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In Defense of Wasting Time: Rethinking the Quotidian

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By Donald Johnson Montenegro

How might the usual become unusual—how might the everyday become the every other day? Each of the eleven artists included in this show engage with this question. They emphasize the ever-present but latent strangeness of the everyday materials and concepts with which they work, making the common uncommon through a subtle but potent subversion. The “every other day” suggests an ongoing interruption of the everyday, a tactic that strives not for an isolated moment of shock but rather for a continual confrontation. It endeavors to weave its disruption into the fabric of the familiar, to create a continual hiccup in ordinary time. Much in the way that Minimalism compelled the viewer into a phenomenological interaction with the work, or that Pop enticed the viewer to turn a critical eye on mass culture, the work of these young artists draws the viewer to reconsider the possibilities of the ordinary.

In his seminal book The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau notes that modern individuals “make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules.”[1] It is these tactics of altering quotidian procedures and objects—poaching, remixing, and producing alternatives to the scriptedness of the everyday—that these artists employ. They demonstrate that the potentiality for new ways of being and experiencing exist always already before us in the tools we have at hand. What results is an aesthetics that advocates a politics of radical inventiveness, rather than a blind call for revolution.

 

Zak Kitnick, Zuhandenheit, 2008, four industrial shelving units. (Photo credit Andres Ramirez, courtesy Johan Berggren Gallery)

 

 

In Zuhandenheit, Zack Kitnick assembles and manipulates four DIY shelving units, bringing them together into a single structure. The materials and instructions provided by the manufacturers of each shelf are thus subverted, used merely as a jumping-off point from which the consumer-assembler creates an object other than that originally intended. The title of the work references Heidegger’s conception of our everyday, utilitarian attitude toward objects: our immediate understanding of a tool is most often tied to its use, rather than its physical attributes divorced from function. For Heidegger, this Zuhandenheit or handiness differs from what he terms Vorhandenheit or presence-at-hand , in that the latter theorizes the possibilities of an object solely based on its physical attributes.[2] By titling his piece Zuhandenheit, Kitnick asks us to consider an object in terms of its usefulness, though he has made its original use impossible. Furthermore, by destroying the object’s original proscribed usefulness he points to a more politically charged “usefulness”—that is, usefulness as a form to be manipulated and reconfigured. Companies like IKEA, which produce shelving like that used to create this piece, lower production and sales costs and increase revenue by placing the task of the product’s assemblage together in the hands of the buyer. At the same time, this displacement of work from manufacturer to consumer is used to market the product by appealing to the creative aspirations of the buyer: you become the creator of your own piece of modernist design. Kitnick’s alteration recalls de Certeau’s example of everyday creative practices through “the tactics of the art of cooking, which simultaneously organizes a network of relations, poetic ways of ‘making do’ (bricolage), and a re-use of marketing structures.”[3] The end result of Kitnick’s reorganization mimics the basic format of a shelving unit but renders it practically unusable. Its form, with its interlocking perpendicular horizontals and verticals, also recalls the grid. The grid proscribes certain rules, much in the way that the strictures of everyday life do. Still, it offers infinite possibilities for those willing to depart from predictable linear equations of habit.

Ernesto Burgos, Untitled (Hand), 2009, archival inkjet print. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

 

Ernesto Burgos’s Untitled (Hand) shows an enigmatic image of an extended hand, palm down, hovering above a glass that contains only ice. The source of the image is a found advertisement for a brand of liquor, from which the artist has removed the logo and copy: subtracting in order to heighten its mysterious allure. Divorced from its promotional context the hand seems to be stretched out in a way a clergyperson might lay a reassuring hand on a devotee’s head, or that a magician might dramatically hold above an object he intends soon to make disappear. How are our gestures read and how do we read those of others? Burgos explores the problems that arise when we try to interpret the signs and symbols that surround us. While simultaneously addressing the co-option of the everyday stimuli with which we are bombarded and persuaded to consume, this piece reminds the viewer of the possibility to create one’s own meaning from the problems of everyday semiosis, to ask questions rather than accept direction.

Michael DeLucia, Steps, hand railings. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

Michael DeLucia, The Field, 2010, polystyrene. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

 

Michael DeLucia, Interruption, 2010, polystyrene. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

Dealing with a similar reconfiguration of the everyday, in which the strategies of the mundane are transformed to reveal their latent creative possibilities, is Michael DeLucia’s Steps, a series of seven parallel ascending stoop handrails anchored to the gallery floor. Repetition is the logic of the everyday: an object’s ubiquity renders it ordinary and recognizable within an economy of mass production. In DeLucia’s piece, however, the very repetition that would regularly support its normalcy actually works to produce the opposite effect. In comparison to the violent juxtapositions and recontextualizations of Dada and Surrealism, this piece, like many in the exhibition, works on a subtler level of auto-critique. The characteristics of these everyday objects are doubled back on themselves in a kind of positive feedback loop until they write their own deconstruction.[4] This sort of autoimmune breakdown, which ultimately renders an object odd with the very vocabulary of the status quo speaks to the irony implicit in this show’s title. By slightly altering the everyday, we have the possibility of rerouting its flow, using its own language to challenge it. Taken literally, that which occurs every day is, after all, also an endless repetition. This inversion of logic is at play in DeLucia’s laser-cut polystyrene sculptures The Field and Interruption as well. Here an ordinary packaging material, used to protect fragile materials, is used to create stunning fragile sculpture. The potential to create something new from the overlooked reiterates the paradigm of rethinking the everyday.

Zak Kitnick, The Person Behind Our Product (Gray, Union), 2010, MDF, die-cut steel and paint. (Photo credit Andres Ramirez, courtesy Johan Berggren Gallery)

 

Kitnick’s three grey wall-mounted boxes, The Person Behind Our Product (Grey Lino), (Grey, Union) and (Grey, Clover) contribute to this dialogue. Each of these pieces features a distinctly patterned section of grating used to conceal heating units, a material designed specifically to be overlooked. The three works are painted industrial grey, as if to reinforce the nondescript nature that supposedly characterizes the featured material. What the viewer immediately notices, however, are the differences in patterns, the elegant geometric drawings they create. Inside each of Kitnick’s boxes, visible through the grid, is a crumpled or collapsed piece of one of the other two radiator panel designs, the pattern of which becomes nearly illegible when visually filtered through the exterior grating. Instead of innocuously camouflaging a heating element, each of these grey patterns obscures the pattern of the panel fragment trapped behind it. Who are these people behind our products to whom Kitnick’s titles refer? We can never know. The large and complex system through which the products we consume are manufactured, transported, marketed, and sold keep us separate, strangers who fail even to consider each other’s existence. In broader terms, the work makes us consider what might be hidden from us in daily life, by whom or what, and to what end. What might we be missing and how might we access it? What possibilities exist if we decide to focus on the overlooked, if we use the very filters of everyday obscurity as lenses for a different kind of sight?

 

Charles Harlan, Lattice, 2010, wood. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Charles Harlan, Fence, 2010, chain link fence, vinyl slats. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Borders and hiding also come into play in Charles Harlan’s Lattice, a piece of wooden grating of the kind that might be used to support an ivy barrier wall between neighbors, and Fence, a length of chain link fence lined with vinyl “privacy inserts.” Kept from achieving their utilitarian destinies, these objects assume a novel weirdness. Unlike their functioning counterparts, Lattice and Fence do not safeguard the day-to-day reality of individuals inhabiting space on either side of them; they are ineffective against the walls and floors on which they hang and lay. Their purpose negated by the concrete boundaries immediately behind them, they no longer keep out otherness but become other themselves.

 

Charles Harlan, Plywood, 2010, ¾ inch plywood, sawhorse clamps, 2x4s. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Ian Pedigo, Further From the Nondescript Field, 2010, frame, ceiling tile, edition of 3. (Image courtesy of the artist)

In Plywood, Harlan erects a found piece of plywood using two sawhorse clamps in a simple gesture that draws the viewer’s attention to the materiality of the work, the flow of the wood’s grain and the oval patches used to cover imperfections.  Viewed from the side, the viewer can appreciate the bowing of the board, a sly nod to the clean and dynamic curvature of Brancusi’s iconic 1923 sculpture Bird in Space. In a similar tongue-in-cheek allusion to the history of abstraction, Ian Pedigo’s Further From the Nondescript Field, made from two pieces of ceiling tiles, flipped to expose the back of the material, references the marks of abstract painting.   Instead of expressive man-made gestures applied with paint, the markings on the backs of the tiles are a side effect of their manufacturing. Apart from simply injecting art historical references with a bit of humor, these pieces challenge the viewer to bring the kind of viewing we afford traditional art objects, the way we read a painting or a sculpture, to the objects we encounter in the world at large. They continue a dialogue about the everyday that has long been a preoccupation of artists since Gustav Courbet. In a moment of global economic woes, Pedigo’s choice to valorize the commonplace or poor materials of the everyday is especially poignant—a rough aesthetic for rough times.

 

 

Andrés Ferrandis, Dust, Rocks and Meteorites, 2010, installation, mixed media. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

In The Practice of Everyday Life de Certeau stresses the potential for creativity in the everyday. This is precisely what Andrés Ferrandis addresses in his installation Dust, Rocks, and Meteorites, a selection of a larger work composed of 365 items collected by the artist over time. This particular grouping includes items such as a chair, doodles, a churchkey, a pencil and sharpener, and found photographs. The total number of objects in the complete piece is intentionally the same as the number of days in a year. The work draws our attention to that which gets us from one day to the next, what provides room for play and discovery. Each day brings creative possibility, the chance to alter our practices by looking beneath the surface. As Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem remarks, “Nobody, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion from lies and constraints. If ever-social organization extends its control to this stronghold of humanity, its domination will no longer be exercised over anything save robots, or corpses. And, in a sense, this is why consciousness of creative energy increases, paradoxically enough, as a function of consumer society’s efforts to co-opt it.”[5]

 

Beth Campbell, Elsewhere, 2009, mixed media (Fiber board, paint, rubber, hardware). (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

 

 

Architectural space becomes altered in the work of Heather Rowe and Beth Campbell. In Campbell’s installation composed of hinged panels, Elsewhere, the viewer is drawn into a phenomenological encounter with the work, requiring him or her to experience it peripatetically—a kind of engagement that preoccupied minimalist sculptors. The slight alteration of hues in which the panels are painted variously exaggerate or contradict the natural shadowing of the work. The framed oval voids cut out of the panels at eye level create sightlines that seem more like reflections. The effect created by these porthole-cum-mirrors and the incongruent shadings as they play tricks on the viewer’s eyes is not that of a funhouse novelty or  narcissistic curiosity. Rather, the work plays with our sense of perception in order to propose a new sense of space. The work’s title guides us in this regard—Elsewhere—as if it were possible to transport oneself to another place through the mere subtle alteration of standards.

In Tenuous Arrangements (3 Women) Heather Rowe breaks up everyday domestic space, interrupting its standard perimeters by contracting and dividing it. Between the three plywood enclosures are sections of curtains, carpeting, wallpaper, and other everyday home materials. While mirrors are merely alluded to in Campbell’s piece, here thin strips of the material, inserted in the large metal frames that jut out, are physically present though included to a similar end: to challenge the viewer’s perception of the work’s form. Rowe’s work is often spoken about in relation to post-minimalist artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s slices into actual architectural structures. An important distinction is that Rowe’s work does not use pre-existing architecture as its raw material. Her spaces are imagined. Instead of splitting open domestic space to create new sightlines and connections, Rowe rearranges the domestic into her structure in order to point to the potential for altering the framework of the familiar.

 

Tim Hyde, Untitled (Monument) MV03, 2008, photo collage on board. (Image courtesy of the artist and Meulensteen Gallery)

Tim Hyde’s ongoing series of photo collages Untitled (Monument), eleven of which are included in The Every Other Day, work with a similar reconfiguration of space. To produce these works, Hyde cuts and reassembles photographs he has taken of a friend holding a single 4’ x 8’ board of insulation foam in different positions. The collages are put together through a process of mixing and matching fragments from distinct photographs in such a way that the single board transforms into different permutations of large geometric sculpture. What gives these collages their allure is their hybrid quality, appearing simultaneously real and unreal. Though the collages are assembled by hand, Hyde’s reconstructions look like the product of  CGI manipulation. But all of the shapes we see, all the contours and shadings, actually existed in some form in real space. It is in their reconfiguration that they transform into seemingly impossible geometries. In this way Hyde reconfigures the everyday à la de Certeau, through a careful recombination of preexisting elements that exceeds the logic of those real parts. The photographs are taken in the most dreary and mundane of quotidian spaces: the dejected landscape of a wintry parking lot.  To slice up this particular space and produce alternatives to its very banality with those shards communicates poetically how the everyday might shift toward the every other day. From collage to collage the setting or ground of the image (the parking lot, trees, and horizon) remains static while the board of foam transforms through a rearranging of space and time. If we consider the constant of the setting in these images as representative of socio-political reality, then the individual’s holding up of the board in a certain way intervenes in that reality in a subtle but nonetheless powerful way. Hyde’s work then functions as a metaphor for the way that such subtle interventions into the everyday can function, how they take on political currency. [6]

 

 

Jonah Groeneboer, Untitled (stalactites/stalagmites), 2010, collage on paper. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Artspace)

 

Jonah Groeneboer, Untitled (the instant, rarity and coincidence), 2010, collage on paper. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Artspace)

Ian Pedigo, (installation view, from left to right) Forward Dissolve, 2010; Direction Inward is the Direction Outward, 2010; and Lower on Lower Horizon, 2010, framed archival inkjet prints. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

 

 

Jonah Groeneboer and Ian Pedigo both use images of nature in their work. Groeneboer’s Untitled (stalactites/stalagmites) and Untitled (the instant, rarity and coincidence), are collages on paper made with images of nature and weather, and Pedigo’s Lower on Lower Horizon, Direction Inward is the Direction Outward, and Forward Dissolve, are archival inkjet prints of landscapes, each divided into four frames. Through the opposite gestures of collage and partition familiar depictions associated with the beauty, power, or tranquility of nature are repositioned in such a way as to question our standard response to them.

 

Ian Pedigo, At Least One Person Was Killed, 2009, conduit, copper pipe, spray paint, carpet, stones. (Image courtesy of the artist)

 

 

Interesting similarities between the works of these two artists also exist between their sculptural contributions to the show. Jonah Groeneboer’s The Presence of Certain Invisibilities: Some known, Some Unknown (with additional prism) uses perhaps the most commonplace, though intangible, of materials—light, refracted and separated into its component colors through prisms and mirrors, to create a ephemeral geometric drawing. Ian Pedigo’s At Least One Person Was Killed also makes use of a natural material, this time stones, placed enigmatically at different points on top of a piece of carpet.  Most of these sit at the end of a diagonal incision made in the fabric, as if they have come to rest where they are, having marked their trajectory. Flanking one of the borders of the carpet is a metal railing of sorts. The piece seems decidedly elusive, its title equally puzzling. Consider, however, how the titles of both Groenboer’s and Pedigo’s pieces function. In Groeneboer’s case the language is unusually vague, with its lack of clarity as to what is being addressed. What, exactly, is known and what is unknown? The only answer Groeneboer’s title provides to this question is “certain invisibilities.” In a similar vein, when speaking about the Iraq War in 2003 then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, “there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”[7] Evasive and nebulous as Rumsfeld’s remark may seem at first, it rather astutely points out the most perilous aspect of warfare (and through acts of terrorism, of everyday life): those threats whose possibility cannot be conceived. The anxiety and fear that result from these “unknown unknowns” are alluded to, tongue-in-cheek, in the title of Groenboer’s work. At the same time the daily news unveils one new threat after another and in doing so both exploits our fear and works to condition us to trauma, making us apathetic toward the pain of others. The title of Ian Pedigo’s work addresses this phenomenon satirically: at least one person was killed.

 

Carol Bove, Women, Walnut, Alligator, Mustache, 2010, brass, driftwood, silver chain, steel, peacock feather, book page. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

Cast-off materials are repurposed, questioned, and ennobled in the work of Carol Bove. In Women, Walnut, Alligator, Mustache a piece of driftwood, a page from an old publication, a feather, and what appears at first to be simple netting are laid out on a long white plank. Considered at first glance the items might come across as detritus, or as tastefully arranged knick-knacks.  In each item, however, a surprising visual pun is at play: consider the netting, which turns out to be made out of delicate silver chain, or the page removed from a book which rests ever-so-gently on a simple wire stand, mimicking the delicate hovering stance of the butterfly whose image is printed onto the paper’s surface. Because the pedestal is low and the objects on it are close to the ground the viewer is forced to bend his or her body in order to see the work. One must engage with the work on its terms and as a result one examines the craftsmanship of the chain, the oddness of the feather’s pattern, the weathered pattern of the driftwood. The piece comments on the human desire to display, questioning not only what our culture has chosen to elevate through this process, but also asking what results when we consider the everyday with the same criteria.

 

Ernesto Burgos, Untitled, 2009, wood, cardboard, spray paint, glue. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

Ernesto Burgos, Untitled, 2008 (installation view), MDF, wooden table, and paint. (Image courtesy of Ideobox Art Space)

 

 

In his 2009 Untitled sculpture Ernesto Burgos uses worn and discarded wooden furniture elements as a base from which he adds jagged petrol-black protrusions, making it appear as if the discarded furniture has grown an aggressive geometric tumor. Unlike in Bove’s work, where the fragile and delicate beckon the viewer to examine the nature and possibilities of the materials, here the everyday materials assert a claim for space. The viewer is not asked to reflect on the weathered patina of the wood; sentimentality is eschewed and instead, up out of the history of the object, the work grows in a kind of furious angular contortion. In his 2010 Untitled sculpture, a large distorted-checkered hexahedron sits atop a decorative wooden table.  The juxtaposition is agonistic: the geometric form overwhelms the rather heavy and staid furniture, whose very common scale is rendered diminutive.  Lest we romanticize the possibility of altering the everyday, Burgos reminds us that at times forceful confrontation with the everyday is necessary in order to break its rhythm.

By way of conclusion I would like to draw attention back to de Certeau.   Central to his argument in The Practice of Everyday Life is his idea of la perruque (the wig), which he defines as “the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer.”[8] The author cites two simple examples: a secretary writing a love letter on company time or a worker borrowing a tool at his factory to make something for himself. “Accused of stealing or turning material to his own ends and using the machines for is own profit,” de Certeau continues, “the worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods, since he uses only scraps) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit.”[9] It is through the wasting of time then, that la perruque creates an alternative productivity. With the aid of this disguise, the individual “succeeds in ‘putting one over’ on the established order on its home grounds.”[10] Is this not what the artists included in The Every Other Day achieve through their wastingthat is, their “useless” mining and questioningof the everyday? They insist that we look at the overlooked; they focus on the mundane and mine it for creative potential and through their work they challenge the everyday with the very tools of the everyday. If we were to follow their example, search for alternatives where they seem unnecessary and seek strangeness in what has become most familiar, what might we achieve? If we can reroute the everyday through our individual and subtle interventions might we then be able collectively to pave the way for new socio-political spaces? Let us waste time and see.

 


[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xiv.

[2] See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

[3] Ibid, xv.

[4] I would like to thank my colleague and collaborator A.E. Benenson for bringing this to my attention.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life: The Reversal of Perspective, Chapter 20 “Creativity, Spontaneity, and Poetry” (1967).

[6] Again, I would like to thank A.E. Benenson for his insights on this section.

[7] See Slavoj Žižek, “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib” In These Times (June 21, 2004): 32.

[8] de Certeau, 25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 26.

Written by johnsonmontenegro

November 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized