Sunday, November 9, 2008

Josiah McElheny: Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism

Saw this sculpture/installation today at the MFA. The photo on the MFA website doesn't do it justice; there's a better photo of it here.

First of all, it's a beautiful piece. Entrancing is the word I'd choose. What it is is: a bunch of vases made of some highly reflective material lined up along the four sides of a glass-fronted box. The glass you see through is actually a two-way mirror: we can see in but the vases can't see out, so to speak. They get their reflection, and then reflect that back, infinitely. Behind the vases are more mirrors - the center of the box is another box, mirrored on the outside. The effect is of these vases infinitely reflected and infinitely reflecting. The lighting is soft white light, not overpowering - the thing doesn't shine inside so much as glow, and that glow diminishes with every reflection until the vases are just marching away into a sort of ethereal half-light.

The piece itself is just beautiful, in a really unexpected, haunting way. Then you read the card on the wall telling you about it. The artist is Josiah McElheny: you can read a little more about him here. The title of the piece is "Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernisms." A little tendentious, but okay.

But here's the text:

"Deploying the most sophisticated and virtuoso glass-working techniques combined with a conceptual rigor, McElheny creates sculptures and installations that explore crucial moments in the development of modernity, its visual and theoretical undercurrents. Over the past four years, McElheny has produced a series of works based on a conversation between sculptor Isamu Noguchi and designer/architect Buckminster Fuller that took place in 1929 during which they discussed a world of form without shadow; totally reflective forms inhabiting a totally reflective environment that would be totally self-enclosed - the perfect utopian environment. 'Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism' presents the viewer with a seemingly infinite repetition of reflections of modernist design (decanters, vases, boxes, and bottles based on designs from Scandinavia, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, and Austria from c. 1910 -1990) that attempts to depict the capitalist notion that all objects are eternally repeatable, that everything can be remanufactured endlessly without regard to era, geography, or culture. McElheny has stated that he aims to explore how "the act of looking at a reflective object could be connected to the mental act of reflecting on an idea."

Starts out nicely. I was interested to learn that the tendentious title wasn't pulled out of a hat, or an overheated graduate seminar, and finding out that he was inspired by this utopian idea of Noguchi and Fuller's made me see the work in a new light - opened it up for me.

But then we get to the "capitalist notion that all objects are eternally repeatable" business, and suddenly I want to heave (that's a sophisticated art-criticism term, by the way).

First of all, does capitalism really believe that? Maybe; it's arguable, at least.

Regardless of that, though, suddenly the wall text is telling me that I should see this beautiful sculpture as a critique of this or that or the other thing, a satire, a political statement.

I don't mind seeing art as any or all of those things. But if this piece is a critique of capitalism, it fails miserably, because the world inside this mirrored box is beautiful, just as beautiful as Noguchi and Fuller probably imagined it would be. It's a utopia of gracious forms, completely self-contained, completely peaceful. Nothing dystopian about it. (And really, nothing capitalist, either.)

So either the art is lame, because it fails to do what it tries to do, or the wall text is lame. Guess which one I'd side with. And most of all, this part of the wall text is unnecessary. It doesn't open the work up at all: it closes it down, by trying to control how we feel about it. Link


Cat said...

I haven't seen the artwork aside from the reproduction on the MFA website you linked too, but I think the wall text is lame. Perhaps the relationship of the artwork to endlessly repeating modernisms has more to do with modernism as an attempt to create reflection and beauty as a way of guarding against capitalism making everything seem the same? (while as you point out this effect is not a given, it is something that cultural theorists have argued)

Anyway, I realize that your point was more about the violence that this text's reductive theory does to the artwork itself, and I so know what you mean! I find myself in this trap often because the literary work that I study is very much caught up in marketing, consumerism, etc., but I also get hives from the traditional ways of conceiving of that as tragic. For my writers, it's more about humor than beauty, but the damage that you do to that humor if you just say that it's a way of getting us all to adjust to the impersonality of capitalism is also huge.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

Remiss63 said...

Very interesting critique.

Do you know where there's a source for the text of the conversation between Fuller and Noguchi? I've never seen it published anywhere.

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki said...

I have not read this book, but you might be able to find the reference here:

Isamu Noguchi. _Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations_, edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler. NY: H.N. Abrams in association with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, 1994.

According to Google Books, the words:

Buckminster Fuller

all seem to come up on P. 116.