TRAVIS FITZGERALD: Until Adwaita
INTERSTATE PROJECTS | SEPTEMBER 22–OCTOBER 29, 2017
At the time of his death in 2006, the Aldabra giant tortoise Adwaita was 255 years old. To this day, he stands as the longest living terrestrial animal in recorded history. His name refers to the non-dualistic Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which argues that individual experience in and of itself is illusory; in reality, all beings are constitutive of one form of pure consciousness (Brahman). By titling his solo show at Interstate Projects Until Adwaita, Travis Fitzgerald hints that this monism is a point of entry for him. However, this engagement is fraught, and Fitzgerald is conscious of his tendency to regress into narrativization. This conflict between life in general versus life in particular is central to Until Adwaita. Fitzgerald places two oil-painted portraits of the tortoise Adwaita under the title “non-dual Aldabra #1 + #2” at the entrance of the exhibition as a statement of this conflict.
The entire gallery space is bisected by an aluminum fence that tapers down into a container of nondescript green liquid with a ceramic baby turtle resting on its brim. The piece resembles a timeline—effectively, a crude diagram that attempts, in futility, to impose order on a life in retrospect. Clay arrowheads punctuate the fence like tick marks. Around the base of the fence lies mulch mixed with vegetable matter, a reference to Adwaita’s diet—“he lived on a diet of wheat bran, carrots, lettuce, soaked gram, bread, grass, and salt.”
Fitzgerald’s wall works—which include paintings, various kinds of digital media, and one looped video—are referential, sourced from personal materials, art historical imagery, and pop culture. In two works, Sanctuary (Orange) and Sanctuary (Blue), the unicorn from the original 15th-century Dutch tapestry The Unicorn in Captivity (which can be seen in person at The Met Cloisters) is Photoshopped out, leaving only the fenced enclosure. The image is then overlaid with the pattern of a tortoiseshell and reproduced as two new digitally-printed tapestries, one in orange and black and another inverted as white and blue. The source material here speaks to a fantasy of immortality and reincarnation—in the original series of tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity is preceded by a depiction of the unicorn being killed. In Fitzgerald’s re-reading, the unicorn either escaped, stayed dead, or never existed. Fitzgerald brings us back down to earth; magical creatures, to the extent that they originate from a fantastical “outside” are incompatible with non-dualistic thought and are written out.
Fitzgerald also imposes absence in his video loop They told me there would be days like this, which uses footage of the cartoon Peanuts as its source material. Fitzgerald isolates footage of Linus and his security blanket, but edits Linus out. The blanket flies around of its own accord, contorting into forms resembling a shawl, a scroll, or a flag. Where Fitzgerald’s tapestry pieces represented a secular logic, here, the opposite is the case. In the absence of its owner, the transitional object is liberated from identification and ultimately is revealed to have its own generative potential.
Viewers will likely know Fitzgerald as a co-founder of American Medium, the gallery, recently relocated from Bed Stuy to Chelsea, that focuses on emerging artists working at the forefront of digital media. Fitzgerald’s practice has also developed against the backdrop of a phenomenon David Joselit calls “the epistemology of the search” in which, alongside the rise of image aggregates and news feeds, the priorities of the artist have shifted from image-production to image-contextualization. Ultimately, the emergence of the “epistemology of the search” is somewhat tragic insofar as the artist is burdened with the duty of taming chaotic accelerated flows of content, ultimately eroding the autonomy of art as an end unto itself. Thus, Fitzgerald’s project lies at the intersection of two harrowing, nigh-impossible, perhaps deliberately torturous tasks. The first is an attempt to approach the single ideal substance of Advaita Vedanta; the second is to reconstitute preciousness from a densely-concentrated mass of cultural content.
Vijay Masharani (b. 1995) is an artist and writer. He lives and works in Queens.