by Jim Welke
(in)Habitation opened 7-June-2013, at the Museum for Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).
I’ll House You (2013), by Osman Khan, is the first work one encounters, after passing by the documentary elements of Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which runs concurrent with (in)Habitation (both conclude on 28-July). Concurrence invites comparison of these exhibitions, and when you round the corner from the room where Mike Kelley, in an Art21 produced documentary, emphasizes the importance of the “negative esthetic” in art, you depart Mr. Kelley’s fictionalized home space and enter Mr. Khan’s ethereal, schematic representation of an archetypal American residence, but distorted into a leering phantom of that archetype.
Constructed of florescent tubes that sketch out a simplified three-dimensional outline of a pitched roof box like the one we all sketch as children, I’ll House You, goes no further than that with the conceit that this glowing stick box symbolizes the American dream of domestic bliss. The florescent tubes flicker, their harsh glare in an otherwise dark gallery crashes into your retinas with aperiodic dissonance (in fact, a sign outside the door warns that the strobing lights may induce epileptic seizure in those who suffer such seizures). Look around the room. Blueprints, propped against one wall with a two-by-four turn out to be those of the home(stead) where Osama Bin Laden lived and met his demise. A photo taped haphazardly on another wall shows a room in Pakistan, the floor mostly, flood lit by a single bulb with the same blue-ish glare as that which immerses you in this gallery room. The bulb projects from an outlet strip dropped on the floor, forming a nexus for narrow, fragile wires that criss-cross in the air above it. Look down at the floor of the stick figure house that occupies the gallery. As you observe that the floor is constructed of ceiling tiles and the requisite metal framework, your brain, so accustomed to these ubiquitous low-budget building materials appearing overhead tries to convince you an inversion occurred. But the home hovers there, right side up, glowing like the interior of Stanley Kubrick’s spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then you notice that a pre-flatscreen, cathode ray tube monitor stands beside a displaced ceiling tile, wires pouring out of the ceiling fissure like those in the nearby photo. On the screen of the tube, a garish green housefly, tethered to a biologist’s t-pin by a thread, struggles to escape. A glittery, mirrored disco-ball rests nearby, once suspended from this ceiling? Read the title card, the flickering florescent tubes flash out the message, in Morse code, “I’m not capitulating.” Those are the last words of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, the title card will inform you.
Clearly, Mr. Khan intends to shatter, at least for a moment, the overstuffed American notion of cozy domesticity enshrined in our homes, big and small. The very thing that constitutes the main portion of our collective dream, it seems, might be an illusion, like the illusion of righteous conformity that Ionesco’s characters succumbed too. We instinctively feel sympathy for that tethered, doomed fly. But don’t we mercilessly swat flies dead? Nothing remains fixed here, not the ceiling, not home and hearth, not our regard for flies. We move in herds, like the rhinos in the play, and reality becomes subject to negotiation.
In a room adjacent to Mr. Khan’s work, Spore 2.0 (2013), by Matt Kenyon, holds court. Framed by the single narrow doorway, you encounter Spore incrementally as you enter the gallery. First you will likely spot the plant, a rubber tree, protruding from the top of a clear acrylic cube. Then you notice a collection of electronic widgets arrayed around the cube, with a mobile phone apparently forming the nerve center. About three inches of water lies in the bottom of the cube. Displayed on the mobile phone, and projected on a wall, we see various images, all related to two things: plant growth, and Home Depot’s share price. Animations of cell growth fill part of the screen, then footage of Bernie Marcus (co-founder of Home Depot) giving a speech, then stock charts, then a digital ticker, then time lapse images of plants sprouting. The title card for this work tells us that when the share price of Home Depot drops (as monitored by the mobile phone) “Spore” receives no water. Alternatively, a bull market for Depot shares brings sustaining water to “Spore.” If the rubber tree dehydrates and dies, the title card points out, Home Depot will replace it a no charge for up to one year after purchase.
This work appears cleverly devised to illustrate through distillation the web of interconnections, both technological and biological, that bind all of us. But the logic here seems flawed: the plant and the share price data received via the electronics ostensibly form an ecosystem (the title card tells us so). But ecosystems require feedback loops. In this case, the transfer goes one way: share price regulates water flow to the plant. No transfer from the plant back to the electronic nervous system occurs. The free replacement of the plant upon its death feels like an amusing canard. The ecosystem, as it is defined here, expires with the plant. If deus ex machina-like you replace the plant, then you create a new ecosystem, which seems like an artificial intervention that resets the experiment but does not sustain it or invoke closed loop feedback as an ecosystem does. Or, does this analysis go to far on the sober/serious spectrum. Maybe Mr. Kenyon shares some wit here, and the piece should not be intellectually overworked. Either way, the work provokes thought, and one does wonder about all the interconnectedness going on around us.
The next two rooms contain works by Jason J. Ferguson, Dining Room and Home Sweet Home, both are elements of his Domestic Carnival Series (2013). Following the path, visitors encounter Dining Room first, a trailer-mounted, carousel-like carnival ride that consists of a multi-colored light-splattered dining room table in the center surrounded by four chairs mounted on articulated arms that allow the chairs to rise and fall as the table spins. That is, if it were set in motion. The ride remains stationary here, but the countless embedded lights flash, and haunting carousel music emanates from somewhere within the ride, or within the room, or within the heads of visitors. That music penetrates the mind somehow, like the often creepy sound of a music box, and confined in this dining room, wallpapered in a homey motif with a plaque on the wall that reads: “Live — Laugh — Love” the room feels quaint, in a warped, David Lynch, nightmare sort of way. And that seems to be the idea. Most of us remember moments around a table with family that felt as though everything had spun out of control — well, this work memorializes that sensation, and brings it back with an odd sense of ominous déjà vu.
The next work by Mr. Ferguson, Home Sweet Home, follows in the next room, which seems to be due more to the layout of the museum — that room being long and narrow — than to the logical flow of Mr. Ferguson’s Domestic Carnival series, but if the flow is in fact reversed, it’s understandable given the dimensions of Mr. Ferguson’s work. The piece consists of a handmade, 16-gauge steel, block-lettered sign embedded with garish flashing bulbs that reads, “Home Sweet Home.” The work, about sixteen feet long and twenty-four inches tall feels ponderous, and not so much ironic as vaguely threatening. The high wattage flashing from letter to letter, then word to word comes in a staccato fashion that feels sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic, like this sign fell at our feet from the elevated ledge of a building where it would be properly scaled, and now zombie-like flashes out its displaced message. The notion of “Home,” in Mr. Ferguson’s wry estimation, does not always fit the idealized, “family values” concept our more zealous political and religious leaders eagerly profess. Of course, when self-righteous, self-appointed cultural leaders profess such things, one suspects they intend to lull us into complacency, and that complacency seems to be Mr. Ferguson’s target here.
In the next room, we encounter There Are Times I Lose Faith, another work by Osman Khan. This one features a steel beam painted a cheery sky blue that floats above a tiled hexagon platform about the size of a kitchen table, but situated at seat height. The beam floats above, held there by an electromagnet; but at unexpected moments the beam drops and crashes into the tiled platform. The sound of the crash startles visitors — shocks them really. Jaws drop and eyes widen and dumfounded stares ensue. Some even yelp or scream. The event feels like the wrath of God unleashed, or human failing realized catastrophically. It makes one cognizant that things can change suddenly and irrevocably — the beam goes back up in the sky, hefted there by Pinter-esque stage assistants, but the tiles remain shattered. Somehow, given the Bin Laden hideout blueprints and photo of a Pakistani home in Mr. Khan’s I’ll House You, one can not help but think of the impact of unmanned drone strikes that come unseen from the sky and wreak lasting havoc on lives below.
After There Are Times I Lose Faith comes a series of works which all occupy a single room, the first of which is Come Hell or High Water (2013), by Osman Khan. Early in the show, visitors to this work saw everyman’s living room enshrined in an acrylic box, kind of like Damien Hirst might have done with a dead animal, but here we find a still life of domestic bliss minus the people. Imagine an easy chair set on a plush carpet, a soft-pillow on the chair, a reading lamp, a well-stocked bookshelf, a benign abstract painting on a beige wall. Now imagine someone, somewhere hits a switch and the room fills with water at a rate of an inch or so per minute. A crowd gathered to watch the event, and slowly but surely the room lost its composure, disintegrated; domestic bliss washed away and left behind the flotsam and jetsam of a forlorn shipwreck. The home underwater, as it were, as headlines so often proclaim.
Next came three more works by Mr. Kenyon, Cloud, Puddle, and Supermajor all of which offer broader cultural commentary. Cloud uses helium and soapy surfactant to periodically generate clouds of bubbles, extruded in the shape of a house, that float and coalesce near the ceiling before bleeding off the lifting helium and descending back to ground level. According to Mr. Kenyon, the cloud formation symbolizes inflation of the U.S. housing market into an eventual bubble, and the home ownership aspirations that inflated and deflated with it. A nearby monitor shows a slideshow of perfect suburban homes either inhabited or under construction, which underscores the meaning of these clouds.
Puddle bravely and rightfully takes a swipe at U.S. dependency on oil. A puddle of viscous, glossy black motor oil embedded flush with MOCAD’s floor lies waiting for passersby to gaze at. As one watches, text that spells out the names of popular gas guzzling sport utility vehicles magically drifts to the surface of the oil highlighted with a glowing red halo, and then sinks back down. This reminds one of the La Brea tar pit, with eons worth of extinct fauna immersed therein and occasionally floating to the surface in moments of revelation. Is that the fate of these vehicles, their owners, all of us if we persist with current practices?
Supermajor (2013), another commentary by Mr. Kenyon on oil, presents a neat rack of old-style oil cans like those once found at service stations. Various oil company logos are emblazoned on these cans, and from a puncture hole in one a broken stream of oil spurts provocatively, pisses really, onto the surrounding platform. An LED fixture mounted to the ceiling flickers at such a rate as to freeze the motion of the oil spurts so they appear to hang in midair and form a slow moving, honey-colored chain down into the spill below. The effect of this is weird, and certainly grabbed a lot of attention at the opening. In fact, all of Mr. Kenyon’s works were big crowd pleasers. They are wondrous and mystifying, and children seemed to circle them like enchanted fairies. Many strangers gathered around Mr. Kenyon’s works and cheerfully speculated with one another as to how the hell these things function. The design and execution of Mr. Kenyon’s art stuns the viewer with its apparent perfection.
However, the conceit embodied by Mr. Kenyon’s work feels a little less tightly bound than those of Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Khan to the stated theme of the show, which,
…aims to consider (and reconsider) the concept of “domesticity”. Ubiquitous elements of the home — for instance, a table and chairs, a houseplant or a simple beam — are altered or subverted by complex ideas about faith, the current mortgage crisis, globalization and even classic American representations of family fun. The sculptural works featured are both serious and playful. They engage through movement, flashing lights and the spectacular, but ultimately lead us to question our existing biases and assumptions about what the idea of “home” really means.
Yet all of the works in this show demonstrate astonishing technical prowess combined with artistic sensibilities that compel visitors to contemplate their own existential assumptions and the not always well-grounded faith that consumerist society demands of us. Mike Kelley, whose spirit inhabits the other half of the museum, likely would have found this show amusing and thought provoking, and replete with sufficient negative esthetic to shatter whatever shallow complacency visitors might bring with them. One does leave this show awed, and a little bit chastened, as one should after a visit to a well-curated (Gregory Tom) art exhibit.
(in)Habitation runs through 28-July-2013.