BY Kirsty Bell in Fan Letter | 19 DEC 18
Featured in
Issue 200

Here’s the Thing: Kirsty Bell on the Resonance of Stuff

How artists use junkyard landscapes to forge an escape from materially saturated culture

BY Kirsty Bell in Fan Letter | 19 DEC 18

Scaffolding poles, stanchions, three walkers, New York state tax table, EXIT sign templates, sales rack for envelopes, various metal rings.

Beneath the deadpan language of this inventory, beyond its blank functionality and easy availability, is a terrain of latent potential. To experience these materials first-hand in Cady Noland’s Stockade (1984/87/2006) is to experience a jolt of recognition; an electrified déjà vu as if we can suddenly see – or, better, read – the hardware that surrounds us and structures our daily encounters. Her precise, uncompromising works propose an alternative semantic code in which objects become evidence to expose everyday brutality, oppression and exclusion.

Hardware: the things that make it into artists’ works, and what happens to them there. Jannis Kounellis’s coal sacks; Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s foil-wrapped candies; Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners; Klara Lidén’s trash cans. Can a century’s worth of existing objects reconfigured into sculpture really be reduced to the single-track genealogy of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade? Or is there something talismanic about these items that suggests other alignments beyond art-historical convention? In these objects, detached from their origins and recombined, a kind of ventriloquism occurs that allows them to speak of what they actually are or could be: to ask questions of us and our environment. Emancipated from use, they manifest their own agency in a holistic approach to matter, memory, time and society which remembers that humans are minerals, too.

Jeff Koons New Hoover Celebrity IIIs 1980
Jeff Koons, New Hoover Celebrity III’s, 1980, two vacuum cleaners, Perspex, fluorescent lights, 142 × 28 × 32cm

Non-Verbal (2005–11) is the title of several of Cathy Wilkes’s works. Chipped crockery, rusty bells or half-empty jam jars accompany the handmade figures in her sculptural tableaux. They register domesticity and familial connections, the rubbing layers of memory that accrue in ordinary objects, handed down over generations, and cannot easily be captured in words. In Jason Dodge’s sculptures, titles are done away with altogether, as are dates and lists of materials. Here, duvets are trussed with electrical cables; skimpy metal chairs balance on empty glasses; corners of the floor are littered with the tiny corpses of bees. An urgent state of precarity is plotted out through materials, giving form to the crises of economic disparity, technological dependency and environmental catastrophe that form a constant anxious hum in the backs of liberal minds.

Lutz Bacher, The Silence of the Whale, 2016, installation view at Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York

Since the early 1970s, Lutz Bacher’s works have trafficked in displacement. Even her artist persona itself is an act of displacement – a male European pseudonym applied to a Bay Area woman now in her mid 70s. In 2016, a solid iron anchor weighing several tons, which required three piano carriers to bring it up the stairs, appeared on the parquet floor of her Berlin gallery (The Silence of the Whale, 2016). An anchor is a particularly descriptive object; its form and material are so clearly linked to its purpose. But this one was neatly severed in two. Not only is it impossible to conceive of the anchor’s enormous weight, you can no longer even imagine its purpose. This strange and unforgettable object is emblematic of the febrile inconclusiveness of Bacher’s works. Realignments and intersections of existing objects generate their own forms of partial knowledge, sketching out lateral trajectories of thought like ley lines or energy fields. They remain largely mysterious but vividly demonstrate the latent potential of things.

Trawling the junkyard landscapes that surround us and hauling things into the museum, these artists seem to offer a way out of our materially saturated culture. Through tuning into the resonance of the stuff itself, they articulate violence, love, death or transcendence and place us in their midst. Their works are non-verbal, but they are also, essentially, not images. They rely on material presence – their own and that of their readers, together – to open a door onto the world we inhabit and propose it as analogous terrain to be deciphered.

Main image: Cady Noland, Gibbet, 1993/1994. Courtesy: © The Brant Foundation, Greenwich; photograph: Sean Keenan

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.