by Jim Welke
Invited to participate in Detroit Design Festival 2015 (September 22-26, 2015), Detroit artist Cristin Richard presented her one night installation, Metabolism, in the c.1927 Detroit Savings Bank building at 5001 Grand River (near Warren; formerly occupied by Kunsthalle). In addition, she collaborated with Simone Else to create delicate bondage implements overlaid with intestines shown in the bank vault. (More about that follows.)
Metabolism comprised the main attraction for this ambitious, moody, soulful, one-night show. The installation consisted of a video projected large–twelve feet or so high–on the rear wall of the bank building main floor. As you entered the darkened room, illuminated only by the projected imagery of the video, you found yourself confronted by a languid, nubile siren (Emilee Burnadette Austin) tearing diaphanous bits of yellow, green, and ochre colored pig intestine from her otherwise nude body. In accompaniment you heard an eerie, raspy soundtrack by Detroit musician/composer Nate Czarling (info on him here & here) that emits scratched phonograph record sounds mixed with a repeating strings riff, alongside a Morse-code-like percussion on a cowbell-ish device.
Metabolism (intro) by TT Moross
The repetition, phonograph-record-skip-like, over and over, hypnotizes the listener, draws them into a receptive, passive, yet enervated state while the girl on the screen peels off the detritus of civilization–her clothing–clothing shattered, extraneous and superfluous. Ms. Richard constructed that clothing, as translucent and feathery as bits of sloughed sunburned skin, from the flotsam of mass-slaughter in our invisible industrial abattoirs. But you might not know this yet–that the enigmatic being on the screen peels off bits of animal offal–as you observe, transfixed, submerged in the cabin pressure of Mr. Czarling’s audio ecosystem. You watch: peel-peel-peel. You hear: skip-skip-skip. And then your eyes adjust to your tenebrous surroundings, someone else occupies the room: a girl, youthful, and naked but for wisps of that translucent intestinal fabric settled on the landscape of her lithe body, dead and laid out in a coffin. At least, she’s dead to you. You feel disoriented, in another country, a strange land with strange customs.
Richard, on her website, describes her work this way:
…It transforms and regenerates in poetic and unpredictable ways. In the majority of her work, she reconstructs animal intestines into tangible objects. Playing on the ambiguity, created by the presence of this material, she develops metaphors loaded with complexities.
…With the idea of fashion as sculpture, Cristin Richard blurs the line between fine art and fashion. She believes that fashion allows one to create a second skin. It provides an escape that is rooted in the truth to one’s own identity.
Yoko Ono expressed thoughts on feminism, fashion, and subjugation of women when she created her performance “Cut Piece” in 1964 (excerpt here). While distinctly different in form and intent–Ono performed the piece, with audience participation–Richard’s work does follow from it in the sense that it puts the female form on a stage, not for entertainment as we have done at the expense of women for centuries, but more so as trial evidence. And then Richard brings in the added dilemma of our obsession in Western Civilization with mass-marketed, mechanistic consumerism, in this case our often callous consumption of animals bred, raised, and killed solely for us to devour in a frenzy of overfed fast-food surfeit. Cristin Richard, in “Metabolism” seems to ask that we run the film of our existence in reverse; in fact, that we imagine a reversion to a more primal past when clothing served more for protection against cold and predators. The animals we pursued then sometimes pursued us. And consumed us. Animals provoked us to respect them as physical and intellectual forces. Most pre-historic and modern aboriginal cultures harbor reverence for animals they hunt. They recognize in them spirits to honor. And they squander very little of the animals they fell. They never take them for granted, and they never hunt beyond the needs of subsistence. To do so would imperil the existence of both them and their prey.
But we, in our mechanized, me-first civilization stray from our ancestral roots. We treat animals as lifeless commodities and rather than public reverence we hide away from view the animals we kill in “meat processing plants.” We deny these living, breathing beings the honor they deserve while we dump their flesh wrapped in plastic in supermarket refrigerator bins or Styrofoam take-away packages.
Richard seems to want to slap us upside the head for our arrogance and hubris; to remind us that we share much in common with the animals we consume, that we consume too much, and that we need to peel away, layer by layer, the excesses of our culture. One solution is to regress like Ms. Austin in the video toward innocent disavowal of unneeded attire, toward a less self-absorbed, self-conscious perspective. But between the observer and the projected video, that enigmatic corpse lies in state. Is the video projected here like those melancholy videos created by suicide bombers prior to self-destruction?
Is the girl in the casket the girl in the video? Did she shed her corporeal connection to civilization at the expense of her life? Is Richard telling us that our modern, cultivated entanglements–our overly elaborate food, clothing, shelter, and transportation–imperil us even if we back away from them? Have our material entanglements embedded themselves in our psyches so deeply that to eschew them is the equivalent of suicide? Is it really impossible to get back to the Garden and a place of simplicity and authenticity?
That, at least, is what this writer saw projected on the screen and lying in the casket in that old bank building. Once you removed yourself from the enveloping video with funeral casket and soundscape that Richard and Czarling parachute you into, you moved into a room that housed the Detroit Savings Bank vault. This room presented a soundtrack different from the track in the lobby: Metabolism II. (VAULT) by TT Moross
Arrayed on two tables in this unventilated crypt-like room Richard and fellow artist Simone Else present their collaborative effort: a collection of everyday, and not so everyday objects, that when observed collectively suggest sexual bondage, or at least sex with a spicy flavor. But these objects take on a more complex meaning, here in this savings bank vault. (Savings bank vault, epicenter of white bread American delusions of permanent security!) What might otherwise offhandedly be construed as sex toys, here appear wrapped ever so delicately, precisely, and carefully in a patina of that same animal intestine that decorates the dead and living women in the grand but decrepit bank lobby. Again, you may not know at first that what decorates, surrounds, and subsumes these objects is in fact that same pellucid membrane adorning those women in the funereal lobby. But you read the text that accompanies the show, and you learn and consider this.
Else and Richard might suggest with their work here that those things we consume, those beings that we presume to dominate, in fact dominate us. That we become embedded in our excesses, and by allowing that to happen, we allow ourselves to be altered, controlled by our appetites that ultimately circle back and consume us, like the self-consuming snake, or ouroboros, of which Carl Jung suggests:
This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.
The self-consuming snake implies renewal, or a nagging desire for it; but a renewal preceded by self-destruction. So following this paradigm, we have a future: a future that does not include us.
Overall, the narrative of Richard’s “Metabolism”–lobby and vault–might be a cautionary tale, a looking outward by this artist who seems to see peril on the horizon of our human political and cultural landscape. Like most hegemonic civilizations, our global, interconnected, technology-empowered, overfed society, with so many pushed to the margins by relentless poverty, will likely founder as our Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, Chinese, Greek and Roman predecessors did.
At a more basic level, as most top of the food chain mammals go, one million years seems to be about the limit before extinction unceremoniously knocks them from the tree of life. We humans, at least as a genus, are these days at about 2.5 million years–a bit past our prime. Then again, humans anatomically and behaviorally identical to us have been around for only about 200,000 years. So statistically, we may have a while to go. Still, there’s nothing to say we moderns don’t break out of the rut of tradition and statistics and extinct ourselves much sooner than our mammalian brethren.
So, if you cast your interpretive net wide, as this writer does, you see that the work shown in the old Detroit Savings Bank by Ms. Richard and her able collaborators, Else, Czarling, and Austin, takes on, if not kicks out, the very underpinnings of modern consumerist society. For that, the artist deserves an extra accolade: she looks inward first, but then outward at the cultural milieu that created her. Rather than being self-absorbed, she presents socially aware work. She offers an indictment of us all for blithely perpetuating the self-destructive world we live in. A slick attorney could submit numerous defenses to this indictment–it’s not a conviction after all–but Ms. Richard demands reflection followed by answers from all of us. And that takes courage on both a personal and professional level.
We might slip through on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, but unless greater society pays more attention to the evidence that such insightful artists and scientists present, and then change our self-destructive ways, the art and science may survive, locked away in vaults, but we humans will not.
Metabolism: Cristin Richard, Detroit Design Festival, 25-Sep-2015
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