A Review of the show Man is a Bubble, Time is a Place (and a Meditation on its Implications)

There’s a generally held suspicion that no one attends an opening for the purpose of looking at art. From an optimistic perspective, one can call the opening a celebration of the artist’s achievement in organizing a show. From a more cynical perspective, it’s a schmooze-fest. People go to network. Artists see a successful artist (success referring to the semblance of an opportunity) and go to the show to gain favor. Or they go so as to acquaint themselves with the gallery owner. Some people with money to spend go to make purchases, and the gallery owner is there to make sales, do some networking. Still others go to get an image of themselves at an opening on Instagram.

The opening for Dmitri Obergfell’s recent show at Gildar Gallery, Man is a Bubble and Time is a Place, was the first I attended on moving back to Denver. The opening might have been more enjoyable for me if I went for the above-mentioned purposes, or if I knew the artist personally, but I went to see art and to gauge the general interest.

The work, itself, was interesting. It’s primary focus was the concept of deep time, with an emphasis on material in relation to symbol. It seemed to be indebted to ideas advanced by additivists, emphasizing that any work produced in the medium of plastic is inherently commenting on time, as the half-life of plastic is so immense that any work made in this medium may very well out-survive humanity itself. The concept is even more relevant considering that geologist are debating whether or not human influence on the planet has created a new geological layer, the Anthropocene. Part of this lasting presence is humanity’s production of plastics. Consider that plastics are photo-degradable and if buried in time by the ever-changing surface of the Earth, will last as long as the planet itself. Provided the maker is conscious of the nature of this material, the production of an object in a plastic has existential implication. Any object made in plastic is an object the creator believes ought to be around forever.

This nature of plastic parallels other mediums: stone and metal. The use of stone and metal in humanity’s buildings and, most importantly, memorials, is borne out of the ambition to make an object last deep into time. A memorial being, by it’s most abstract definition, something that provokes a memory, a memorial built out of a medium that lasts deep into time will be remembered longer.

The infinite depth of time and man’s sense of meaning have long been at odds. In Planet of the Apes (1968), for example, a crew of astronauts travel far into the future by traveling at the speed of light (which actually corresponds to a concept in the study of physics called the twin paradox). The main character, Taylor, chides one of his crew-mates, Landon, by saying, “There’s a life-size bronze statue of you standing out there somewhere. It has probably turned green by now; nobody can read the nameplate. But never let it be said that we forget our heroes.”

Or consider Shelly’s famous poem:

I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Of course, plastic outdoes stone and even metal in the competition to last deep into time, Ozymandias’s temple would still remain if it were built of plastic. The effects of atmosphere erode and corrode the mediums of stone and metal. In Greece, the fountainhead of Western heritage, sculptures and buildings suffer the effects of erosion. Steel and concrete is employed for the purposes of securing endangered structures. A caryatid, for example, might find itself cast in concrete and altogether replaced. Of course, if one were really interested in having these objects survive for eternity, one would cast them in plastic. Yet something in the idea seems wrong, for plastic lacks some feeling of grandeur that stone, steel, or at least cement possesses. Perhaps it is because we use plastic so arbitrarily, creating millions of water bottles, toys, and containers, anything, objects which are associated with disposability, in a medium which simply will not be disposed.

Obergfell’s sculptures accentuate this arbitrariness. While on the one hand, we see Styrofoam copies of Roman sculptures, we also see reliefs of the same sorts of symbols arbitrarily doodled in a grade school student’s notebook, entitled “Cave Graffiti”. Cave paintings, those markings of humanity that are also products of deep time, perhaps the indication of human sentience that comes from a point in time furthest from the present, evoke feelings of awe, sentimentality, and appreciation. Obergfell presents them as equivalent to doodles.

The motifs of the show seem somewhat disparate without the concept of time to unify them. Interference paint is used to accentuate the concept of instability, as the impression of color is contingent upon the viewer’s position, a contrast to the everlasting nature of the Styrofoam sculptures. Corrugated steel further conveys this sense of instability, especially when applied to such a stable structure as a chair. The piece entitled “Portal” is an obvious homage to the video game of the same name, in which the Newtonian stability of space is interrupted by a game-play mechanism that enables the player to connect different spaces via a “portal gun”.

Interference-painted beer cans litter the floor, emphasizing an arbitrary and wasteful relationship with the objects of mass production.

90’s nostalgia seems to float in the gallery atmosphere, manifesting in those reptile eye sunglasses many a 90’s kid thought were awesome placed on the Styrofoam head of a Roman bust. The reptile eye glasses evoke that nerve-racking conspiracy theory that all our world leaders are secretly lizard-people. Yet in a context that emphasizes change and the arbitrary, it seems to gesture at a “who cares even if it is true? We’re all gonna die anyways.”

In relation to these objects, one might wonder, why Roman sculpture? Why not Egyptian? If one were to really investigate the concept of deep time, one would be compelled to recognize the Egyptians as its masters. Egyptian society was structured around time, it’s religious practices were the practices of living in the pattern of time and being prepared for the depth of time. Egyptian art, itself, is a testament to their beliefs, as the style that defined Egyptian art saw minimal stylistic innovation for hundreds of years, with the exception of the changes that occurred under the rule of Akhenaten. Why alter a style designed to play an integral role in eternity? Roman sculpture, on the other hand, is so much less related to a belief system that accounts for eternity. Perhaps from the Platonic idealization of form characteristic of the Greek style and thus influential for the Roman one can surmise a concept of time, but this concept of time would not be the concept of deep time. It would be the concept of the timeless.

But Egyptian art does not signify Western culture the way Roman sculptures do.

My impression is that Obergfell’s use of Roman sculpture refers to his being influenced by a vaporwave aesthetic, or new-aesthetic art. In the visual culture surrounding vaporwave and similar online music genres, the motif of the Roman statue reoccurs. So to does it reoccur in glitch art. Never is the Roman sculpture used in such a way that corresponds with the intentions of the Romans. Instead, its use seems to subvert Roman-ness, and by extension, the narratives of Western culture. It is a product of a disillusioned generation that feels an emptiness in all that was promised by previous generations (“vaporwave” is a play on the term “vaporware”). The response by this generation has been a cool (dis-impassioned as well as hip), subversive, and ironic aesthetic.

It is here that I take issue with Man is a Bubble, Time is a Place. While the content of Obergfell’s sculptures is interesting and relevant and his way of embodying these concepts in his medium is very clever and professionally executed, it’s a type of work that makes me question what contemporary artists are doing, exactly. Outside the space of the museum, the university, or the gallery, what are we doing? In many an artists’ statement, it is clarified that an artist, “challenges, explores, proposes, provokes, etc.,” but what does this mean, exactly? Obergfell’s statement, for example: “The works invite viewers to consider the way in which an awareness of impermanence leads us to locate new relationships with the past, present, and future.” Personally, in viewing the work I did reflected upon the depth of time and the products that outlive us, what and how these objects communicate. In general, however, I felt a disconnect between the atmosphere of the opening and the existential implications of the work on view.

This is not unique to the opening at Gildar. Many of the shows I’ve attended throughout the years have dealt with “heavy” content. Rarely do I witness what might be assumed to be a proportionate response to the heaviness of the content. For example, the idea that the hand print left on a cave wall by some ancient ancestor is no more significant than a drawing on college ruled paper of a peace sign and an eye could, I’d assume, be interpreted as somewhat depressing. In fact, I’ve found that most of the work made in this post-humanism, new-aesthetic vein is somewhat depressing. I’d figure that such depressing work would leave people somewhat depressed, but the atmosphere of the gallery was anything but.

I don’t think anyone was taking too seriously the content of the work on display. I’m not saying, however, this is a fault. Perhaps the point of art of this type is to serve as a foil against which one can demonstrate how un-affected one is by depressing realities that have become so essential to the contemporary condition as to be mundane. Perhaps it is related to the idea of “cool” that developed in response to the development and proliferation of television, that I am “cool” to the effect of this aggressive medium. The Bob Dylan and Lou Reed sort of not taking it at all seriously. A John F. Kennedy way of feeling comfortable under blazing lights and scrutinizing gaze. Now that cool has extended over into an internet saturated environment in which everyone, equally, is put on the spot.

(The contemporary artist can be understood by metaphor of the sniper. The sniper is removed from the situation, detached, sees but is not susceptible to the danger of being seen. To be a good sniper, one must have a cool head, good eye, steady trigger finger. Deliberate in action, his/her will becomes actualized as a reality to be felt by those who are in the situation. The sniper’s power is the power of vision, endowed with the power of the all-seeing eye. In fact, the sniper can be understood by metaphor of God.)

I remember the first time I felt numb. As a young teenager, I saw on the local news that a shooting occurred around Christmas time at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Never mind that it was New Life, but that it was a church should be seen as disturbing. Of course, a shooting anywhere should be received as disturbing, but at a church around Christmas time… some sensibility in me should have been affected. But it wasn’t. Instead I was impressed by how little I felt. I remember wanting to feel sad, but what I really felt was bored.

The more horror that has become the norm in our media depiction of the going-ons of society, the more depressing, meaningless subversion of values once held dear, the more lethargic I feel.

This is referred to as the death of affect. The term was coined by post-modern novelist J.G. Ballard. In the introduction to the 1974 French edition of his magnum opus, Crash, he begins:

The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the specters of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin motifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilization and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings – these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.

He goes on to characterize the literature of the 20th century thus:

Apart from (the literature of the century’s) marked retrospective bias and its obsession with the subjective nature of experience, its real subject matter is the rationalization of guilt and estrangement. Its elements are introspection, pessimism and sophistication.

Of course if Ballard was genuinely concerned about the consequences of an art form borne of introspection, pessimism, and sophistication and addressed the problems of the 20th century with the hopes of overcoming such existential ordeals in, for example, Crash, one would be right in questioning whether he succeeded or not in producing a change or if he was complicit. One aspect of the lasting legacy of the book is that it was adapted into a movie, staring the relentlessly sexy James Spader. Does this product of pop culture encourage viewers to see their condition afresh and to engage in serious introspection, potential change, or does it transform pessimistic sophistication into something sexy. It is the same sort of message we receive on the television, only with an abundant increase in cool. News anchors at least pretend to be troubled, with their furrowed brows. James Spader, on the other hand, always looks as though he is repressing a perverse fascination.

Similarly, I wonder to what extent Obergfell’s works perpetuate the existential/materialist crises it seems to focus upon. I first experienced this feeling of disconnect between what is said and how it is said in my undergrad at the University of Northern Colorado. I helped some friends with an instillation that was intended to comment of human wastefulness. The project entailed projecting the word “Forever” on a curtain of dozens of Styrofoam cups. The idea was none-too-subtle. I asked my friends, “where did you get these cups?” They said they bought them. When I asked them why they did not recycle used cups for the project, they said it would not have looked as good. They did not see the manner in which they executed the project as inconsistent with its content because they felt it was ultimately effective commentary on an important issue.

Obergfell does not only create a discourse on the topic of deep time, he creates objects that will last deep into time. One of his sculptures might remain after all else has perished. Is this not significant? Can one imagine a future society digging up one of the sculptures in this show?

Sol Lewitt said that he does not draw people because he considers it unethical, which is an interesting idea to consider. Should it be considered undesirable to allow ethical concerns to serve as constraints for the artist? I see the benefits of the separating aesthetics and ethics, a sort of revolutionary freedom sought after by surrealist who knew ethics were entirely contrary to the nature of their efforts. However, I also feel we are currently enduring the consequences of such separation, and the degree to which the contemporary artist has been liberated from ethical concerns seems to correspond with his/her lack of connection with society as a whole. There might be something about a situation of absolute freedom that inevitably leads to the mundane.

At one point in history, aesthetics and ethics were not separated. The separation of aesthetics into its own branch of philosophy occurred around the same time as the formal construction of a system of fine arts, as opposed to the previous system of the liberal arts, in the 18th century. Considering the depth of time in which humans have been creating visual products, the separation between aesthetics and ethics is new.

Personally, I do not want a work of art to be ethical as much as I want it to be consistent. I want form to flow naturally out of intention. I believe my lack of ability to discern Obergfell’s true intention, not just what is written in the show’s literature, is what caused me to perceive a profound emptiness in the atmosphere of the opening. Provided the possibility that Obergfell was critiquing those arbitrary products of ours that will long outlast us, humanity’s discomfort with the infinite, or the sense of meaning we impose of objects of the past, I would be surprised at the sense of cool detachment I associated with the work. I would be surprised to see no solemn expression, no look of alarm in the faces of gallery-goers. However, I do not believe the work was intended to provoke meditation, I believe it was intended to provoke recognition. I believe the sense of emptiness that permeated the atmosphere is something many a gallery goer is familiar with, eager to demonstrate affect-less-ness in response to.

I did not write this critique while the show was up because I was questioning if I should write it at all. My experience of the Denver art scene is that art criticism simply does not exist, and I presume this is because criticism is perceived as negative. In a scene in which all the members are working together to build an environment fruitful for all, something Denver desperately needs, negativity has no place. If one pays attention to my critique, however, one will find that at no point do I put down Obergfell. Though I question whether the ethics of his use of medium is consistent with the implications of the work’s content, I actually am impressed with its quality. I appreciate Obergfell’s focus on concepts so vital to the human experience. Who I’m criticizing, in fact, is us. I’m criticizing viewers for not being affected. Or rather, I’m criticizing that zeitgeist that has produced so many cool people.

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