Pragmatic metaphysics, painstaking copies and infinite pedestals
In one of his early magic routines, a young Steve Martin held up a small silver orb. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, I must insist on your complete silence,’ he earnestly intoned, ‘for the toilet float trick.’ After calling forth mysterious oriental lighting and mysterious oriental music, he invoked the powers of ‘art, nature, beauty and pragmatic metaphysics’, inducing the orb to levitate enthusiastically above his head. ‘Return,’ he commanded, attempting to coax it back onto its pedestal, only to realize, as it plunged through the studio audience, that it was headed for the john.
Martin’s quandary is shared by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dr. Frankenstein and the contemporary artist: an object brought to life will proceed according to a logic of its own, and no amount of further incantation will bring it back to heel. It could be called the ‘peril of shamanism’, and it curses anyone foolhardy enough to take art’s blasphemous imperative to ‘be creative’ seriously.
No one inhabits the parlous territory formed by the overlap of the occult-as-art and art-as-a-cult more nimbly than the Egyptian-born Australian artist Hany Armanious. An artist’s artist, Armanious exercises an influence on younger Australian practitioners out of all proportion to his fame. Simultaneously hilarious and queerly earnest, he has positioned himself as a kind of ludic shaman, a nemesis to Joseph Beuys. Although he despises the kitsch solutions of new age esoterica, he is genuinely fascinated by the problems that it engages with.
Many of the elements of Armanious’ ‘pragmatic metaphysics’ are to be found in Selflok (1994–2001), a project composed, decomposed and recomposed in four versions over the course of nearly a decade – a meditation of Duchampian duration and magnitude. Its origin is a single problem: if the sculpture rests on a pedestal, what does the pedestal rest upon? Upon another pedestal, of course. Selflok is an infinite regress, in which it’s pedestals all the way down. Seeing it is like discovering a factory run by elves; as though the curtain has been stripped from everyday life to reveal that behind it lies a Tyrolean workshop both ludicrous and sinister, in which implements including beer steins, three-legged milking stools, carved polystyrene logs and a host of indescribable tchotchkes and keepsakes are unified by a frozen river of ‘hot melt’ – the brightly coloured petrochemical ectoplasm that has become Armanious’ signature material. Each object could be read as the model or the mould for others around it; Selflok is a rococo profusion of promiscuous things, in which each part is equally marginal and there is no centre to be found, while the room in which it stands has the air of being freshly abandoned, as if the uncanny labourers have just downed their tools.
At first sight, Armanious’ complex assemb-lages of apparently banal souvenirs and knick-knacks fit easily into a sort of lazy post-Pop continuum, until one discovers how much labour is concealed behind each work. Almost every object that Armanious has exhibited over the past ten years is a painstaking cast of an original. It’s a Sisyphean process, in which an item of mass-produced kitsch, itself by definition a copy, is reassigned the status of an original by a loving act of replication. At the same time, it’s a method that distances the artist from his own work, granting the object a sort of quasi-animate individuality.
It’s work that one would wish upon a wider audience – a wish that may be fulfilled in the wake of the positive reception of Year of the Pig Sty (2007) at Foxy Productions in New York. The piece confronted viewers with what were either the mortal remains of an exploded Golem or a filthy production line in which sculpture was reduced to its basest form. In the corner of the room stood what appeared to be a pile of dismembered feet, which on closer inspection turned out to be casts of Crocs, the fashion faux-pas footwear, moulded to the shape of the artist’s feet. Muddy footprints led to an oversize Styrofoam box, labelled ‘feeding trough’ and filled with ‘real mud’, which could be gratuitously trodden into the indentations in the shoes. These were then wiped on a mat, whose disc-shaped perforations in turn became the mould for mud bricks, which were dried under the lamp of a pool table. And what do disc-like bricks dried on a pool table wish to become, if not part of the game? Their desire was fulfilled by clamps that held the bricks together in the forms of pool cues.
In Year of the Pig Sty, each artefact emerged from the primeval mess as a tool essential for the creation of its peers. Unlike Selflok, which could be seen as a demented manufactory, Year of the Pig Sty was reminiscent of an ecosystem: everything needed for its self-perpetuation was included. This organic circularity was accentuated by the ‘truffles’ – resinous shapes made by pouring polyurethane into a hole formed by digging in the mud with one’s hands, so that the search for the truffle brings forth the truffle. In Year of the Pig Sty, beings are born from and returned to the earth without ever having ceased to be dirt, driven by an obscure agency and urgency that can’t pause for explanation but throws off fertile associations at every stage.
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