We visit and reflect on the after-hours final viewing of two exhibits at SculptureCenter in Long Island City.
Let’s face it: systems are hot right now. They’re definitely chicer than ‘responsiveness’ and ‘reaction’ that was dominating curatorial interests a year ago. Indeed, systems are everywhere, and SculptureCenter celebrated the closing of two ambitious exhibitions that considered systems in two vastly different settings. First up was actually maintained in SculptureCenter’s dynamic lower level, a show that cheered for the unassuming and curious elements of life and how they make their rounds as components of systems. There are problems with systems: those that aren’t maintained tend to, in brief, break down. United States President Donald Trump is trying it, predicting that the elaborate healthcare system in place will “explode”. Nice idea, but not guaranteed. Of course, it’s unlikely that a relic of a healthcare system will turn up a hundred years from now, but the evidence of healthcare will remain. So systems are made up of things, and Material Deviance keeps this in mind. Material Deviance is also dependent upon the ideas that replication occurs regularly, but irregularities and changes can take place physically. Somehow, this parlays into a conversation (mind you, a conversation no one was having) about systems of power, regulation, and control. Advancing this far seems unwise – the meaning of certain systems usually isn’t more than what it was designed to do. No matter, these works exist to expose the problems with systems, and the unique space for innovation that develops.
The story really isn’t finished. Works by Olivia Booth and Kim Brandt, Jesse Harrod, and others work to rearrange narratives, alter properties, leave traces of actions and more. It takes a certain mind to extrapolate Barb Smith’s pressed memory foam mattresses as a statement on systems. Her work is hardly groundbreaking: it’s an exploration of polyurethane’s capacities to erase imprints of the body and retain something the polyurethane wasn’t designed to retain to begin with (the artist using a mattress as medium, essentially). Smith’s approach is subversive, sure, but it’s also not revealing anything interesting. It’s like microwaving plastic and regarding that as an innovation in plastic or revealing a “problem” with plastic. Smith’s sidestepping aside, the more exciting aspect is the repurposing of the mattress, period. The appeal is more spacious and at first glance, the form is alien and seeks avoidance, despite being a surface that is at the center of a billion dollar industry.
The other exhibit that closed dealt with the system of production. According to SculptureCenter, “Creating sculptures with cacao as a primary material, the artists that comprise The Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) are plantation workers who harvest raw material for international companies. In the Congo, as elsewhere, plantation workers are grossly underpaid for their contribution to global industry, whether to the $100 billion chocolate industry or to the production of palm oil, broadly used in common household products.”
Many of the sculptures created by CATPC members are future, present, and ancestral self-representations, and take up symbolic figures such as the art collector. First molded from clay, then 3D printed and cast in chocolate, the sculptures are made in collaborative settings and the materials used refer back to and overwrite the exploitative economics of global trade.
Activating artistic interests in the context of plantations and industry is an effort to restore innovation and hobby to a working class of people. To regard this as an “extraction” of culture is a challenging way to phrase it, as it suggests that the means were not there to begin with. Not so: the human ingenuity required has always been present and fizzling at the surface, the missing ingredient is little more than a desire to execute it. The intersection of work and expertise can lead to new forms but done in a manner that is timely and crafted with a deft hand. Not to underestimate the creativity, if an extraction is taking place, it is getting idea from mind to physicality.
This is a moment for real systematic reflection – from legacy to future, an opportunity to allow art to be introduced as part of a system, rather than the cannibalization or total destruction of another.
In collaboration with their sister organization the Institute for Human Activities (IHA), founded by Dutch artist Renzo Martensand active in Congo since 2012, CATPC is currently building the Lusanga International Research Center for Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI) on a former Unilever plantation in a remote rainforest. The Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) is an expanding art collective co-founded in 2014 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Plantation workers Djonga Bismar, Matthieu Kilapi Kasiama, Cedrick Tamasala, Mbuku Kimpala, Mananga Kibuila, Jérémie Mabiala, Emery Mohamba, and Thomas Leba, ecologist René Ngongo, and the Kinshasa-based artists Michel Ekeba, Eléonore Hellio, and Mega Mingiedi are its leading personalities.
The next exhibition at SculptureCenter will feature Charlotte Prodger’s new video work, BRIDGIT (2016), shot entirely on her iPhone which she approaches as a prosthesis – almost an extension of the nervous system, among others, opening May 1, 2017.