THE COOPER UNION | OCTOBER 19 – NOVEMBER 20, 2010
We are only as great as the sum of our parts—copper, ash, mineral, carbon. These are the material elements that define, comprise, and typify human corporeality. They are also the materials which, given a certain set of political and economic parameters, can act to expose the dark side of the human condition. Beauty always hits on the edge of a blade. In order to exist, it must possess an opposite, its intrinsic doppelganger, just as we as a culture would not pursue the notion of democratic ideals without the knowledge of persecution. The problem is, sometimes beauty’s mere promise can lure the dark into the light. The Crude and the Rare curated by Steven Lam and Saskia Bos, offers an illuminating glimpse into the heart of this beast—our beast—that unspoken part of humanity that is driven by the desire to possess, control, and, at times, destroy.
Gold, copper, oil, and sugar are only a few of the precious substances that The Crude and the Rare touches upon, but they are also some of the most culpable offenders when it comes to the issue of exploitation. The extraction of precious minerals is an age-old pursuit. It is catalogued into antiquity (see “Bitumen & Petroleum in Antiquity” by R. J. Forbes) and has doggedly plagued the labor structure in most civilized societies since its inception. This process destroys landscapes, entrenches class distinctions and, if unregulated, can completely devastate the economic constitution of developing nations.
Ursula Biemann’s activist-driven video account of the massive caucasus oil pipeline (BTC), titled “Black Sea Files” (2005), probes this destabilizing quality. The two-channel installation oscillates between interviews with depressed populations living on the fringes of the pipeline’s geographical areas—prostitutes, farmers, nomadic peoples—and documentary style footage that reveals the system’s complex ties to the megalithic oil corporations and executives that built and maintain it. Due to the large industry that the pipeline supports, these oil routes, or “territories of desire,” have become the preferred byway for sex trafficking, the target of terrorist attacks, and are often faulted with decimating local industries, such as fishing and agriculture. The pipeline itself is a contradiction in terms, both a source and symbol of wealth and the modus operandi for repression. It embodies the idea of contained economic freedom, one that is inaccessible to the poor and marginalized, and serves to line the pockets of the rich.
Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s “Monument of Sugar” (2007) and Alfredo Jaar’s “Introduction to a Distant World” (1985), a film and a video respectively, share a similar platform for analysis. The latter highlights the horrific working conditions of Brazilian gold-panners as they ceaselessly work the earth, in mud and heat, for the most minimal of returns. According to Brazilian law, the self-employed miners are only permitted to sell the harvested gold back to the government, which purchases the substance at a deflated rate independent of the price of the metal on the global market. Van Brummlelen and De Haan’s video is a more interventionist/research-based artistic experiment, one in which the artists reverse the trade routes of sugar exportation in Europe in an effort to expose the uneven regulations that govern the trafficking of this precious commodity.
Other works speak more directly to the historical exploitation of mineral deposits, as well as to their redefined (and often negative) role within contemporary society. Sara Jordeno’s animated field study, “Diamonds are/labor/embodied/crystallized/” (2010), Lize Mogel’s charted “Copper Monuments” (2010), Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographic “Because of Dust Breeding” (2007), and Austin Shull’s Makrolon-comprised panel, “Field Guide to Materiality: Makralon, made by Bayer” (2008), all function on this level.
Still, others conflate the trivial with the tragic. Mark Dion’s “Killers Killed” (1994 – 2007) features tarred and lynched taxidermied animals, while Grady Gerbracht’s reconfigured automotive subwoofer plays the Iraqi national anthem, as its speaker cavity, coated with a thin layer of oil, vibrates to the exotic rhythm.
But not all aspects of materiality portrayed in The Crude and the Rare are negative. Jimmie Durham’s tongue-in-cheek “Someone Stole my Diamond” (1998), plays text against texture using a wood panel and rose quartz for illustration of the idea. Below the placeholder for the “missing” diamond reads the satirically-tinged phrase, “at least they didn’t erase my graphite.” This is a not-so-distant relative of Lawrence Weiner’s wall text of 28 years earlier, “10 LBS. MERCURY TOSSED FROM FINLAND TO SWEDEN” or Bik Van der Pol’s “Trinity” (2005), a video documentation of the fanatical annual pilgrimage many make to the New Mexico site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Here, it is the absence of tangible matter, its spiritual aura, which marks the work. For those who opt-in, these substances are prescribed with alchemical properties that, in the hands of a proper medium, have the power to heal, energize, and alter realities. Performance heroine Marina Abramović, explores this idea with her trifectite wall mount of rose quartz, “Black Dragon” (1990).
If this road map of mineral debt and demand seems mind-bending, one need only look to the work of Matt Mullican for clarity. In the artist’s monolithic drawing in canary yellow oil stick, our Rosetta Stone for spiritual and material connectivity is laid bare. Tapping into a universal set of visual cues, Mullican speaks to the building blocks of communal existence—a burning furnace fuels a cityscape from below; a secular zodiac, replete with humanoid iconography, alludes to the evolutionary process. Mullican’s diagrammatic lexicon of cosmological, organic, and urban symbols eerily predates the iPhone era, yet his invented vocabulary feels refreshingly contemporary, even Delphic.
Mineral elements are the fundamental units of human sentience. They give rise to our civilizations and govern our structures of power. They can be used for good or for evil—they can exploit or renew—but it is we who are ultimately responsible for them. In this context, The Crude and the Rare is a call-to-arms. Its transparent depictions of tactile effect and exchange force us to confront both our successes and failures in this charge. The proverbial wool has been removed from our eyes. How we respond in the wake of these realizations is the challenge set forth.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.