in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Road to Ruin

The real, the social and the surreal merge in sculptures that reference or employ what Ed Ruscha once described as the ‘unreported artefacts’ of the urban landscape

in Features | 10 SEP 04

‘Billboards are almost all right’, the architect Robert Venturi wrote in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), his and Denise Scott Brown’s treatise on the architecture and infrastructure of persuasion which found its centripetal apotheosis in a desert oasis. By ‘all right’ he didn’t mean beautiful. He didn’t even mean not ugly. What he did mean was that they existed and that they existed for a reason: the Strip may have been all crass commerce on its false-fronted surfaces, but its subtexts were all about unsatisfied desires and transformation.

Just as Venturi learnt his lessons from Las Vegas, withholding judgement so as to see clearly what conditions were really like on the ground, so the sculptor Mark Handforth has learned from what already exists in the world, all the things that are there and aren’t going away in a hurry – regardless of whether they are good, bad, ugly or just plain indifferent. Billboards, lampposts, backyard satellite dishes, motorbikes, fluorescent tubing, roadside symbols, any of the things that Ed Ruscha once called the ‘unreported’ artefacts all around us. If, as Venturi suggested, Modernism is the radically idealistic dissatisfaction with what exists, with objects and places and ways of living that emerge from the convergence of necessity and desire, then Handforth’s Pop ready-mades (in many cases assisted or self-made) are, for all their references to the modern, themselves something other. They seem to propose that the subtext of things as they are is nearly enough; that, given the right nudge, they will reveal themselves and their true character.
Handforth, a Hong-Kong-born Brit who has called Miami Beach home for more than a decade, moved to the Sunshine State not long after Hurricane Andrew laid waste to much of it in 1992. The disaster created just the sort of contemporary ruins and skewed, disrupted sense of normalcy latent in his sculptures. (He likes to see the wear and tear inflicted on a nondescript thing that ushers it towards a new and unforeseen state of affairs.) It was a few years after the storm that he found a junked satellite dish in a Florida yard, stripped of its antenna and electronics. Handforth adopted the giant parabolic husk and dragged it to his Miami gallery, where he cleaned and sanded it and tossed in a few throw pillows and a blanket to encourage gallery visitors to get comfy in it like contented molluscs on the half shell. Beginning with Untitled (Dish) (1996), Handforth continued to appropriate with a light hand, making adjusted ready-mades that don’t lean too heavily on their Conceptualism, and succinctly re-jiggering the odds and ends of a society that discards its technologies as fast as it can produce them.

In addition to surveying the wreckage left behind by Andrew, Handforth cites the spectacle of lampposts toppled during the Trafalgar Square riots of 1990 as a significant influence, which may account for all the elegantly deformed streetlamps that pop up in his work. Lamppost, which appeared near the Plaza Hotel in New York during the summer of 2003, looked as if it had been torn from its moorings, its steel stem delicately bent at two or three points like a 14-metre soda straw, by some idle Gulliverian hand. Sprouting a crown of multiple heads and splayed daddy-long-legs style on the pavement, the streetlight baffled many tourists and locals, who didn’t know whether to approach it as the scene of a recent mishap, a leftover disaster movie prop or a new kind of public street amenity of indeterminate purpose. Fond of how different modernities age and what modern ruins look like, Handforth prefers for these works the mildly sinister-looking ‘cobra head’ lampposts that are the default lighting fixture of the American city, closely associated with urban renewal efforts in the 1960s and the then-pervasive progressive impulse to standardize, streamline and sweep away anything that was suggestive of decay. Today they almost have a nostalgic patina of botched utopia about them, and Handforth’s manipulations – replacing the unforgivingly harsh sodium vapour bulbs with glowing ruby-red ones, or twisting them so that they subtly resemble a more heroic kind of sculptural Modernism in the angular, muscular manner of a Mark Di Suvero or a Tony Smith – come across as improvised restorative acts, as if he were returning to such unloved ‘unreported’ objects, the bastard children of well-intentioned urbanism, a lost essential state of grace. But perhaps he has also succeeded in eliciting from them a certain monstrosity, imagining them as unredeemable mutants dumbly alienated in any era.

In the late 1960s Robert Smithson wryly argued that Americans need not make the Grand Tour of Italy to see great ruined monuments, that we had all the ruins we needed right here in North America – and better yet, they were newer. Giving a slide lecture about the half-constructed, half-demolished Hotel Palenque in Mexico, Smithson described in faux-archaeological terms a place that was a ruin even before it was completed, and used the verbiage of Minimalism to analyse the piles of lumber or the drained pool full of mouldering construction materials as if they were calculated works of art. Similarly Handforth sees artistic potential in materials along the wayside, finding in each new-ish thing the kernels of its own entropic decay and death and possible transfigurative release.

Handforth’s highway billboard Diamond Brite (2004), which dominated a room at this year’s Whitney Biennial, looked like any other off-ramp directional sign, with the familiar reflective white blocklettering on forest-green field that is the graphic standard of the interstate highway system. But the aluminium sign, neatly folded with a precision that suggested a focused and impersonal violence and plonked upside down as if by the whim of a passing tornado, was not a found object. While emblazoned with the familiar federal heraldry of Interstate 95 – the 2000 mile-long corridor of asphalt that binds together the megalopoli of the Eastern seaboard – it also bore the simple message ‘No Exit’, the equivocal advisory scaled to be clearly understood at a high speed. Like the deadpan blacktop lingo in Ruscha’s text paintings (they too are almost, but not quite, ‘all right’), Handforth’s sign is imaginary – there may not exist such bleak Sartrean messages in the Interstate vocab-ulary – but it is close enough to plausible to be discomfiting. And it is discomfiting precisely because the landscape of bland signage is meant to be as familiar as the inside of your eyelids, the sameness assuring not so much that there is a way home but that you never really left. Instead, Diamond Brite hints at the headlong vertigo of speeding towards ‘no-place’.

This linkage of the real, the social, the Surreal, the Pop and the Minimalist without resorting to easy pastiche is what gives Handforth’s objects their distinctive torque, their inertial guidance. While Venturi often talked about how the commercial strip heralded the triumph of sign over space (experience of place being increasingly driven by symbols and images), Handforth finds a happy equilibrium, making things that are both locked into everyday reality as cultural signs and formal objects in their own right, hybrids successfully interacting with one another and with the space around them. Hence his comfort with making objects that can look like austere sculptures while functioning less intimidatingly as furniture. It is also why his Western Sun (2004), a radiating fan of amber fluorescent tubes arranged like a roadside illustration of the dying rays of a desert sunset, converses just as easily with the off-the-shelf purity of Dan Flavin’s Minimalist ethos as it does with the original industrial and commercial sources that inspired Flavin, without coming across as glib or excessively referential.

But the choice between High and Low was long ago shown to be a false one – by Warhol and Ruscha and Venturi and many others. There is no decisive fork in the road coming up ahead, no destination where everything will be made clear. There is only the unfathomable debris field of what exists in the world, which can never be fully apprehended or picked clean. For an artist like Handforth, that will do just fine.