Atlanta has been experiencing growth in its art community, particularly within the past few years. Organizations like Dashboard Co-Op look to the abandoned and uninhabited spaces of the city as sites to host exhibitions. Efforts to expand gallery spaces to downtown are underway; note the addition of Mammal Gallery to Broad St., Eyedrum to MLK and its attempts to expand into another building downtown. The newly created Low Museum by students and former BFA students at Georgia State University. In one way, this particular development is specifically Atlantan; in another way, maybe this work could be in any other city. Maybe not.
Lucy Lippard claims in her 1997 book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society that she had been “lured to the subject of the local by its absence or rather by the absence of value attached to specific place in contemporary cultural life, in the “art world,” and in postmoderns paradoxes and paradigms.”
Symptomatic of this clinging to a postmodern fragmentation is the 2012 book Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape, published by Possible Futures which inaugurated Atlanta Art Now, a print biennial that examines contemporary art in Atlanta. Yes, we could comment on Lippard’s incredible privilege that enables her to easily live in multiple places either diachronically or synchronically. This does not mean, though, that we should throw out “place” entirely. The introduction to Noplaceness states that the book is “a study of Atlanta artists’ responses to an urban condition now made global” (3). Further, the book proposes “noplaceness” as “an attempt to describe the quality of space rendered abstract by the conditions of postindustrial capitalism and global information flows” (3). The introduction ends with a question: “Where is our common ground when the space we occupy doesn’t add up to a place we can define?”(5). I’d like to address this question and the problem of the local and the global as it maps onto the city of Atlanta.
My last article addressed the cave as both a literal and figurative site for artistic practice and examined the conditions which produced this specific project’s way of creating, maintaining, and navigating its art world. What I’d like to do in the space of this piece is address a few artists’ sculptural practices that evoke/provoke reflection on the state of affairs. Mind you, these works are not meant to be specifically about Atlanta as place or its development as an art hub. Rather, I am interested in how these works because of their complexity in terms of materiality and conceptuality, enable us to point to our present condition and begin to pose it questions. These works, though not tied explicitly to Atlanta, all make manifest the material and social conditions of this place. Indeed, this is a place.
Drew Conrad‘s 2013 solo show at Get This Gallery, Backwater Blues, consists of assemblage-esque sculptures that show themselves as burnt remnants of a home that once stood. However, the materials making up his works are not salvaged, like the other artists I will be discussing in this piece. Rather, Conrad uses raw materials that he distresses by hand. It would be too easy to jump to questions about authenticity, here. Rather, what this process of ruination prompts us to question concerns our own involvement in degradation and destruction in our world.
Being a native Midwesterner, it is difficult not to envision images of Detroit when viewing architectural char and when thinking about urban decay and renewal. Photo books and photo essays abound that use Detroit’s ruins as subject. This unconscious association of mine inflects works I see here in the South that address similar issues of degradation. Upon seeing these remnants that appear charred, though in fact are not, I am reminded of the industrial-soot-blackened facades of the Motor City. Or, I could instead see these ruins as products of time and erosion, either the gentle wind and water forces that inhabit the Bayou State, or the aggressive inundations that occur (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). Or, considering Conrad’s being New-York-based, Hurricane Sandy. Particularly with the artist’s references to Christian Boltanski’s work (i.e., the lights and hanging electrical cords), the works scream a trauma; it is difficult to view these ruins as products of mere time and weather. Though Conrad only uses dirt, rust, and stains – no fire of any kind – these ruins take on a violent past, one that involved Ku Klux Klan instigated arson and murder. This reading may not be the artist’s intention, but when situated within particular conditions of geography, history, materiality, society, etc. the artist’s decision to destroy becomes a powerful reminder of what we have destroyed, what we are currently destroying, and what we will destroy in the future. In an email interview Conrad states: “I would claim that works of art do not exist anywhere or that their histories do not have a direct route. I want the sculptures to be a jumping off point where the viewer completes the missing pieces and writes their history of the object’s past. So the sculptures, which fall in the titled series of Dwellings, hopefully exist somewhere in the in between.” This in-between is a poignant place. I would argue with Conrad though about where this in-between is situated; it is somewhere.
I spin through the glass revolving door and enter the lobby of Midtown Plaza, a nondescript office building located in the liminal space between Atlanta’s Midtown and Buckhead. I am told to use the elevator to go to level M where the exhibition COSMS is located. After stepping off the elevator, I turn into a whole level gutted interior of this office building. Dashboard Co-Op, a non-profit art organization, looks for spaces such as this to host their exhibitions. Dashboard’s mission is to curate shows in these “forgotten haunts,” these spaces devoid of people and purpose. The works in the show are supposed to respond to the site of this vacant space, and one work in particular stood out as a potent intervention into this concrete, barren place.
Chris Chambers‘ untitled (powder room) is a daunting sculptural installation, a bathroom jacked up on cinder blocks, perilously titling off kilter. The viewer walks into this confined space to find a 1/2 bathroom complete with toilet, sink, cabinet, mirror, ceiling with a skylight, closet, tiles, carpet, and potted plant. Standing inside this powder room, orientation becomes confused. Exiting becomes treacherous. The floor seems to slip away from its usual groundedness as a perpendicular plane. Seeing this powder room, which is nonfunctional and eerie made me hyperaware of this particular office building’s infrastructure: so, if I’m not to use this bathroom, where might and what might the usable one be like? This room, reminiscent of installations by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller, takes on a sinister quality, pointing towards the infrastructures of public and domestic spaces and their demise. Important to the sculpture is the source of these materials. Chambers, who also works as a builder and remodeler of homes, finds his materials through what people discard. The wallpaper is a horrendous 1990s pattern that you might have experienced in homes or medical offices growing up during that time. It covers these powder room walls in a “skin” (Chambers’ term) of the old, what is gotten rid of in order to update, to become more hip to contemporary interior design.
Chambers’ other installation work incorporates CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and collected VHS and the environment builds around the technology. Speaking with Chambers in his studio, he describes how his installation work grew out of the video work; the installations ground the video work in a certain place in which the viewer can situate herself and watch. His installation Untitled (Kevin) creates a living room situation complete with rugs, house plants, lamps, and television, though for this piece there were over 40 TVS, all playing videos made from footage of Kevin Costner. As a child of the 80s, I can connect to the aesthetic of the decor coupled with Costner’s face (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was both terrifying and awesome to me growing up). In a way, this creates an inter-geographical relation. However, this work does not lead to a privileging of supposedly immaterial telecommunicative space. Rather, in this world of televisions and globally recognized faces, this work grounds itself in the place of the living room, which maybe significantly is here.
Important to the work is the disposability of technology. Televisions, the big boxy ones of the 80s and 90s, are on the outs. With the change from CRT televisions to LCD and LED screens, the shapes have changed.Â With the rise of digital cable, the use of analog broadcast technologies for television have faded; out with the TV antenna, in with the satellite dish. We are led to believe that telecommunications technologies is where our “place” is; we can believe that because we have these technologies, we don’t need to actually exist anywhere. The idea of the “cloud” furthers this sentiment. It allows us to so easily forget the material conditions that contribute to and make possible this ethereal networked space.
The Goat Farm Arts Center is a 12-acre complex of artist studios (some live/work), performance/exhibition spaces, a coffee shop, a local agricultrual endeavor Fresh Roots Farm, and goat pen. The particular history of this site is important. The place was an industrial cotton gin at the turn of the 19/20th century and then a munitions manufacturing site during WWII. This is a pretty gruesome history that comes with the site which has served as an artist compound of sorts since the 1970s when the complex was bought by Robert Haywood, who died in 2009. Since his death, the site was bought by Hallister Development, headed by Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, and artist studios continue to live there and grow.
In 2013, Justin Rabideau installed his works Echo and The Distance of the Moon at The Goat Farm, both of which create a certain kind of environment and landscape in this place they are installed. As part of the culmination show for the 2011-13 artists-in-residence for The Creatives Project Momentum: Exit to the Future, The Distance of the Moon situates itself within the context of Atlanta’s fiscal, material, and social histories. What does it mean to install a work that gives the viewer a staircase to the moon, which cannot be walked up?
Justin Rabideau’s use of found materials to construct his sculptures alludes to the material conditions of the production of art and where it is made. Speaking with Rabideau in his studio, he described to me that his practice changed dramatically when he moved to Atlanta a few years ago. Since his practice involves gathering materials, mainly natural elements, he finds in his surroundings, he noticed that what he was finding most was discarded building materials and detritus left over from collapsed and disintegrating structures in this urban environment. One of Rabideau’s works made shortly after his move to Atlanta titled, An Illusion of Stability, which was installed in his exhibition with James Bridges Waste Not, speaks to a possible art historical trajectory of the Surrealist found object to land art, Anarchitecture, and site-specific art. What do we find when we go searching for something in a certain place? Drew Conrad mentioned that these sorts of materials are not easy to come by in New York, so why are they in Atlanta?
These materials including the TV antenna find their way into The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kenessaw State University, just north of Atlanta, by way of the exhibition See Through Walls, which instates the museum’s recently opened expansion. The show examines the physical infrastructures that undergird architecture and art display.
Casey McGuire‘s piece in the show, Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out (2010), presents the viewer with a wooden structure positioned in a precarious situation. Made of salvaged materialsfrom abandoned homes and foreclosure renovations in her local surroundings, including a TV antenna, the structure is described as a “box trap.” Propped up on a stick and connected to a rope, the viewer is “lured” in closer in hopes to “trap” her in this strange housing situation. The strategy used for trapping the viewer is soft playback, soft enough that the viewer has to lean her head up inside the box, of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” for McGuire a “tongue-in-cheek” response to the nostalgia that she references – “American dreams based on structure and home and the decaying reality of these ideals.”
The inclusion of the antenna on the roof of this “box trap” points to the disposability of technologies. In a time when all things globalized promote telecommunications as a way to secure one’s place everywhere and nowhere, this antenna forces us to consider our communication choices.
Adding another layer of complexity to this work is the context surrounding it, both histrocially and art historically (i.e., Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting). Atlanta-based artist Ruth Stanford’s (of particular interest for this article too is her 2006 exhibition at The Mattress Factory In the Dwelling-House)Â commissioned work A Walk in the Valley, which responded to Kennesaw State’s acquisitioned property that had belonged to Corra Harris, was removed from the exhibition by the University’s administration. (The administration has since agreed to re-install the work.) Harris’ prominence as a writer solidified with her 1899 letter to the editor of The Independent, “A Southern Woman’s View,” which argued to uphold lynching as a practice. This history and the subsequent censored artist-commissioned response to it further solidifies the importance of place and our recognition of it. Yes, we live in a globalized world, but that does not mean that we exist nowhere within it and that the specificities of where we live, work, and surf the net don’t inform our ways of navigating this international telecommunicative system.
What Can We Still Say About Place?
Writing about the evolution of site-specific art, from land works to public art, Miwon Kwon states in her 2002 book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity:
“In this sense the chance to conceive the site as something more than a place – as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group – is an important conceptual leap in redefining the public role of art and artists.
But the enthusiastic support for these salutary goals needs to be checked by a serious critical examination of the problems and contradictions that attend all forms of site-specific and site-oriented art today, which are visible now as the art work is becoming more and more unhinged from the actuality of the site once again – “unhinged” both in a literal sense of a physical separation of the art work from the location of its initial installation, and in a metaphorical sense as a performed in the discursive mobilization of the site in emergent forms of site-oriented work. This unhinging, however, does not indicate a reversion to the modernist autonomy of the siteless, nomadic art object, although such an ideology is still predominant. Rather, the current unhinging of site specificity indicates new pressures upon its practice today – pressures engendered by both aesthetic imperatives and external historical determinantsâ€ (Kwon, 30-1).
What is this “unhinging” and what does it mean? If taken in a certain positive sense, a utopian-inflected sense, this unhinging leads to Noplaceness and its commitment to the celebration of a supposed postmodern fragmentation. Arguably, this functions as a re-uptake of the autonomous, siteless, and nomadic art object Kwon urges us to put pressure on. The works addressed here are certainly “unhinged” to a certain extent. They are certainly not installed in the places where their materials originated, but they are, in a sense, still tied to them. This could be said for many of the works Noplaceness uses to underpin its ideology. The work of the idea collection John Q for example: their work cannot be thought in terms of noplace. In their work Memory Flash, discussed in the book, the collective created a performative experience for the viewer of specific locations chosen for specific reasons.
Displacement and unhinging do not necessarily lead us to noplace. It is unclear to me how Noplaceness situates itself in relation to the concept of non-place, re: Marc Auge’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. This could make for a different conversation altogether. Sure, we are “no longer secure in our identity or sense of home,” (Noplaceness, 53) but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep considering what place is.
Kwon writes that the “drive toward a rationalized universal civilization, engendering the homogenization of places and the erasure of culture” is what has led to critical regionalism, a postmodern architectural practice developed by Kenneth Frampton and included in the seminal postmodern text The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which proposes to cultivate :diverse local particularities” (157). Kwon is quick to point to the problem of nostalgia for place, however, and I would agree.
Many of the artists mentioned in this article use the word “nostalgia” in talking about their work. It is not always clear how they approach the term at times. In taking Kwon’s suggestion to consider the dialectics of place, a la Henri Lefebvre, maybe the works here serve as one pole of the dialectic. These works force us to consider the multiple layers of place: space, location, culture, environment, inhabitants, etc. We have to struggle with our own dialectical battles of nostalgia and futurity; location and dislocation; loss and gain. In regards to this dialectic, it would be too easy to get caught up in a circular conversation concerning authenticity; a conversation that I think undergirds the claims made in Noplaceness; paradoxically it has to rely on an originary authenticity in order to dislocate it. If we start from a fundamental sense of unhinging, however, we are able to traverse the notions of the definite and locatable with all their complexities. If a generic Starbucks in Atlanta “which is indistinguishable from a Starbucks in Singapore or Paris,”(Noplaceness, 3) for whatever reason seems liberating, I think we’ve found ourselves in a very strange place indeed.
Photos will not prepare you for Department of the Interior by Tom Dale, nor will the description: a bouncy castle made from black leatherette. But stepping round a corner at Aid & Abet, Cambridge, UK, there it was, roaring with the sound of an air pump, trembling slightly, inviting allcomers.
â€œYou canâ€™t access this piece,â€ says Dale, â€œYou have to imagine that youâ€™re bouncing on it, which is twitching the nerves between the brain and the fingertips.â€ So black leather, as he acknowledges, has never promised so much fun.
This is troublesome. Dale describes the viewing experience as â€œalgebraâ€, in which you gauge your own reaction against those of other people. â€œWhat Iâ€™m interested in is an examination of yourself as well as what we see before us.â€
The London-based sculptor identifies two opposing pleasures at work here. Along with the idea of a kidsâ€™ party, There are he points out â€œS&M overtonesâ€. One is a public activity, the other very private.Â â€œWhat I think is interesting about the work is it traps two opposing forces,â€ he says.
In many ways it is this potential for the tasteless which led to the workâ€™s creation. Dale uses the word â€˜wrongâ€™ as if the castle is a moral error: â€œWhen something is wrong, we are drawn to engage with it. When things are wrong, we want to put them right,â€ he says. â€œWe want to put the house in order.â€
And yet bouncy castles are a fine metaphor for our current circumstances. They represent the soft power which governs most lives in the West. Bright colours and shrieking kids tend to obscure this, but in forbidden leather thereâ€™s no mistaking the work of a hidden hand.
There was nearby another monumental piece in which power was hinted at rather than demonstrated. This was High Noon, a red carpet bearing the footprints of a missile launcher: a cruciform image from the crushed and oily outlines of a very heavy stand.
Research is critical for Dale, and he demonstrates as much with a knowledge of obsolete military hardware. He tells me the imprint of this launcher was for a Thunderbird, developed in the 1950s, the last surface-to-air missile that Britain produced.
The artist compares such technology to the convoluted mechanical fantasies of Victorian artist Heath Robinson. â€œYou would fire it into space and press a button and the nose cap comes off and it throws a chain net over the airplane that it’s nearby, which is kind of amazing.â€
â€œWhat working on this scale has taught me is that you need to do your research. You need to go to places. You need to visit people who supply the materials or the vehicles or the objects you need,â€ he says. This lets Dale take resulting decisions on a level he calls, â€œVery microscopic.â€
As with Department of the Interior, High Noon invites and frustrates a desire to step on board. â€œItâ€™s kind of like a homeopathic pill,â€ says Dale of his cold war trace. So perhaps what both pieces lead to, in their playful way, is an immunity to fear of power structures.
Armed with a recent PhD, Dale is ready with plenty of theories about the effects and the workings of his chosen art form. But according to this audacious sculptor, what he does relates less to philosophy than it does to knowledge.
â€œIt’s about how we organise, how we arrange things, how we fit into these things that we know,â€ he says. â€œThese works here are, if you like, knots or joints of culminations of a certain kind of knowledge, but then it becomes dissolved.â€Â So, again perhaps, an apparatus of knowledge cannot always stand up to critical engagement, certainly not to comical engagement.
In conversation with Dale, you find he moves nimbly from metaphor to metaphor, and never without a sense of humour. So he will also describe his works as, â€œbeing like a ventriloquistâ€™s dummy, but when I take my hand out they’re still telling me thingsâ€.
As for the contest between the monumental works he brings to the gallery, and the virtual realm in which we sometimes occupy, Dale states his intention to, â€œproduce an object that releases ideas or discusses things in a different way at a different speed, with a different currency.â€
These are left field works from a left field talent. By way of an aside the artist puts forward his latest theory of mind: â€œIâ€™m beginning to think that our brain exists outside of us as well, that itâ€™s almost like we have an invisible unicornâ€™s horn type brain.â€
â€œI think thereâ€™s a brain which only exists when we start to speak or when we start to act,â€ he continues, â€œMaybe I need to work on the formal construction of that a bitâ€.Â It does sound like the starting point for another push-me, pull-me sculpture, the visceral brain by Tom Dale.
What follows is an essay by John Preus, soon to be released in the next issue of Proximity :
ON LOVE AND LABOR-THOUGHTS THAT ACCOMPANIED THE MAKING OF AÂ TABLE
By John Preus
I recently joined a Jungian menâ€™s groupâ€¦(pause for my academic colleagues to peel off).
On some occasions in the group, we go around the room and everyone says something they donâ€™t want anyone else to know about them. Itâ€™s called theÂ withholding exercise.
One man was sexually and repeatedly abused by his older siblings, one had an affair with his brotherâ€™s wife and his brother has never forgiven him, one hates his job and is embarrassed that he canâ€™t leave it, a married man loves his wife but is also attracted to young boys and suffers from intense longing, one is embarrassed that his stomach is growling, one spends more time than he would like to admit looking at pornography and was discovered masturbating by his 9-year-old daughter, one loves his wife so much that he feels emasculated and jealous and is afraid he will disappear, and one is in the depths of financial ruin.
I find this all riveting. Despite trying to maintain my cherished neutrality, I divulge to a room full of strangers something Iâ€™ve never told anyone before because it feels disingenuous under the circumstances. The confession, and the resulting (asexual) intimacy I felt with a room full of men was like an electric charge that glowed in me for a couple of days, temporarily erasing my general social anxieties. Under certain circumstances, shared vulnerability invites trust.
Tables support activity. And when they are not supporting activity, they are ready-to-hand, expectant,Â loitering around waiting for something to happen. Â The now traditional binary, form and function, addresses this dual role of objects in their identity as placeholders and actors. Â They are supposed to look graceful in waiting, to redeem the embarrassing position of being un-engaged.Â I am inclined to think that craft, like Glenn Adamson points out, is a way of thinking about what happens in the world, how to have some influence over it, your place in it, culpability and accountability.Â But the history of craft is also a reflection of collective longing and anxiety, loitering on the banks of the Styx, barking at the thing moving in the bushes.
Patching, as anÂ additiveÂ variant of repair,Â is a long-standing strategy for lengthening the lifespan of a well-worn object, taking a piece of something to cover a worn piece of something else. Pant knees are patched with denim, roofs are patched with tarpaper and shingles, streets with bituminous, yards with pieces of sod, tarps with duct tape, cars with Bondo, boats with fiberglass resin. A patch is used when the object still functions, but is not stable unto itself. A patch does not generally change what a thingÂ is,Â but prolongs a thingâ€™s ability to be what it is, however temporary. A pair of pants could be patched with shirt material to the point of being more shirt than pant. While this may be problematic for an ontologistâ€”assuming that the pants continue to be worn on the lower half of the bodyâ€”most of us would be able to accommodate them without philosophical strain. At the same time, the identifying function, â€œpantsâ€ occupies a relatively short span of time on their material morphology.
Quilting, a designation generally reserved for things made of fabric,Â is the result of surplus parts. It is not quite an assemblage or collage, although that history certainly relates to what is interesting to me about the table. An assemblage has to incorporate disparate parts, disruptions, things that were not meant to be together, a forced marriage, so to speak. Being that all of the table parts are wood, it isnâ€™t suitable to describe it as an assemblage or a collage. And it is not marquetry, which is an image or pattern-making technique using veneers of different colors to develop a picture. Quilting takes parts of other things to make a new thing. I would venture to guess that it comes out of a utilitarian folk tradition in which materials were limited and people had to make do with what was around. That may have been true long ago, but I am sure that quilting happens now more among folks with time to kill, than among low income folks trying to save material, textiles being as inexpensive as they are.
The most apt description might be bricolage, or using what is on-hand. Levi-Strauss damned bricolage as mythological and irrational thought, in contrast to the engineer. Deleuze and Guattari described it as the general mode of thought for a schizophrenic. I prefer Jacques Derridaâ€™s statement: â€œIf one callsÂ bricolageÂ the necessity of borrowing oneâ€™s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse isÂ bricoleur.â€ Borrowing parts of other things to make a table strikes me as the most adequate expression of what a thing is in the broadest sense.Â Â Within the table is another table, a futon frame, pieces of virgin plywood, parts from other projects, bits of a chair, and a panel from a stereo cabinet. Those identities have all been subsumed to become the â€œtableâ€ but they have not entirely given up their former character.
(born 1942)Â Gary StephanÂ has been showing his painting and sculpture since the late sixties in the United States and Europe. He has had solo shows in New York at Bykert Gallery, Mary Boone Gallery, Hirschl and Adler and Marlborough Gallery; in Los Angeles at Margo Leavin Gallery and Daniel Weinberg Gallery; and in Berlin at Galerie Keinzle and Gmeiner among many others. His work can be found in the collections of The Guggenheim Museum of Art, The Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as museums nationwide. He is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches in the MFA program at School of Visual Arts in NYC and is currently represented by Kienzle Art Foundation in Berlin. Gary Stephan lives and works in New York City and Stone Ridge, NY.
All your bases belong to us.
October 22, 2012 · Print This Article
Being a visual artist today is a vow of poverty. Few go voluntarily into art for financial reasons. And those that just happen to meet with financial success, probably would have done even better on Wall Street.Â From experience I know that the the vision quest toward understanding conceptual art strips most of their petty materialist needs.
When I was 15 I badgered my father to buy me a Chrysler Conquest if I got straight Aâ€™s. (Itâ€™s one of my last and most embarrassing secrets.) He wouldnâ€™t have been risking much by agreeing because I was a poor high school student, but balked anyway for fear that I might make a miraculous turn-around. I didnâ€™t, and by the time I did turn it around in college I had moved beyond sports cars and into the monastery of the conceptual art world.
I often repeat a line that I borrowed from a professor: Â â€œI donâ€™t need to buy art. I own it when I know it.â€
This distinction is problematic for those outside art world, those not privy to nerdy conversations in boozy studio visits. People who hear and read about paintings selling for millions of dollars at auction have a difficult time squaring art’s abstract concepts with its concrete price tags.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He asks me regularly “how is the art business is going.â€ He means â€œhow much money do I make selling pictures,â€ but instead of opening my ledger book, I rattle off numbers from the Art Newspaper about weekend sales figures at Christies or Sotheby’s. I throw Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons in front of him like barrels in a street chase.
He likes numbers. He likes things more than concepts. Or he thinks he does. Father-in-law regularly sends us parcels filled with fun gizmos we donâ€™t have the space to store: clunky media docks with LCD screens and radios to park and enhance technologies that we donâ€™t use or have the inclination to manage. Sharper image gadgets that deionize the air, and stand-alone self-balancing coat racks that, should we use them, would injure us as we navigate to the bathroom at midnight.
This past week we received a package that contained what looked like an old-fashioned analog telephone but with an adaptor to fit into the speaker jack of a cell-phone. If worthless in its utility, the concept isn’t completely un-funny. After its idea is absorbed though, it is doomed to live life out in purgatory under the bed, not quite thing and not quite pure concept. like art, gifts have an aura that make their physical disposal unpleasant for its custodians.
The logic behind creating this novelty phone isnâ€™t dissimilar from the logic that inspires much of the work in the sculpture studios of any MFA program. The difference is, in the case of the conceptual entrepreneurs behind that phone, they have no way of monetizing their creation other than mass-producing it. So they do, and itâ€™s cheap, and my father-in-law buys it, sends it as a conceptual gesture, and finally I unsuccessfully try to curate it into my tiny apartment museum, wondering year-after-year what to do with it. Like my own personal Walter De Maria â€œEarth Roomâ€.
My wife and I recently had a baby. This baby lives in our nuclear submarine-shaped apartment. So something had to give, and it has. Our museum of impractical gifts has been forced to deaccess. Ebay, Goodwill , regifting and recycling. Out with a wine rack that â€œwhinesâ€ when you take a bottle out of it, out with the mounted fish that sings hillbilly songs, and out with the inexplicably hookless Green Bay Packers helmet-shaped head warmer that needs to be set on a shelf so as not to smash its internal hardware.
I disposed of these gifts last weekend, and as I did, my wife waxed nostalgic about the birthdays and holidays they signified. I told her, in true artistic spirit, she will always HAVE these gifts because she KNOWS them. That itâ€™s the concept not the material that is the real content. If they were useful they wouldn’t be haunting the space under our bed.
She sighed unconvinced and I continued to jettison.
I felt a little less burdened by purposeless clutter afterward. But alas our new family still remains shoehorned into a 400 square foot railroad apartment, and in spite of my vow of poverty and material austerity, I find myself daydreaming of a big house, one with lots of closet space, a dining room not doubling as a baby’s feeding room, and maybe even a back yard with a swingset.
I will never need a McMansion out in a treeless subdivision, for I am an art monk, but does musing about concept make me an apostate? Maybe one day when UPS figures out how to ship rooms from suburban homes, my father-in-law will put one in the mail for us.