This show comes from an especially intuitive curatorial process. I was researching the question of anxiety and discovered artists who were thinking through some of the same questions. I kept thinking about time, duration, and scale shifts, as well as the blur between organic and technological materials. The Hiroshima-based artist, Takahiro Iwasaki, cannibalizes the materials of one object to produce another—so, here he pulled a thread from a beach towel purchased at Target and used that thread to make a Ferris wheel. In two other sculptures, he plucked bristles from a toothbrush to construct a miniature pylon growing out of the other bristles. Something about this seemed to encapsulate our love of plastic and how —[laughs].
GA: Disposal it is—
CP: Yes! On the one hand, his work seems very optimistic. He's building a power source on top of what you might discard after cleaning your teeth. On the other hand, the work reiterates a human tendency to instrumentalize landscape, even if that landscape consists of discarded trash.
GA: You recycle something and turn it into something positive—green power or clean power. More recently, as I'm sure you're aware, there is growing concern that recycling might enable our disregard for the production and disposal of disposable objects. The notion that, "Oh, you will recycle it in the end," makes one feel better about absurd levels of waste—even when we're confronted with figures telling us how much plastic floats in the ocean…But what about Iwasaki’s books? These micro cranes erecting from the pages are crafted from the book ribbons, right?
GA: There’s something about the accuracy of what emerges from these objects that is stunning.
CP: The visual experience is oddly tactile: we think about the pliability of book ribbons, and yet Iwazaki uses them to produce hardened, three-dimensional line drawings with structural integrity. For me, the piece talks about how information shapes physical and practical space, articulating a movement from the internal imagination into public architecture.
GA: In a sense, the cranes enhance the constructive notion of words in books—the idea we often take for granted that books can ultimately build the world around us, sometimes quite literally.
CP: Yes. It seems obvious…yet there’s so much pressure to ensure that one’s education is commensurate with a salary. I think that assumed trajectory of learning to income underestimates how often inspiration, concrete ideas, big changes etc., come from exploratory and useless (or non-commodifiable) exercises.
GA: There's a level of immediacy whereby monetary results have to be visibly connected to the effort that one puts into education. When I started studying, nobody promised me a job at the end of it. I think this change in education is once again capitalism at work. Optimizing, in a sense, an individual’s usability for practical purposes, but reducing the development of a person to what becomes a tool in a factory. The social reality and individual happiness are sacrificed for the sake of a more functional economy.
CP: Which is ironic when the functional economy being enacted is shutting down a collective future—not only disenfranchising the worker, but creating a terminal point of exhaustion from which we cannot deviate. In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Graham Harman points out that everyone knows plastic is choking the environment but because so many jobs are reliant upon the plastic industry, we cannot stop producing the stuff.
GA: Doesn't it feel like capitalism almost has a mind of its own? Consider algorithms and how they ultimately provide and control markets and taste in ways that don't require human intervention… algorithms are a new god. It makes me think of pantheism: this notion that there's a god-like force defused in everything. Maybe that's what capitalism is: a new nature that is just defused and perfused — it permeates everything around us. That's divine in itself…Maybe we can talk about Iwazaki’s Architectural Roach Motel.
CP: There's that myth where if everything on earth ends in a nuclear explosion, cockroaches alone would survive…
GA: I didn't think about it when I saw it. It has an apocalyptic quality, right? Roaches subvert their destinies by turning what used to be a killer trap into their own habitat.
CP: Yes, which for me also resonates about with Aki Inomata’s hermit crab shell installation. In Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? she installed a suite of hermit crab shells made of miniaturized landmarks from existing cities around the world and placed them on a display shelf. In other iterations of the project, she includes live-hermit crabs inhabiting the shells. Here too, there's a sense that the cities have been abandoned. You wonder again what's left after humanity, as though she's calling attention to how different species might take advantage of the structures that we leave behind. Then, also because hermit crabs change their housing as they grow, she's calling attention to migration and movement…
GA: There’s something interesting about the crab putting on a shell, taking it around, mingling with the other crabs, moving around cities or geographies, and then dumping its shell to get a different one.
It brings to mind the strange economy surrounding gentrification, whereby the accusatory implication undermines the logic of anybody who'd want to move within a city, or from a city. I think the general drive for everyone, at any income base, is to go to a better, more affordable place. I have never encountered anybody who says, "Oh, I'm going to buy an apartment or rent in the most disadvantaged part of the city and get myself a really bad deal." By the way, that also creates gentrification. It seems to be another inescapable loop. It's not always a decision and it's not always deliberate. It's contingency, and capitalism is incredibly good at creating these contingencies that then become ethical conundrums…
CP: On the other side of the hermit crab installation is a large wall installation by Rhonda Holberton, A Fixed Resistance. As a composite of different black and white sand dune images, the fragmented landscape has this generic, and maybe even future-desert quality. You can easily see aspects of the image that are poorly Photoshopped, and the pixels stand out. Holberton has talked about a tension in tech utopia. There's a projection of the future where humanity and machine, the organic and the inorganic, are totally entwined. Then there's this strange, say, shadow of that vision where it seems unlikely that the earth can provide enough power to support that vision.
GA: She made these Fallen Pixel sculptures as well—
CP: The Fallen Pixel forms are public domain, computer generated forms that often get downloaded to populate architectural renderings and video games. Holberton was interested in bringing them into three-dimensional space.
GA: Looking at these stone-like objects, there is a something about their texture that suggesting that they actually come from nature. They look like a pre-existing body of some description, like something made of stone that's been painted over. There is something that aesthetically links them to a primordial origin. They seem cave-like or extraterrestrial, almost with a science fiction flare… It's fascinating to think that they originated on the Internet. I like to think about the Internet as an equivalent dimensionality rather than just a tool that we use to access things or information.
CP: Something of what you mention reminds me of this line from an Ursula Le Guinn poem I came across “Rock has no tongue to speak or voice to sing, / mute, heavy matter. Yet as I life up this / dull desert stone, the weight of it is full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have.” I was just thinking, it’s one thing to imagine the consciousness or memory of a stone in the natural world, but what about the rock in virtual space? What is the nature of its presence?
This reminds me of Essi Kausalainen’s looping video, Anette and Marin at the Beach (2017). The frame of the camera also becomes a kind of portal here—capturing two young adult figures performing a sequence of gestures with the sea lapping behind them. What’s uncanny about the scene is that the environment itself participates in the performance; there are periods of time where a cloud covers the sun such that one of the two figures is in shadow, making the other figure look like she’s under a spot light. And the performers wear these strange costumes…
GA: Let's talk about Inomata’s fur coats. This is one of my favorites in the exhibition probably because of my animal studies route, but I also tested it with my students. I talked about this work the week after the opening of the exhibition and they responded very positively. I think this notion of reciprocity resounded with them. The garments themselves, but the desire too. The work transgresses the capitalist impositions that dictate the coordinates of the pet/owner relationship. You are probably familiar with Donna Haraway's work on pets in When Species Meet—the notion of how this seemingly disinterested, wholly good, well-being base notion of pet-keeping is a concept that capitalism has perpetrated through industrial dimensions. The millions and millions spent every year on pets, pet food, and gadgets, toys... It's an industry that constantly tries to hide all the animal deaths, violence, disease, and pollution it produces…
CP: Like the old horse that’s killed, processed, and fed back to the pets…
GA: A lot happens behind the scenes of this capitalist dimension. The desert dunes in Rhonda Holberton’s work are a black-and-white photographic collage work, they are a facade, a scenery. Capitalism constantly hides its tracks to enable ethical disavowal and facilitate consumption.
Inomata’s seemingly heartfelt desire for reciprocity ultimately highlights the unbalance in the relationship we establish with pets. Think about the sterilizations, vaccinations, clippings, selective breeding... all these practices are done in the good name of “care” but are actually unilateral impositions. The equity involved in the human-animal exchange of hair brings a crafty dimension to the relationship. The notion of making something for your pet, rather than buying it from the store and the idea of investing with commodity value a material like dog’s hair, which usually does not have any. The two coats are a gesture of reciprocal protection; they are not mass produced and their rhythm of production is dictated by that of hair growth. And besides the tenderness inscribed in the exchange, the coat actually looks good—it’s well designed! Who would have thought that dog-hair could look so good in fashion? I see a humorous commentary on the possibility of considering new applications for animal byproducts that speciesism has ruled out—what economic benefits might emerge from the new local economies of craft suggested by this work?
CP: Yes, it’s like a terrier versus a wolf. Using a wolf’s fur for a coat is problematic, but because the wolf is defined as “wild” and therefore “natural” or nonhuman, we are comfortable using its material for our benefit. But wearing a terrier coat seems cannibalistic, almost. The terrier has been domesticated and humanized. It is part of your family. Would you make a coat out of your child’s hair?
Or like “The Animal That Therefore I Am”—Derrida seems so preoccupied about being naked in front of his cat. Calling attention to how the cat is never naked because she always wears her fur—I was thinking about this in relation to my own cat, how strange she must find that I'm constantly undressing and redressing. In other words, there's a funny redundancy in creating a coat for a dog. Perhaps to your point, it might perform reciprocity but the gesture remains anthropocentric because the coat provided is useless to its recipient.
GA: Yes, there is that too you're right, and I also see the notion of nudity as a specifically Christian construction—the shame of being naked that comes from Adam and Eve is part this idea of wearing something, coating yourself.
CP: Going back to the portal idea, I’m interested in how clothing would alter one’s relationship to reality. It somehow helps identify another shift in the show—between the addition of clothes or new shells to how portals transform a user. Tsherin Sherpa is a Nepalese-born Tibetan now living in Oakland and trained as a traditional Tibetan Thangka painter. One of the things he talks about is what tradition means in exile. Something of this painting work captures a real swirl of instability. The deity depicted—a figure conceived as immortal and fixed—churns up…
GA: It reminds me of Twin Peaks. The center looks like the swirl in the sky that would open up at times, sucking people into a different dimension.
CP: Yes, which I think also connects to Holberton and how we see the Internet as a digital portal in which we have more mobility and flexibility and infinite knowledge at the press of a button. Within the tradition of Tibetan Thangkas there's a parallel idea that if you meditate properly upon one of those paintings, it will provide spiritual insight. It is perhaps unclear what Sherpa’s “portal” yields, and yet it remains impeccably made to such an extent as to look like a print.
GA: Skill and craft seems to be important values in this show. You included a number of pieces that require a lot of attention to the micro scale, a lot of care for detail. Is the coming-of-age something aesthetically grounded? Is it a departure from postmodernist aesthetics? Aesthetics of messiness, brokenness, dishevelment, and fragmentation, that seem to be so easy to accomplish and that at some point gave contemporary art a bad name. There's something about the conceptual dimension of the works, but also the care in the materialization of an object—it feels fresh.
CP: Yes, there's so much effort in these works, which I feel isn’t “cool.” In a good way.
GA: [laughs] Yes we're on a slippery slope. I know exactly what you mean because for years we've been told that Duchamp questioned the value of labor and skill in art, and he was totally right. But there is also a sense in which for the past twenty-five years, at least, we have been educated not to expect any dedication, any kind of craft, and I use that word deliberately for all the problems it carries into the conversation. I think it's nice to see that there is a section of space or a moment in time for that too as a valued dimension.
And yet the show has a dark shadow over it. There’s death.
CP: Yes we're here at the gothic turn in the show. Ebony G. Patterson makes that apparent with her seven towering coffins installed towards the back of the gallery. The show goes from there to corridor installation by Rebecca Beachy, and finally the back yard, where viewers can walk upon Beachy’s second installation: a path of horse bones. I feel like that movement—from Iwasaki’s tiny Ferris wheel, to Patterson’s huge coffins, and then Beachy reinforces a common material and sensorial register.
CP: Because you don’t intuitively think about the relationship between a virtual desert and the grit of a brokendown birds nest, or the minerals that get extracted to run your iphone…
GA: And that goes hand in hand with the exploitation of people in other areas of the world. The visibility and invisibility of these connections is very problematic.
CP: Each one of Patterson’s coffins is twelve-feet tall, each one brocaded in a different collage of bright fabrics. Originally created as a set of fifty that Patterson produced to intervene upon a Jamaican parade, there is something somber and celebratory about them—and they insist upon agency, again. These coffins were made to be carried in public.
GA: Aesthetically, they summon an almost South American conception of death where death is not necessarily this terrible ending. I wonder if that has a dimensioning which you feel this coming of age is connected to: the current state of affairs we are in. Is it a pseudo-optimistic message about the devastation we have caused and thinking about the Cockroach Motel by Iwazaki, where the end might not be the end for everybody?
CP: Yes, exactly.
GA: Then you think about the geological devastations. The demise of dinosaurs, how many times this planet seems to have come to the very end of it all. Maybe the whole idea of the Anthropocene is still very anthropocentric in the sense that it's probably going to be a tiny glitch in the bigger picture. Humanity might become extinct, but that’s not a big deal for the planet.
CP: It looks like dinosaurs will have lasted a lot longer than us—they appear to have had a stronger, evolutionary project.
GA: We still have serious denial issues with the notions of ecology and what it really means. Timothy Morton put on the map a very clear idea of what the dark loops and the impossibility of older notions of ecology to survive today entails. The ecological examples that are being celebrated right now like the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone as the demonstration that everything is interconnected and that once you bring wolves are back, then butterflies are back because suddenly the dears numbers have dwindled so they are not grazing flowers quite as much.
Science has known that for a very long while. But at the same time, beside its undeniable success, we seem to be back to the notion of classical ecology where there’s no space for us in the picture. The Yellowstone restoration process aims to rewind the tape to just before the moment in which wolves were exterminated—that’s to say before we impacted the environment.
This makes me think of Zizek who has been arguing that humanity should find itself at home, culturally speaking, in the landfill. If we were to accept the fact that ecology doesn't mean to erase ourselves from the non-human picture, then a different sense of responsibility might emerge. Maybe the idea of the project is one way to look at it.
CP: Shall we talk about Rebecca Beachy’s taxidermy bird w/poem inherent, bird’s-nest mud capsule (2017)?
GA: In this case, you allowed her to remove one of the existing bricks from the building. This is a work, within a work, within a work… Beachy removed a brick from the wall and replaced it with a brick made of pulverized bird nest matter. Inside the brick is a taxidermy bird, and inside the bird is a poem written on a piece of paper by her brother-in-law. But of course, one can’t see the bird or the poem.
CP: The pulverized nest-brick will stay here indefinitely. After the show, we'll cover it up in the wall, like a time capsule. As you say, there’s a Russian doll quality to it: a thing inside of a thing inside of a thing inside of a thing. Even just a taxidermy bird with a poem inside suggests how bodies withold something that we nevertheless know is there—in this case, a poem: what a specific thing! And yet the poem could be about anything, so it remains doubly strange. Beachy also described the beauty of the bird. Often birds are taxidermied to allow a sustained appreciation for their plumage. She wanted to keep that beauty private...
GA: Yes, it's a kind of obliteration of the scientific gaze. In a sense that can be related to Inomata’s reciprocity between pet and owner, Beachy works with materialities asking what it is that makes the essence of matter and objects. On the atomic level, a pulverized bird nest is still a nest. Aesthetically, however, it has forfeited much of its essence. To me these processes are connected to something spiritual, they speak of Egyptian transmutations. This notion of the coffin, the notion of something precious inside something else.
The body of an Ibis was sometimes hidden inside the body of a pharaoh. The Ibis would be mummified separately, wrapped up in bandages and then placed in the chest of the pharaoh and again the signification of that was pretty much unknown—there is something of that same spirituality in this piece. It also makes me think about the hollow quality of Patterson’s coffins that stand within range of the brick.
CP: Because you project yourself inside the coffin?
GA: Yes, the implication or possibility that the coffin might be for the viewer. And there's also the relic. It's something that we haven't really talked about—this notion of belief inscribed in old relics; relics that, of course, are mostly fake, and have no connection whatsoever with the person they claim to be from. There are so many nails of the cross around the world and fingernails from saint… It's the belief that holds the object in place as this precious human part requiring a cabinet. That it's worshiped with a specific time of the year as this connection, this bridging to a different dimension, a different temporality, a different world.
It’s additionally interesting that you've situated Beachy’s time capsule here in the corridor. The placement amplifies an idea of bleeding into something else, something beyond, something that might or might not be there. It's such a powerful reminder of the power of belief. Especially the fear, or suspicion, that there might be nothing in the brick. It's charged with anxiety.
CP: Like another coffin.
GA: Right, it is. And when it comes to emptiness, Beachy’s outdoor installation draws that out.
CP: Beachy is sensitive to glorifying or dramatizing death and specifically the death of animals. For her back yard installation, she took 500 pounds of horse bones found on various Amish farms and fired the remains either in a ceramic kiln or in a pet cemetery. She then laid the bones on the ground to create a path.
GA: Yes, I remember seeing it on the night of the opening and it's a haunting piece as well as being oddly minimalist in essence. It reminds me of Robert Smithson assemblages and Richard Long’s notion of walking as well as the idea of experiencing something by walking on it rather than simply looking at it. I think in this case Beachy leverages a complex notion of materiality. It makes me think of Ian Bogost’s notion that materialities always have histories inscribed in them and that can't be erased. It's knowing what these bones come from that really makes them charged of signification. Then the notion again of displaying them as a path. The possibility of walking amongst them. It makes me consider relationalities of human animal worlds. This kind of using the animal, disposing of the animal. At the same time, like you said, rethinking economies of life and death whereby the death of an animal doesn't necessarily have to end up in another utilitarian step.
Like capitalism has now trained us to make sure that everything that can be used is reused over and over again as long as there's capital value into it. The Amish notion of letting the horse rot in one specific place in the land is something indicative of a different kind of economy and bringing the bones here is not quite a burial but neither is it the celebration of a specific horse. It's rather a generic remembrance of animal lives and pasts that will become eventually erased; the installation will dissolve into the ground like another somber celebration.
CP: There's also something about the horse that's like inherently anonymous, but nevertheless so significant in human history. Even Beachy’s bones—it’s important that they come from the farms they worked, most likely shot after they were too old or too injured to continue being useful. And then the horse references a turning point in history when the animal became obsolete. Beachy has talked about this also: when the horse was replaced by the car, human civilization become petrol-dependent. [laughs] Like, the dinosaurs should be congratulated again—we still rely upon their remains.
GA: Yes. Beachy also speaks of a history of representation, or history of art in which the horse is this vehicle of power.
CP: Oh, yes, like Napoleon.
GA: Napoleon riding a horse. This vehicle for victory that has very little to do with the animal, and dragging horses into scenarios in which they would perish and die because of our desires to conquer, but the horse is a charged animal in the history of art much more than dogs for instance or any other. It's probably the quintessential animal of power.
CP: Yes… [pauses] And then there is this physical experience of the work again. For me, the way the bones reflect light is very uncanny. You can tell it's not stone, but it looks like stone. I have an empathetic response that makes me shiver a bit, especially as you get to the end of the path where the larger chunks of hip bones and joints gather—I suddenly empathize with these materials, projecting myself into them, imagining myself becoming them one day... WM
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author