SAUL MELMAN Central Governor
MoMA PS1 | Long-term Installation
In the Basement Boiler Room of MoMA PS1, an installation known as Central Governor quietly resides in the form of a glimmering, gilded furnace. The current state of the machine is the result of an extended performance—168 days from preparation to completion—executed in 2010 by Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Saul Melman. His practice encompasses photography, sculpture, and printmaking bundled up in high-endurance performance. Often, his active gestures within the boundaries of a project will last up to six hours at a time. What distinguishes Melman from peers such as Marina Abramović or Bruce Nauman is that Melman possesses significant esoteric and practical knowledge of medicine. His experiences in the studio and the emergency room have congealed into a refreshingly new kind of activity—one where the imagined borders between science and art are fluid, unstable, and often invisible.
Apart from Melman himself, the main character of Central Governor is the furnace built in 1902 by engineers Williams & Gerstle in the underbelly of Long Island City’s first schoolhouse. At the time of the museum’s re-opening, following a massive renovation in 1997, the boiler had gone practically unnoticed. The largest single element in the subterranean room is the double furnace, with the names of the contractors and the date stamped into the face of the iron. At its foot are two relief sculptures set into the brick floor created by artist Matt Mullican. Set within a small access point is the arterial network of piping and gauges connected to the furnace, at its heart.
The title Central Governor references an automatic reaction thought to be triggered by the human brain in instances of great stress or exertion, whereupon the body is “rescued” from a potential state of collapse. An example used to support the theory was observed in Swiss marathoner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess’s dramatic physical breakdown as she entered the L.A. Coliseum during the 1984 Olympics; she was medically cleared less than two hours after the incident, possibly as a result of her body automatically retaining some amount of fluid to prohibit complete anoxic damage to her heart.
Melman’s performance—itself a lengthened, strenuous act—permits a reading of the furnace as a living, breathing being. To bring this “body” back to life, he first entered a nearly three-week-long process of sandblasting the surfaces of the Boiler Room down to the bare skin of the iron machinery. He also stripped away a century’s worth of grime and rust that coated the glazed glass windows. With natural light now piercing the room, Melman entered the second phase of his performance as a character resembling a caretaker, who would patiently chip away at a 5,000-pound monolith made of salt stationed beside a massive brick oven (he kept pieces of the salt for later use). This figure would spend hours meticulously cleaning the floors and surrounding areas near the boiler. Intermittently, he’d place some of the salt blocks within the previously-made vessels Mullican had fashioned. The final phase saw Melman inhabiting the role of a traditional gilder (he received tutelage from an actual master artisan based in Red Hook, Brooklyn), dressed in an oversized white apron, wielding magnetized brushes and tools that he could attach to the face of the boiler as he worked. Melman would stroke his brushes against the back of his neck, dabbed with vegetable oil and sweat, allowing his own body to supply the simple adhesive used to attach each square of gold leafing. Melman, in a sense, anthropomorphized the boiler, which opened it up to carrying bodily terminologies, particularly the two-pronged furnace that carries two sets of identical doors opening in opposing directions. The larger doors above, the smaller doors below where the coal was inserted; the heat of this body was generated from below, from inside, as it would be with a person. This hermaphroditic core is fused in such a way that its purpose is its pleasure, and vice versa. Gold, as a chemical entity with a far-reaching range of practical and spiritual qualities, is both decorative and transformative in this scenario: Melman’s treatment of the boiler as something already beautiful now becomes elevated to the point of sanctity with the careful application of the gold leafing.
Curiously, the gilding of the furnace and piping appears to be incomplete. The process may have been halted, interrupted, or abandoned; not knowing which allows the entire apparatus to remain in flux. Has this 112-year-old machine ended its journey? Has it just commenced? Even more incomplete narratives color the work. The ancient disciplines of alchemy and proto-medicine all posit their traces here. Salt and gold, sweat and saliva, sunlight and darkness are all present in Central Governor. Under Melman’s direction, these become more than just elements: they are thrust, invariably, into the realm of magic.
ContributorShana Beth Mason
SHANA BETH MASON is an art critic based in Brooklyn. Contributions include Art in America, Artillery Magazine, ArtVoices Magazine (Los Angeles), FlashArt International, Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Miami Rail, thisistomorrow.info (London), San Francisco Arts Quarterly and Whitehot Magazine.