Allegories of Debris
In his spectacular installation in the fall of 2002, Swiss artist and intellectual provocateur Thomas Hirschhorn literally transformed Barbara Gladstone Gallery’s pristine, white, spacious interior into a claustrophobic shanty-cave made of cardboard and packing tape, the walls covered with graffiti, the floor littered with trash. Tinfoil cavemen resembling cheap, disposable Giacomettis lurked absurdly in cubbyholes. Old rock posters and torn-out book pages were tacked to the walls, and there were cartoonish sticks of dynamite taped to volumes of Foucault and Bataille, as though French theory were part of an extremist suicide mission. Hirschhorn’s is a self-consciously ratty junk aesthetic and offers little in the way of integral objects to contemplate and interpret with the focus that Modernist art often demands. And while Hirschhorn did indeed remodel a rarefied Chelsea gallery into a weird, unrecognizable, fugitive shelter, I initially thought the piece an amusing but condescending stunt. Yet for all its punky, teenage aggression, Hirschhorn was, I soon realized, not presenting objects or even orchestrating a particular kind of experience, but rather offering a model of a locus outside the spectacle’s prescriptive hierarchies where one can read, think, fantasize, plot, masturbate, and drink in a temporary state of freedom. I’m inclined to take Hirschhorn literally: the ad-hoc construction in a troubled Turkish neighborhood in Kassel, Germany he made for Documenta XI in 2002 really is an appropriate monument to Georges Bataille, and similarly a junk-strewn cardboard cave is somehow the proper scene of the imagination. Plato, whose cave Hirschhorn’s piece obviously alludes to, understood better than anyone that a free imagination is shadowy, erotic, and morally unreliable.
The immediate impact of Los Angeles-based artist Jason Rhoades’s new installation at David Zwirner, entitled Meccatuna, which not incidentally opened the day after the second anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, excludes the idea of a secret, liberating refuge. Where Hirschhorn’s schlocky materials and refusal of stable form is wry, leveling, and democratic, anointing him in many ways a postmodern child of Joseph Beuys’s late spiritual politics of the imagination, Rhoades’s work is charged with anxiety, alienation, and a kind of useless, ambivalent indulgence. Hirschhorn’s work has a communitarian optimism that harkens back to May ’68 compared with Rhoades’s brash, L.A, anti-style. In his latest installation, Rhoades has festooned high on the gallery walls and heaped on tall, moveable steel racks, squiggly, high-voltage neon signs spelling a purported 550 euphemisms for the word “vagina”: warm slurpy, hairy taco, quim, fuzzy puddle, knots landing, beaver. Electrical cords bunched and tangled everywhere, plaques on the walls warning the viewer to not touch the high-voltage lights, the signs buzz loudly, bathe the gallery in a bright, stuttering, lurid glow, and make the ordinarily cool, climate-controlled rooms oppressively hot. Shameless, corrosive, and in-your-face, Rhoades’s use of language is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman. The words, echoed throughout the gallery by gaping vulvas fashioned from foam and cast steel, function less as signifiers than as obsessive, propulsive acts, garbled, obscene shouts. Though they are themselves objects, the crackling light and heat of Rhoades’s euphemisms have a visceral, performative quality. They are almost vocalizations, and in that sense evoke the compulsive, slobbery, muttered syllables and grunts that fill the performances of Rhoades’s mentor and occasional collaborator Paul McCarthy. Rhoades’s words, along with the foam, cardboard boxes, tuna cans, Legos, ceramic tchotchkes, and everything else piled and scattered throughout the gallery, are part of a global performance that ultimately leads back—via the Internet—to Saudi Arabia.
From his debut New York exhibition at David Zwirner in 1993, CHERRY Makhita—Honest Engine Work, to more recent exhibits, such as the dazzling of Perfect World (2000) and PeaRoeFoam. The Impetuous Process & From the Costner Complex (2002), Rhoades has tended to build clunky, anarchic, broken, self-consuming apparatuses—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittari might have called them “desiring machines”—assembled from the accumulating disjecta of a society fueled by a compulsive and unsatisfiable need for pleasure, entertainment, and consumption. The idea of a machine or system at play here is naturally indebted to Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic inventions. But while Duchamp’s art is elegant, circular, and demonically cerebral, Rhoades’s best work is crude, chaotic, and open-ended in its often bellicose striving. In CHERRY Makhita—Honest Engine Work there were grinding power tools, appliances made of tinfoil, and a big, enthroned V-8 engine. In of perfect world, an elaborate pipe replica of Sutter’s Mill, the mythic birthplace of the California Gold Rush, was continuously assembled and disassembled in the gallery. And PeaRoeFoam. The Impetuous Process & From the Costner Complex orchestrated a confrontation between the complete works of Kevin Costner and porn star Marilyn Chambers, with Rhoades’s signature building material, “PeaRoeFoam,” a concoction of peas, foam pellets, and fish eggs, packaged in recreated Ivory Snow soap boxes, spilled and mixed on the floor.
Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney are artists of the same generation, and in many ways their seemingly incompatible sensibilities are worth comparing—after all, both artists owe significant debts to Bruce Nauman and the process oriented sculptors of the 1960s, both fashion perverse mythologies which absorb pop culture and unusual materials. But while the sculptures and installations exhibited in Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle exhibition at the Guggenheim have a seductive if unsettling operatic beauty, evoking an aestheticisized, erotic sublime, Rhoades’s work remains brash, raw, and alienated, and, like the work of Paul McCarthy, it trades in confused lusts and embarrassing emotions. The current exhibit’s title, Meccatuna, according to Rhoades’s stipulation, means “the act of taking a live bluefin tuna on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca to circumnavigate the Kabba.” Realizing that “meccatuna” is not an actual word in English or any other language, and that it would be impossible to transport a live tuna to Mecca, Rhoades employed a man from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to drive to Mecca, purchase a case of canned tuna, and send it to New York by DHL. The exhibit is thus littered with cans of tuna and slapped-on shipping labels altered to read “Meccatuna.”
The exhibit’s twin linguistic ruses, both absurd and juvenile in their own way, create a metaphoric frame around the show as a whole. Rhoades’s reasoning is wonderfully backward. Having arbitrarily jammed two words together, he stipulates as its meaning a ludicrous, insulting, and probably impossible act, and finally tries to shore up some kind of meaning by financing from a distance an equally absurd set of actions. Rhoades is surely not just illustrating the arbitrariness of signs. There is something wired and panicky and megalomaniacal about his antics, as though, wrapped in fantasy, high-speed Internet access and global couriers at his disposal, he has lost his sense of what things mean, or how they come to mean them. Similarly, the 550 vagina euphemisms, impressive and vaguely theological in their quantity, made dubious by their sheer weirdness, end up sounding as fabricated and without real history as “meccatuna:” their sweltering, electric insistence make them feel as though they aren’t part of any language. The remainder of this congested, wildly overdetermined exhibit consists of heaped objects, sculptures, and loosely assembled constructions, many of which originated in previous exhibits in New York and Europe: bald snow tires painted red, blue, and yellow, Lego crates, aluminum poles, a huge wedge of glued peas, foam pellets, and salmon eggs, an old wooden lorry, life-sized fiberglass donkeys, various structures made of Ivory Soap detergent boxes, glue bottles, PeaRoeFoam, small ceramic donkey statues, and so forth. At the center of the exhibit is a one-third-scale replica of the Kabba in Mecca made of one million Legos. The day after the exhibit’s opening, the gallery assistant, working in the wretched heat and light of the vagina euphemisms, was not even half finished assembling this strangely fragile monument. One of the things all this dumped, scattered, and glued together stuff has in common is its disenfranchisement, its dispossession, its sense of being useless and lost in the global circulation of goods, which tinges it, not with melancholy, but with depression: fiberglass donkeys shipped from Nebraska through cowpainters.com, vintage camel saddle stools purchased on e-Bay. The replica of the Kabba is the exhibit’s most compelling and curiously touching piece, for it looks as though a mere breath, a footstep, or for that matter the vibrations from the vagina euphemisms, might scatter its million pieces, and then the assistant would have to start all over, Lego by Lego. It’s as though it childishly wants to mean something, but, like the word “meccatuna” itself, the Lego Kabba is too full of ignorance, self-deception, hubris, and ambivalence to signify anything other than its own existence.
The idea of making art out of the debris of commodity society, global or local, does not of course originate with Jason Rhoades. Think for instance of Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Conner, and Lucas Samaras, who all made early junk constructions, themselves developed out of ideas Picasso explored in his cubist collages and sculptures. Think of Tom Friedman’s cereal box sculptures and floor scatter pieces, or Tara Donovan’s vast drinking straw wall sculpture, or even the installations of Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze. Think of all the Vaseline and tapioca and athletic equipment in Matthew Barney’s work. These artists are, however, all invested in one way or another in a historically conscious aesthetic formalism in which materials are transfigured beyond their origins by manipulation or arrangement; the objects in Rhoades’s work, by contrast, remain clunky, aggressive, alienated, and somehow without history. The fact that objects are scattered and heaped in a space in a way that is without centered, composed form does not mean that they do not embody concrete trajectories of thought and experience (think of all of the art that has evolved out of Pollock’s drip paintings and Cage’s indeterministic procedures), but Rhoades seems to have abdicated this responsibility: the work in the current show is almost violently empty. The histories Rhoades appends to his objects underscore their disconnection, for they are accountings of their manufacture, purchase, and shipping, rather than anything present in the artifacts. The materials are not only not transformed—they are stuck together at most—but they seem to resist the idea of transformation, and the ad-hoc, contingent, unstable way they are put together suggests that Rhoades is skeptical about the possibility of making. Tyrannized by incoherent linguistic imperatives, the objects and materials in Rhoades’s exhibit are too disassociated to congeal into anything. One of the reasons artists often seek to transform their materials, whether they are mattresses, drinking straws, cereal boxes, or perfume bottles, is so that they can imminently embody ideas; the clutter and fragmentation of Meccatuna makes it feel as though it is freaking out over its own lack of meaning.
Rhoades is surely onto something interesting about consumption, desire, and history in an increasingly abstracted, globalized world. His use of Saudi Arabia and Islam’s holiest monument as the conceptual focal point of his installation is both obnoxious and prescient. Saudi Arabia is, after all, not just the birthplace of Islam’s prophet; it is also an artificial desert kingdom governed by vastly wealthy and decadent princes hungry for pleasure and commodities, a global exporter of both crude oil and violent extremism. Rhoades pursues the implication of the radical global alienation of words and things with dadaist zeal. Yet for all the blaring light, the mad, unstable replica of the Kabba, the Internet purchases and international shipping, Meccatuna is an oppressive, redundant, and static exhibit, leaving the viewer as nerve-wracked and empty as the things in it. In Rhoades’s previous New York shows, the elements connected into a wonky system or machine, but in the current exhibit the connections are wholly abstract and displaced. Thomas Hirschhorn’s exhibit last fall was so successful in part because, though centerless, it wholly transformed the gallery space, and it focused attention, not on the goofy objects and litter, but on the experiences and possibilities of the participants. Meccatuna, on the other hand, does not so much transform the space as clog and obstruct it. The objects are of little interest in and of themselves, and yet, unlike the messy props in Paul McCarthy’s performances, they are not imbued with volatile subjectivity. They are impersonal, external, and vacated, and yet too self-involved to include the viewer, except as another alienated object.