LIVING CONTENT X MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2020
Interview with Michael Jones McKean for issue # 36 of Living Content conducted by Brian Paul
BRIAN PAUL: Your past projects have been shown in galleries and museums, but you’ve also created larger public works. Your piece, certain principles of light and shapes between forms (in which the natural phenomenon of the rainbow is approached as an object out-of-time, or which relates to time on its own terms) is an excellent example of many of the ideas appearing throughout your work. Can you describe the process of creating this work?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: The entire process from conception to completion for certain principles of light took about ten years, but was born out of simple questions: how might one make artwork for a “public”, and not Public Art? What might Civic Sculpture look like? Is there a class of object that can elude time? Could an object create other ways to be useful, not by scaling upwards, but outwards, laterally. Questions like these helped build a formal scaffolding that eventually congealed into the artwork. The primary form—a real prismatic rainbow—is a shared, psychedelic, time-traveling object. When we’re with a rainbow, we’re communing with an identical form our ancestors wondered about, the same color-shape future-folks will see. It has this incredible fidelity as an object, resisting time, continually recharging itself.
The full arc of this project is actually still very much undefined as it’s grown into a larger, more challenging and cooperative work designed for San Francisco. I’m about 5 years in. In this new work, a prismatic rainbow repeats as the core element, but the project is finding ways to more fully deliver on the promise of usefulness, modeling a water recycling system that will help drive new water policy at the government level in California for years to come. The ways an artwork can put into motion processes that can nourish, and be nourished by deeper engagements with people and systems across scale—micro, mezzo, macro—is more and more exciting to me.
BP: While making this project across ten years, you created many other works for a gallery context. One of your current projects, Twelve Earths, engages with planet Earth itself as a site for a conversation about mysticism, the anthropocene, and future onlookers. Can you talk about the relationship between the projects that may appear as more discrete sculptural objects and the public, civic- or planetary-scale works?
MJM: Regardless of relative size, I think my work addresses the same core ideas again and again. The differences exist in the formal containers. Whether a discrete sculptural object, a civic project, or now as you mention, a planetary work—each establishes a different path and waypoints toward an idea. Those differences underwrite some important details I think are worth exploring. Embracing radical formal difference also allows investigations into a single concept—say, “time”—to become deeper, stranger, more wanton.
Elliptically, your question brings to mind how a sculpture practice has at the surface many available verbs to call on, but it’s the nouns that feel more operative, interesting. “Proximity” is a really good one. Proximity, as in how close, or far apart objects live from each other. Sculptors dial in very specific valent forces to hold objects in relation to each other—together. But to make this point about scale, proximity needs to play with a sister process-based noun: velocity. Working on discrete objects one can just move faster. Time and action collapse together without significant lag. You can push materials around in closer alignment to the speed of thought. “This should go here. No, there.” But as work scales up the misalignment, the asymmetry between thoughts, objects, actions is exaggerated. Working at a table, our bodies can triangulate with tools and materials seamlessly. Working at the scale of a city, or the planet, this arms-length triangulation stalls-out. This asymmetry is by no means proof of failure—the gap can be beautiful, the source of real awe. The familiar temporal dimensions of our flesh-bodies, counterpoised with the alien temporality of a planet-body, can provoke ways of thinking and making I’m just beginning to understand.
BP: Is there an element of mythology that motivates the different ways that your work takes form? Rainbows, as in certain principles…, function as important symbols throughout literature, while the Teignmouth Electron’s origin story carries ideas of human struggle and failure. Can you talk about the ongoing work with the Teignmouth Electron and how you might engage with myth?
MJM: Myth is so important. Diving in, my involvement with the Electron began 15 years ago. Its central story is one that has magnetized many, many artists, thinkers, makers—perhaps because it activates within us a set of archetypal, mythological tropes: the dreamer, a vessel, a voyage, crisis, deep existential questioning followed by discovery, release into afterlife, mystery. I first learned of the Electron through a story I heard about the death of Bas Jan Ader, another artist caught deep within the orbit of the Electron and whose practice was nested in mythological thinking.
I won’t belabor retelling the Electron story, it’s easy enough to find, but still a captivating rabbithole. As I learned more details about the story, the main protagonist to me seemed to be the Teignmouth Electron—the boat itself—rather than the human actor through which stories are usually framed. I imagined that the sum of its architecture: its contours, its volume, shadows, voids, created a set of energies—the specific ontological conditions—for the story to unfold.
Of almost any object I’ve spent time with, the Electron’s intelligence feels unbounded, otherworldly. On the shore with it one night on Cayman Brac, I remember the feeling as it offered up a kind of beautiful, frightening cipher about the nature of matter, bodies, time… At that moment the Electron became more like a teacher, a kind of oracle.
Sorry to linger, but your question, rooted in mythology, also calls to mind that “experience” isn’t what actually happens to us in a realist sense—experience is the distillation of chaotic events packaged into a discreet vessel, a container that can enter our bodies, be stored there and recalled. “Story” acts as this kind of vessel. So, our experiences are the stories synthesized from unmodulated events, doused in our own subjectivity. Through this narrative, they exist as something deeply unreal. But this unreality is crucial because it creates—maybe counterintuitively—the possibility for us to be together. To exist consensually through a set of shared, agreed-upon narratives. If we aggregated personal experience to its limit, we would erase the common-ground where shared mythologies exist. We have co-evolved with myth, continually re-performing these stories, for good and bad, in a feedback loop.
BP: In a talk that you gave at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design titled, “On Objects, Time, and the Fallacy of Scale,” you touched on ways that size might be something that truly describes the universe, but that scale is a human or cognitive “tool.” Can you expand on that?
MJM: My work and thinking are rooted in sculpture and its processes, so the question of scale always feels nearby. If we momentarily relax our judgements about “scale” as it might relate to ego, value, degree of difficulty, and simply imagine it as an available tool that artists have to ask questions—questions that might nudge us to think in different ways—the perceived psychic gap between a “small” thing and a “large” thing dissolves. Objects, no matter how large or small, are full.
In a materialist sense, scale doesn’t exist. Taken to its horizon, a universe without “perceivers’” distances as we understand them should all collapse. The void within an atom will meet the void within a solar system. Scale is only a cognitive device, an important one, for helping to conceptualize space, understand spatial relationships. But it’s not real and might actually hinder us in understanding the deeper machinations around us.
This style of thinking helped me begin imagining the Earth not as something impossibly big, but as a sculptural unit. A body with certain capacities, possibilities, histories, much like other units or forms: a forest, a stone, a table, a song, a pot. As with these forms, in the plasticity of thought, they can be limitless, or limited, but never really fully understood. Something as prosaic as a backyard can, in the kaleidoscope of thought, transform into a site of overwhelming and dreamy complexity. The lawn-object splitting into the clover, buckhorn, crabgrass, chickweed, dandelions, purslane, mosses, fescue. Splitting, cleaving into more and more minute, but still complete realities.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has this operative term—“intimate immensity.” It describes a feeling of enormousness—awe—emerging not from things external to us, but from within ourselves. Intimate immensity is born out of a personal archive of stored impressions. Immensity’s cauldron isn’t the world, but the body itself. We might bear some feeling of immensity gazing at a handwritten note as with staring up at the night sky…
BP: Bachelard’s concept of “intimate immensity” is interesting in its assertion that the personal archive of impressions is what engenders this sense of enormity and awe. Your phrase, “the plasticity of thought,” also feels like a useful one for drawing a connection between this notion of scale and the narratives behind objects. You discuss a kind of techno-animism, and how objects’ relationship to narrative is different in our current moment than ever before. I am reminded of Bruce Sterling’s 2005 book, Shaping Things, which talks about these shifts and speculates about continually increasing intercommunication—between humans and things, as well as object-to-object.
MJM: Totally. An object’s physical volume, its corporeal form, doesn’t correspond with something spectral like its scalability as an entity. Imagine that tracking along with every object, is a kind of portal indexing. An object’s shadow reality: all its compounding histories, their counter histories, cultural references, footnotes. Let’s call this “object metadata.” This is an ever-expanding backchannel tethered to an object that in no way relates to physical size. The full metadata surrounding, say, a pair of Nike Airmax 95’s would be overwhelming: petrol mining data, patents, factory conditions, borrowed nostalgia, global supply chains, ad campaigns, but also its BTU count, VOC off-gassing and much more. Compare a tiny pair of shoes to a truly massive, and hugely important object, that impacts life on the planet, say, the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica and the point is underscored…
Your question about our right-now relationship to objects feels important. New wave animism taps into a deep human longing for mystery in our material world. As our technical understanding of matter extends from the subatomic to the cosmic, as the available information about materials and objects around us grows and grows, we seem to be retreating into zones where we can explore our own subjectivity—customizing more sensual and idiosyncratic relations with matter, not in spite of all we might know, or could know about “things,” but, I think, in parallel to this knowledge.
BP: In our previous conversation, we discussed how different classes of objects have different “time signatures,” which became central in talking about your practice. An iPhone 11 has a very specific signature while a certain style of chair, a Windsor, has a fuzzier relationship with time because it is something that was developed, and which has persisted and been replicated. A meteorite, or meteorites in themselves, have another relation to time. What are some of the other types of time signatures that you have specified and explored?
MJM: Without much effort, we might imagine all objects being time-stamped at the moment of their emergence. Part of this stamp is a unique signature that forecasts how objects will track through time and report back to us. The examples you mentioned are useful and point toward ways we might develop subsets of objects, each behaving differently in relation to time, but when Venned with other objects, might begin to relay interesting stories. For instance, imagine a simple conch shell: a stoic thing moving with slo-mo evolutionary precision. Even as its form appears changeless to us, in a sped-up, parallel, temporal dimension we can see it continually re-optimizing, shifting its form based on habitat, climate, predators, salinity, more. This shell-object could Venn generativity with, as you mention, the evolution of iPhones over the last decade. Dozens of nearly identical machines with slight morphological shifts, together, charting a coherent evolution optimizing performance.
To be clear, this idea of “time signature” doesn’t have to do with biological halflife. It is just an available filter to accelerate thinking about how time imprints itself on matter. Illustratively, we can imagine a field of objects, something every day like a dinner table: vintage ceramic plates, a salmon from Alaskan waters caught days earlier, vegetables bought local but imported from California, rock salt, silverware, grandma’s linen, a Danish modern table, mix-matched Ikea chairs, phones, Chilean wine—the objects forming a composition we called dinner-time, but each object living in a hermetic reality determined by time.
BP: Throughout my reading about your practice, and in reading some of your past interviews, there is an engagement with the thought models of Speculative Realism, New Materialism, and OOO. I’m curious about how you think about the ways that these particular ideas may have been digested by the artworld and in some ways are no longer in the fore in the same way they might have been just a few years ago. Your practice is very connected to some of their discourses, and I’m curious about how you might trace the evolution/direction of these movements. Can you pick up their threads, where they are now?
MJM: Panned way out, the artworld’s interest in ideas is mostly superficial. As much as we all want something better, the artworld behaves more or less as a para-colonial agent. It roams for rogue channels, new feels, metabolizing, moving on, pivoting always towards novelty (or at least the semblance of novelty) as amnesia mostly overrides its logic board. With enough distance, its rhythms can appear almost pre-programmed, acting out some kind of imperialist playbook of “discovery,” colonization, extraction, depletion, collapse.
Maybe it goes without saying, it’s not that materialist philosophies in the form of Speculative Realism or OOO are exhausted; it’s just that support for them as brands within the frame of art are now viewed as unfashionable. Art’s attention span is super short and doesn’t map onto long-form queries. Thankfully, most artists understand this and find ways to get on with work.
There’s always been a small camp of people concerned with deeper, stranger, more speculative relationships with matter and objects as they relate to our built-in anthropocentric bias. And the idea of animism, of course, extends back in time; shamans, witches, alchemists, even catholicism, or racing ahead to the forebears of radical environmentalism, ecofeminist thought, hyperobjects, techno-animism, and Haraway’s investigation into kin. Speculative Realism and its branches use a slightly refurbished lense trained on ideas that are ancient. They will not suddenly disappear, though it might seem that way if we use the artworld as a sole metric…
A very basic tenet of Speculative Realist thought that continues to feel urgent is a deeper, more sensitive commitment to exploring ways of decentering the human experience as Earth’s primary narrative. If we rally around this ethos, the experiment can only strengthen our empathic muscle; building bridges to care about stray, deviant, non-normative, even invisible things. The critique of speculative materialisms is often that deep attention toward the nature of objects somehow must be purchased at the price of people, our humanity. This has never made any sense to me; a crude way of weaponizing a useful tool against itself. And of course, it’s never zero-sum. This path of practiced care is transferable, inevitably tracing a line back to us.
Q + A
ALL THAT LIES OUT OF SIGHT
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: ALL THAT LIES OUT OF SIGHT, 2019
Interview with Michael Jones McKean for Art Papers conducted by David Kim in Fall 2019, where they explore the Twelve Earths project.
DAVID KIM: Michael, it’s such a privilege to speak today. I thought that we might approach the large topic of art and social justice—or art and social efficacy—by discussing Twelve Earths, one of your current projects. Perhaps you could share something of its genesis; I know that it emerges from concerns that you have been exploring for some time.
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: Yes, Twelve Earths is a planetary sculpture [that is] very much still in process. Its essential form is a ring stretching around the circumference of the earth, connecting 12 sites that in aggregate develop a way of thinking about and imagining the planet—its histories, capacities, and ourselves. In a way, the project is set up as a long-form research platform to practice knowing an object—the earth—that will always remain unknowable. Twelve Earths’ DNA emerged out of a project I began in the early 2000s: a conceptual work that set out to locate the longest possible path one could walk to circumnavigate the earth. In both this past work and Twelve Earths, circling becomes a proxy, a verb, to commune with Earth’s gestalt form—a sphere. As I mentioned, we’re deep in process, with sites and site actions being revealed over time until the work is completed in 2029.
DK: It also seems important to highlight that the artwork is centrally interested in exploring a multitude of timescales, among which the unit of a human life is only one.
MJM: Built into the logic of Twelve Earths is an investment in our shared, right-now moment. But as you allude, the project also lives a more speculative, parallel life that flirts with timescales stretching beyond concepts like “you” and “me” altogether. As timescales lengthen and contract, we inevitably enter into stranger, weirder dialogues with things other than human—the mineral, the geologic, the tectonic, the microbial, the subatomic, and more.
Circling back to the form of the work, to communicate deep into time, the sculpture must have some degree of durability to remain coherent as a thing separate from other things in the world. With the right distance, there’s a way to simply understand Twelve Earths as a communication technology, with the communicative possibilities of circle and sphere remaining fairly legible, whether found in geometry, geodesy, or anthropology. When I think of a simple, out-of-time event like gazing toward the horizon—a ritual replayed millions of times a day for millions of years—it’s not so hard to imagine a line bending over the horizon, racing around the planet, returning to where you stand. Along this circumference, improbably, exist 12 significant sites that build a portrait of the planet and its converging timescales: an impact crater, an ancient forest, a nearly submerged island, a massive open pit mine, a nuclear test site, an observatory, fracture zone, and more. Each site is distinct, invisible to each other, yet together a constellation.
DK: Let’s take up the concept of deep time. I wonder about its relationship to politics and activism. For example, many of our ideas and intuitions about justice incline toward the present. We feel it urgent to act to remedy harm, alleviate suffering, and so on. Surely, that will be right in many scenarios. Would you like to suggest that longer time scales are also relevant to how we work on behalf of social justice, however we understand that?
MJM: Yes, that’s right. Taken to extremes, there’s a violence associated with not considering longer durations of time—something like temporal myopia. I don’t at all mean to imply that activists or humanitarians working on present crises are committing latent violence by not being attentive toward longer time horizons—that’s not it. More, it’s our preoccupation with focusing—asymmetrically—our energy toward the near and immediate present, attending to now at the price of more elaborate forecasting and more complex, empathic plans. We don’t really teach time, so of course we’re kind of time illiterate.
DK: Time illiterate. That’s wonderful. Your comments remind me of a Samuel Scheffler work that we’ve discussed, which asks the reader to imagine a near future in which human life and human culture have come to an end. That thought experiment seems pertinent here, and I know that you’ve reflected on this.
MJM: Yes, paraphrasing Scheffler’s core thought experiment just to better recall, [it is] something like: “in the future, knowing that a few weeks after your death in old age, that the world and everything you’ve cared about will end quickly by apocalypse, meteor, something—would knowing of this catastrophe change anything with how you lived your life?” It’s such a powerful question. For many people, I think it underscores how so much of our thinking, even for folks seemingly unoccupied with futurosity, discover that life’s rhythms lean on a shared agreement that a future will be there.
DK: Yes! That’s such a lovely way to put it: rhythms that lean on a shared agreement. I appreciate how Scheffler’s work highlights the great extent to which we find value in activities that are part of long-standing, collective efforts that exceed us. To offer an intuitive example, we might think of scientists pursuing the cure for a rare disease. They recognize that the cure is unlikely to be discovered in their lifetimes, and yet that hardly robs their work of meaning. Or we might think of artists and musicians whose creative practices emerge from lineages of teaching and interpretation. Fundamentally, these activities couldn’t even exist, let alone be valuable—if they weren’t shared with others.
MJM: This idea of values existing within continuums—traditions—is interesting. Of course there’s a way that artworks have played emergent roles in shaping what might be considered normative, traditional even. In this sense, artworks behave a bit like messengers, contouring thoughts, imagination, and over time, in ways largely undetectable, [they] augment the values and dreams for larger collections of people. All this might sound naive, optimistic maybe, but it describes a process of cultural transmission in a pure sense, which of course has social and ethical and political dimensions.
DK: And then, of course, in certain moments, messengers leap forward and arrive to deliver ideas and messages that are vivid to the present ….
MJM: Yes! To me, it’s one of the most powerful sensations—when you’re with a work that somehow, really against all logic, manages to do what you just described. The feeling is so complex: a mixture of strange inevitability—as if the idea was always there—and awe. Obvious in the most profound, undiminishable ways.
DK: I wanted to linger around the idea that values often arise from within traditions of practice. We understand politics as a deeply important activity, but we don’t usually practice politics as our sole end. Instead, we practice politics—we keep practicing politics—in order to secure conditions of freedom and equality in which individuals and communities can choose the forms of life that they deem valuable. For this paradigm even to be coherent, it’s necessary that the world be alive with a rich diversity of goods, values, practices, institutions, attitudes, et cetera. The messengers that you describe, contouring and augmenting, slipping into dreams, are [essential elements] of that richness.
MJM: Yes. While you were speaking I was imagining this diverse ecosystem of highly specialized labor practices: gardeners, teachers, astrophysicists, biologists, mechanics, all collectively—utopically—adding richness, value, and depth to one another. It has me thinking that in spite of this division of labor, even in its highest order where we’ve delegated professionals to focus on the political and ordained folks to draft our laws, it doesn’t absolve us from acting and being political, or finding ways for our work to be more just, ethical, more sensitized, better.
DK: That reminds me: while in law school, shortly after the last presidential election in the United States, I attended a lunch with a small group of students and a guest of honor, an alumna who has had a brilliant career as a journalist and writer. Have I told you this story? I worry about repeating myself and revealing that I have only, really, a handful of ideas.
MJM: Ha! Not at all, this is a totally new one.
DK: Good. Well, many of the students in attendance had themselves worked as writers, journalists, editors, or translators before law school, and some number of them expected to restart that work after graduation. And, as you might imagine, many were concerned and upset by the election results. And so, one student, with a forceful earnestness, asked our guest, “If you were in our position now, what would you do? Perhaps one must become a public interest lawyer now.” She said: “I deeply admire what you do and what you’re training to do. Yes, these skills are critical, and one response is absolutely to become an activist lawyer.” A brief pause. And then she said something that I have carried with me: “You know, another response is to do what you would have done—but better.”
It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever heard said. And complicated, too. The idea that by a commitment to being a better editor or translator, by a commitment to one’s reflective ideals of excellence, one could vindicate a vision of the world in contradiction of the worst parts of a certain politics.
MJM: It is beautiful. The desire to find ways to do better work, to strive toward being excellent to each other, especially in times of crisis and conflict, feels important. It helps underwrite how we might very simply model an ethos of care. One that might be foundational for everyday sorts of living together. I say this, and I also hope to become much better at it, to work harder at this.
Inversely I wonder if this idea resonates so strongly—a desire to work toward being better at something—not in spite of our failed, heartbreaking political moment, but because of it; if this impulse could be rooted in a therapeutic desire to control something, even as everything around us seems to be collapsing. Like, I can focus on this small thing and the larger world goes away. Self-care through escapism.
DK: Yes, that’s a good challenge. Part of the rigor of “doing it better,” I suppose, arises from the impossibility of reaching general rules about when attention to craft lapses into preciousness, or when pursuit of a vision of excellence becomes indefensibly self-indulgent. And hence a duty of deep reflection, I suppose. But how to keep up this interrogation and yet live with conviction? I don’t know. I struggle with this.
MJM: I think I do, too. In some ways, if I let it, I can see the studio as just an elaborate system that grants permission to obsess over many tiny details. This is probably true for many artists, at any moment fighting back personal crises, trying to ward off feelings of self-indulgence while trying to lead productive, creative, and also somehow useful lives…
DK: Ruefully, I suggest that we shift focus for a moment. We should also discuss Twelve Earths in more concrete terms. From the beginning, you have emphasized that the project aspires to a certain ethos of engagement, consultation, and collaboration at its specific sites. Would you elaborate on this?
MJM: I suppose it’s also important to remember the project is large: 12 locations existing simultaneously all around the world. Large, by itself, is totally uninteresting, but here it’s a good reminder that massive distances are not only noetic but [also] real. Size highlights so much of what’s complex about working on Twelve Earths. So, in the process of designing ethical organizational structures that remain sensitized to place, one must also be responsive to the crisscrossing vectors that shape a location’s reality, compounding histories, politics, languages, customs, mixed in parallel with vast expanses of prehuman history. To finish the project, this process of deep learning and engagement will happen 12 very different times. Each site proposes a set of possibilities to work closely with people, [to] build deeper, thoughtful connections to place.
DK: I thought to end by reading a poem together: “Furthermore,” by Christina Davis. I’ve often returned to this poem in the course of working on Twelve Earths, guided mostly by intuition. I’m sure that I’ll learn something in exploring this with you.
[MJM and DK read the poem]
I’m always so moved by this. Where to begin? Michael, you often narrate how an individual might experience a given site. That person stands at a site, turns to orient their body on the great circle, and looks over the horizon. Through that movement, the person also faces, by implication, the other 11 sites. Where once the work seemed big, it feels much smaller: navigable within the geography of the body. And then, I imagine, the work expands again, moving outward at extraordinary speed, as one becomes aware once more of the unknowability of the line and the horizon and all that lies out of sight.
MJM: That is a beautiful thought, thank you. I really love this poem. So few words, yet the work manages to conjure something huge in the mind. The push and pull of the body, its senses, the world-external. Bachelard has this concept I really love: “intimate immensity.” How something small, or the briefest encounter—two objects making beautiful contact—can unleash a fullness of feeling, a sensation of immensity in the mind.
DK: Perhaps I am drawn to Davis’ poem, in part, because it redescribes the immensity of the horizon in ways that, I think, resound in Twelve Earths. The horizon is not only a locus of hope and possibility. It is also a locus of difficulty and uncertainty.
It was something to let him go.
It was a having to believe, furthermore,
in the voyage of the other, a Ulysses
without an Ithaca …
The second line is astonishing. Here is the titular word, “furthermore,” isolated by commas, ending a line that runs well past the [other lines]. We find ourselves alone. And we are exposed there, I think, to an appalling exertion: an impossible attempt to comprehend the absence of a beloved. Perhaps the word “furthermore” propels us beyond some horizon into knowledge and coherence. Or perhaps not. The whole poem is lifting and tilting.
MJM: Yes, all of it. I’m especially drawn [by] how she reaches the end. Mysterious, small nova …
And for comfort, a dwelling before each steps into that weather of which all strangers speak.
DK: In truth, the last stanza is mysterious to me. What is the dwelling? Where is it? At least we know something about the self that has returned. It has been partially undone, evacuated, I think, at the horizon to which “furthermore” propels it. Here: “to have for a body / the going away of the body, to have for eyes / the going away of the eyes.” That horizon, whatever we understand it to be, is strange. It is suffused with love and hope, but also with grief and loss. It is essentially beyond ourselves. Perhaps, when we return, we are chastened somehow, or lent a new modesty, one born of vulnerability, which we might take with us into our political lives.
MJM: Many things come to mind. This last thought, modesty born of vulnerability, is beautiful. Feels right to linger with it.
THE POSSIBLE WORLDS OF BEING-IMAGE, 2019
IRENE SOFIA COMI
Interview to Michael Jones McKean on ATP Diary on July 28, 2019 on the occasion of the exhibition The Raw Morphology at A+B Gallery in Brescia from July 2 to September 28, 2019. The exhibition included works by Davide Bertocchi, Manor Grunewals, and Michael Jones McKean and was curated by Gabriele Tosi.
IRENE SOFIA COMI: Your artworks are used to entangle different languages, times and places. If you should imagine to describe your interests and your research in a few keywords, especially referring to the sculptures displayed in “The Raw Morphology”, which would you choose?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: This is difficult! Let me think… I would say: energy, transmutation, time and magic.
ISC: In a while we’ll go deeply into these categories, but before I’d like to talk about the relation the exhibition created between your artworks and Grunewald’s and Bertocchi’s ones. Keeping your dialogue in mind, how much importance did the display have in the show?
MJM: I suppose the overriding idea of display, even though there might not be large cases or vitrines still feels consistent with earlier exhibitions. The solar panels act as frames for museological-like groupings, very provisional indexes, in this instance simple morphologies; branded snack food, starfish, USBs…
ISC: Absolutely. And I was thinking for example to the interplay with Grunewald’s shelves, comparing it to your habit to create big display/archiving cases…
MJM: There’s a playful quality I like with the way our works co-mingle that nicely undermines some of the cool off-gassing that can come along with minimalist geometries in the grid-work of Manor’s shelves, or the inert logic in my sculptures. The shelves have an important dual life in the exhibition – one as sculpture, but also one just as shelves; so they retain physical and conceptual room for David’s gum-things to rest on or hide beneath, for the gallery didactics to live, or more literally for my work to hang out on. I really like this, but it’s important to say it’s alien to me and how I generally work. Yet in this context with Manor and Davide, and with Gabriel’s hand, I’m happy to be ruffled-up some.
ISC: Following the ideas of index, archive and technical processes I read the works – and especially their silver squared backgrounds – in relation to the idea of the Grid. The “grid” creates “lack of hierarchy, of centre […] emphasizes its referential characters […] will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and result is silence”, Rosalind Krauss would say. Do you see this though in your practice? And how do you connect the “grid” (I mean your personal idea of grid) with the “real” objects on the surface?
MJM: We might say that there are two sides to the grid. One references the world Krauss speaks of — a versatile ordering system that’s also an elegant compositional tool coaxing all modes of disparate forms into union; life’s stray howls into song. The other side acknowledges that even as the grid lacks hierarchical structure, it is laterally oppressive, easily defaulting as a compositional and conceptual crutch. With these caveats in mind, I think the grid operates a bit undercover in this show. The techno-grid of the solar panels rhymes distantly with the muted grid of Manor’s shelves. To use Krauss’ term slightly out of context, these moves feel like a whisper.
ISC: It seems you want to contextualize a sort of universal energy which travels all around the world and connects different times. Especially observing the three wall sculptures what stands out is a sort of static and cold structure but at the same time sensory perception of balances between technology and nature, and in Common there’s a connection between history and present…. Keeping in mind this premise, which role do the solar panels play?
MJM: Yes, at a very base level, we can think of objects as simply momentary storage vessels — batteries — for this ‘universal energy’ you mention. Objects, and us included, are all differently becoming something else: a mountain range, a gnat, Cesium 137 are all degrading, morphing, becoming something other. We innately understand that even in life, the “I” we believe is ‘Irene Sofia’ or ‘Michael’ is in a process of continual replacement.
ISC: You spoke about storage and replacement, so linking again to Grunwald’s shelves (saying so, a clear connection comes out observing Kaptelyn sculpture, literally part of the shelf) and observing a sort of constellation or catalogues of human elements you represent, what comes to my mind is the word “hyper-productivity”: does your research relate to this concept? I find in your sculptures references to high specific ordering of materials. They seem to me to be an index of taxidermies…
MJM: I’d like to linger on this idea of hyper-productivity, there’s a way to play with it if we first pan-out, remembering that the solar panel sculptures are in dialog with very large, more elemental forces: ‘energy’ and ‘transmutation.’ If one imagines the panels as a ‘medium’ to the sun, a thru-line can be drawn where sunlight passes through the panel becoming electrical current, on its way to transmuting into a bilions of processes and possible objects; pharmaceuticals to hand-axes to nightlights and so on. I’m not as interested in critiquing or developing subject matter around late capitalism – which hyper-productivity has roots – through objecthood as much as I am with being attentive to ‘differences’ in objects, and with it, the innate pull emergent systems have toward increased diversity. I think this is beautiful, and of course with the right lens —political —imagining all matter racing at different velocities toward more complex states of themselves, of differentiation. This baseline coding within matter extends to why there’s not just one basic pair of sunglasses for everyone, instead, hundreds of thousands of slight variations on the form of “sunglasses.” This of course circles back to hyper-productivity.
ISC: It sounds interesting and is related to the idea of an unspecific time that goes by. Which value do you give to time? How do you connect it and how do you relate it to the contemporary anthropology you represent?
MJM: Time is the most fascinating thing, which I suppose also makes it the most banal. It inflects every aspect of life; the cosmic, the quotidian, the spiritual, the material. As a sculptor, time is embedded in the dna of objecthood, underwriting a set of baselines in every object ever made. In regards to ‘contemporary anthropology,’ time also relates to a process of ‘artifacting.’ The moment that something is created, it becomes time-stamped, beginning a life not just as a device of function, or pleasure or desire, but something born into a parallel stream of existence – its life as an artifact on an escape trajectory from the realities of its emergence. Of course this time-stamp is not regulated and lives differently within different objects; a usb stick records time with extreme precision. Less so a blanket, even less so for an arrowhead or pottery shard…
ISC: In my idea, looking at your sculptures, this idea of time relates with a sort of immanent mysticism hidden in your works. What do you think? How do you represent “magic”?
MJM: One of the enduring functions of art might be its bond to mysticism. Wired in human consciousness is a drive toward making meanings. Perhaps the result of asymmetrically large frontal lobes, we manage to find meaning everywhere — in cosplay, in mineraloid collections, in deities, in conspiracy theories — deep neural satisfaction. Mysticism and with it magic, acknowledge that a rift exists between the amassed reasoning of our everyday world, and a hidden from view shadow reality that we can’t easily explain away. Counterintuitively this feeling is not quelled by additional technology, or more science, but exacerbated by it. As our objects surpass us, we no longer truly understand how anything works. So we reach a state when objects truly become magical. A stream of emojis sent to a friend in Lisbon appears on their phone instantly. Communication is happening, yet neither of us understand exactly what just happened — our texts the result of impossibly complex machines utilizing vast armies of accrued labor divided in ways that even the individuals involved in producing an object can’t fathom how they are made.
An analogue to this feeling can be an encounter with art. A small stack of folded blankets supporting a few crude clay objects exists as a kind of gap – something specific, yet made strange in the world, fueling a belief that objects and actions wield more power than that of their volume and caloric expenditure. A belief that meanings extend beyond what’s present, available to be seen, felt.
Q + A
AU-DELÀ DE L’IMAGE, 2016
This short Q and A occurred as part of the exhibition Au-delà de l’image, at Galerie Escougnou-Cetraro in Paris, France.
As you know, this exhibition explores the role of the images within contemporary practices.
You are a sculptor but, as says Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou in the text introducing your work, often your devices return the sculpture to a kind of flatness. Why do you generate an ambiguity between the volume and the image? Is it to make the sculpture more quickly sizable by the spectator? Or is it a way to move the sculptural material towards the world of the Platonic ideas ?
These ideas definitely resonate for me. I suppose the way it often materializes in my work is through the use of archetypal forms – shapes and imagery that help mold our collective reality. In some very sculptural way, the work also communes with a long history of flattening three-dimensional forms until they can be described as an icon, or an image – this is an ancient communicative tool. Stepping off this idea, in our present here-and-now, we’re witness to a reality that has inverted itself, one where all objects arrive to us first in image-form. In this way, an image now must be perceived as an object’s native state – its primary form. This reversal requires some mental rewiring on our part, but sparks a set of new possibilities and nutritious problems. My work is invested in these problems, so even as it might converse with ancient art making vocabularies, it also tries to understand something about our shared, lived-through experience in the glow of screens – a world of levitating icons, shadowless objects hovering in luminescent white fields…
We have the impression that you make objects which have iconic and archetypal forms, and give them a status of metaphoric images, within a universal narrative. The sculpture as the image, the image as the metaphor? Could you speak about the employment of the metaphor within your works?
Very early on, I was studying the concept, and devices of narration, to which metaphor has some connection to. I suppose in a very elliptical way, I was trying to understand why sculpture struggles to say simple things – to address its audience directly, to relay a narrative. During these studies, I realized many things. One, that the communicative properties of sculpture and the methods in which time is encoded within it, are vastly different than our shared, more popular forms: books, theater, film and songs. What I realized was that something very strange and beautiful began to happen when I simply allowed for, and later encouraged the natural ways our minds crave meaning – the way they assemble stray events, disparate forms into things we agree to be meaningful. Yet to do this, the narrative arcs and metaphors I needed access to were not literary, but sculptural, and this required a completely different methodology to coax meaning into a form.
The work which you show in the frame of the exhibition Au-delà de l’image, is also a work which proposes several degrees of reading. While approaching the image, it appears like a collage with all its details. From this second reading, it emanates a kind of energy, a tension from a coexistence of multiple ill-assorted objects on the same solar panel. The title of the work, five hundred seconds, refers to the time that the solar energy is deployed and arrives at the earth, feeding all which surrounds us, from fruits to computers. This energy establishes the common denominator of all the elements which exist on earth. These elements are mixed in your work without any form of hierarchy: the animal, the vegetable, the synthetic material, the digital technology, the human and the not-human. The list could be very long.
Could you speak to us about this coexistence between elements belonging to a different domain? Is your approach situated in the lineage of speculative realism?
Yes, in some ways, but more broadly Speculative Realism exists under a larger rubric of Materialism, which for me, feels more generative. I think as Speculative Realist thought atomizes into more and more refined strains of research and thinking we are seeing some very strange, playful and in the long-term, very vital assemblages of information that draw on Materialist philosophies as a motivating ethos. For me, the spirit that drives my approach, of course, is one that is non-hierarchical, but one that also tries to understand and consider the very real capacities and intensities the differentiate objects. “Non-hierarchical” doesn’t imply everything should be considered the same – this would be a huge mistake. Uranium is definitely not BPA plastic. I’m interested in a sculptural practice that accounts for extreme differences – where difference is vital, honored and importantly – helps to generate unknowns. Where beautifully bizarre, uniquely human solidarity fields can thrive.
When we spoke about the metaphors and Platonic ideas, it’s because certain works give the impression of temporal and spatial suspension, as well as a dreamlike dimension. From this, we realize mental images. The mental images are an emanation of our unconscious and our memory, thus by definition they depend on the human perception. What is your look about the human position within the world that you represent ?
I think this is an increasingly difficult question to answer accurately. Of course, when we pan out, humans are only one animal-creature amongst thousands and thousands of animal-creatures. And our minuscule-ness only increases as we include plant life, or microbes or speculative objects of diverging and mysterious sentience, or techno-sentience we can’t yet fathom as with AI, or even imagine, as with exo-planetary intelligences. But I say this, and our lived day-in-day-out experience is one of intense humanistic-myopia. Of course, our success evolutionarily is intricately bound to a continual adaptation of this inbreed myopic tendency. So much so that now, if we are to enter a third act of humans on earth, we must work against the very forces that have made us successful in the past. This kind of cognitive dissonance we see on display minute by minute in any thinking, reasoning person’s reality. For me, the human is the stubborn lens through which I can see and process, so it invariably structures the basis of all my questions.
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN AND THE SET OF ALL THINGS, 2015
This essay first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Sculpture Magazine.
give me waves that carry the past tubes so fine that they
suck in the least extricable moments (the chromatic escalade
of remembrance) give me moving backdrops films
furs paintbrushes of photons characters tastes give me
markings never before used
Jacques Roubaud, ∈
Beginning in 2011, Michael Jones McKean has made a series of segmented low-relief sculptures whose titles suggest an unnerving, impossible, but seductive universality. Each work is designated by a categorical term preceded by the definite article “the”—The Republic, The Religion, The Folklore, The Comedy, The Garden—that singly and collectively references the human effort to interpret, theorize, associate, narrate, classify, and collate. An artist whose attention to nuanced verbal structures corresponds with the ontological connotations of his sculptures, McKean’s deployment of the definite article functions as a vortex. “The” draws each generic category into a teeming center, a singularity releasing its particular and descriptive potentialities. All that is present, past, or possible is there—a specific, inclusive, yet ultimately inexplicable infinite, a “set of all things.”
Within the physical metaphysics of McKean’s sculptures, matter is data or information, and, conversely, ideas and images are material substance, all together a kind of overabundance of “stuff” radiating suggestively and persistently across time and place. He explores what he calls a “panned-out, quietly philosophical way of being with objects” and refers to his sculptures as a “slow-form, elliptical, and material way of investing in ideas.”
Like the poet-mathematician Jacques Roubaud’s sonnet of sonnets ∈ , designed like the strategic game of Go to be rearranged at will by the reader, McKean’s sculptures suggest that all that belongs can be endlessly recombined and rediscovered, alternately comprehended and not comprehended.
Blurring distinctions between image and object, between percept and corporeality, McKean’s works incorporate both fabricated representations and actual objects, including such found objects as meteorite fragments, hair, makeup, rainbows, bristlecone pine, and soot. As the artist confronts problems of selection and association, he makes choices through an inductive, serendipitous process—pulling things that are at hand from idiosyncratic attention and experience. Yet, this collision is hardly meaningless or purely random. Rather, it relates to McKean’s absorption with an enduring philosophical problem of whether the universe is mind-dependent or mind-independent. If things are a projection or condition of human consciousness, then, as Hannah Arendt put it, “things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.”
But, if things are independent of human consciousness, then a de-anthropomorphic reality poses new problems of empathy and interrelatedness for humans who are simply a part of the material universe.
The Garden (2014)—exhibited in we float above to spit and sing at Emerson Dorsch Gallery in Miami, Florida during the summer of 2014— is representative of the material ontology driving McKean’s thinking and process. The piece is a diptych of triptychs consisting of a horizontal arrangement of three large-scale, shallow wall boxes flanked on the left by three vertically-aligned, smaller boxes. In its way, the work begins and ends with light. On the far right, arrayed in white pots, is a taxonomy of stylized, white plants forms. Conspicuously artificial, they nevertheless imply the pleroma—the abundance, as well as the soft, cellular core—of the possibilities within the set of things called “plants”: ovate, lance-shaped, linear, and heart-shaped leaves; feather-compound, compound, opposite, and alternate branching structures; composite flowers; and, cacti, bearing scales instead of leaves. They represent organisms without sense organs, making food from light. At the far left side of The Garden is an intimation of light itself, in three squares tinted by illumination, levitating inside the vertically-aligned frames.
Between these capsules of radiant energy, the two interior recesses contain people and things. Seven puppet-like heads with wild, matted hair, as if blown back by a chalky wind, and faces smeared with white markings turn toward the assortment of things in the adjacent panel. Looping chains link the heads at their white collars. They are caught, tethered, and they stare—solemn, wide-eyed, transfixed, looking inward and outward. The bas-relief of things in the next panel has the greatest visual weight in the piece. Fabricated with a consistent black surface, the mass of flattened objects—so utterly and completely different—becomes amalgamated. Flip-flop, banana, taco, book, hat, hammer, nails, arrowheads, glasses, a piece of pepperoni pizza, cell phones, vessels of assorted shapes and sizes, electric candle, and so on: all imbricate in a material union.
A mutual atomic basis emerges in The Garden, carbon and oxygen, waves and particles of energy and life. Everything in its evolving, recombinant narrative shares substance, even the humans. Actual meteorite fragments embedded in the piece suggest the birth and death throes of the universe. The meteorite is a random extraterrestrial invasion, a body re-announcing a material infinite and its origins and dissolutions. “A challenge of de-anthropomorphism, or believing in the possibly in objects without us, is to break with ‘embodiment’ as an organizing construct for objects—all ‘things’ become self-signifying,” McKean comments.
The problem of what belongs to the corpus, of how to identify and organize it, resonates within McKean’s work. Georg Cantor, the father of modern set theory, said “A set is a Many which allows itself to be thought of as a One,” touching off still-unresolved mathematical—but not only mathematical—debates about the nature of reality and infinity.
In conversation, McKean references Luis Borges’s short stories “The Library of Babel” and “The Aleph,” stories of the infinite as a library and of an elusive, mystical spot where infinity coalesces and can be witnessed. The two stories show the author’s acquaintance with Russell’s Paradox that the “set of all things” both can and cannot contain itself.
Therefore, the “many” and the “whole”—whether seen metaphorically as in “The Library of Babel,” abstractly as in set theory, or visually and tangibly as in McKean’s sculptures—are inclusive and exclusive, brimming and empty, fragmented and complete.
Since even unlimited, self-contained material (such as the infinite set of cardinal numbers) sustains exclusions or paradoxical constraints, overarching explanations remain elusive. The problem becomes one of selection, pattern-making, and storytelling within boundless possibilities. Ultimately, McKean says, “The sculptures suggest narration, yet lack the most primary tools for cogent storytelling—beginnings and endings. The sculptures in their visual stillness, never settle down narratively, solidifying into one thing. This plays with the brain’s innate appetite and hardwiring for patterning, meaning making.” His observation is comparable to Umberto Eco’s assertions that the list, a particular type of narrative pattern, has an “irresistible magic” that makes “infinity comprehensible” and that “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”
While some of McKean’s earlier works, such as The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows (2007), dealt more directly than his recent work with hubris and the human desire to know and to master the elements, his sculptures and installations have always conveyed circular narratives analogous to the physical absence of beginning- and end-points in sculpture.
Completely self-sustaining, certain principles of light and shapes between forms (2012)—an ambitious installation looping through the interior and the exterior of The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska—involved such a cyclical, enclosed narrative.
Jets of harvested and reclaimed rainwater were shot into the air above the building by a 60-horsepower turbine pump driving the water from six 10,500-gallon storage tanks through galvanized piping. Depending on various factors, rainbows formed between the sprays of water, while along the path of the rainbow-making apparatus inside the building, a number of objects were installed: a 5000-year-old Campo del Cielo meteorite, a conch shell from Micronesia, a handmade American quilt from 1880, a glass prism, and a bristlecone pine tree.
Each object contains a back story of cultural reference and association, and each coincides with interconnected narratives of cellular, chemical, and cultural evolution fundamental to the ontological problems presented by McKean’s work. Simultaneously highly structured and randomly occurring, they are, as Roubaud’s puts it, “waves that carry the past…[a] chromatic escalade of remembrance.” For McKean, as a sculptor, these objects—all objects—also emit the back story of volumetric displacement, which ties into the material philosophy in his work; the fact of the object’s physical presence forces a reflective encounter.
The encounter that emerges in the case of certain principles of light and shapes between forms is an object lesson within a type of infinite set, containing everything yet confined by its principles. The intermittent rainbows are a case in point. They demonstrate complete luminosity, the possible parameters of atomic energy’s waves and particles, and allude to the full range of organic and inorganic substance, a span echoed by the other objects in the piece. The unspoken force of conceptual wordplay emerges, too: the rainbows are “circular,” “overarching” but “elusive,” products of “volumetric displacement,” and—most significantly—always present, even when they are absent.
The critique of solipsism is inescapable. At any given time, a rainbow may or may not appear, depending on such variables as weather, the declension of angles, and time of day. The viewer may or may not see one. Yet rainbows are omnipresent in the piece, latent even if they don’t develop. Viewers who presume that the rainbow only exists if witnessed presume many things, none of which is expansive or inclusive: that humans are the center of existence; that phenomena exist for human pleasure or use; that things don’t matter if they exist outside of personal awareness, and so on.
In the post-internet zeitgeist, where, as McKean notes, “the internet settles into banality – becoming elemental,” the rainbow project also elicits time as an elongated, stuttering form. The normality of shifting continuously between various screens and tangible experience produces a slightly surreal mental state in which image becomes thing and thing becomes image and the two converge in a flattened, compressed space. “Almost counter-intuitively, the analog materiality of sculpture-making has an ability to tell strange truths about our shared post-internet condition.” The combination of found objects and fabricated ones in McKean’s work seems analogous to the simultaneity of image and materiality in a post-internet age.
Fundamentally, McKean asks a simple question: “Why make sculpture now? When measured against the incredible speed of image production and consumption today, it seems perverse to make a sculpture—there’s something unreasonable about it, but it’s that quality I’m attracted to.” His studio practice, based in his early training in ceramics, includes a multiplicity of approaches, such as carpentry, set design, mold making, and sewing, which support the conceptual bifurcations in the work. The studio, he says, “is like an organism that metabolizes objects, materials, and substances, an elaborate, idiosyncratic system for choosing, processing, and collating forms.”
Objects—however they are constituted—are, for McKean, dense with information and mysterious at the same time, and there is “a moment where making itself becomes a surrogated form of intelligence, one where, if I’m doing it right, the studio’s IQ supersedes my own.” Such intelligence is sensory and rooted in the physical—that is, mind-independent. In the de-anthropomorphizing that underlies McKean’s practice, the hierarchy between humans and objects disappears, and tenderness toward both emerges.
Tenderness demands awareness of vulnerability, and the implications of injury are central to colors passing through us (2014). In the shallow frame on the left side of the diptych, changing colors of the spectrum pass in shimmering waves across green screen fabric. On the right side, within a collage of objects coated with meta-anthracite (the carbon compound known as graphite), a fabricated broken arm is wrapped in a cast, the fingernails of its immobilized hand polished a vivid, sickened green. Rods and bones protrude from the truncated arm where the elbow would be. Within the compilation of things in the work, vitamins, morphine, and psycho-stimulants recall the desire to extend life (but deaden pain) and the dependence of life and consciousness on matter, with its entropy, dissolution, and chemical reintegration.
The disembodied arm is traumatized. The mortality hidden by a normal body’s wholeness and vitality has been exposed. colors passing through us echoes the mystery and the aura of a reliquary where the anima resides in a physical fragment. From the material ontology within McKean’s work, a “strange animism” arises. “I’m interested in how animistic thinking, something typically associated with primitivism, seems to naturally overlap within advanced technological societies—from the belief in the provenance of organic fruit, to the magic of wifi signals, to invisible stores of metadata archived behind every event, object, or image,” he says.
Don Delillo’s creepy, philosophically vast, and visually acute novel, Point Omega, suggests that the point of utter destruction—the omega point—is only an abstraction if it is considered as pure speculative philosophy and physics, distant from personal experience.
This is part of the point of McKean’s sculptures: that humans need to stop thinking that things matter only when they narrow down to the “us.” The representational nature of McKean’s work draws attention to the idea of less abstraction and more empathy. The animism he perceives arises from underlying codes of shared substance—the thingness of being. Discerning the potential within this set of all things, “a type of empathy emerges extending to objects in the most generous, open-minded sense,” and in this empathy, McKean says, “our dominion over things dissolves, and when objects choose to visit us, we won’t assert ourselves onto them.”
1 Jacques Roubaud, ∈ , trans. Katheryn McDonald, RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics 4, no. 1 (1995): http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/rift/rift04/rift0401.html.
2 The term “the set of all things” is generally constrained by the condition “that [contain unifying elements].” However, “the set of all things” also concerns the question of what belongs within infinite categories. See the entry for “Set Theory” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (First published Thu Jul 11, 2002): http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/entries/set-theory/.
3 All quotations by Michael Jones McKean are from a conversation in the artist’s Richmond, Virginia studio on March 13, 2014.
4 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958): 9.
5 Georg Cantor, Gesammelte Abhandlungen (1883): 204, quoted in Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995): 191.
6 For an interesting discussion of recent and historical debates about the ontological problems presented by set theory, see Ricardo L. Nirenberg and David Nirenberg, “Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 4 (2011).
7 “Russell’s Paradox,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (First published Fri Dec 8, 1995; substantive revision Thu Jun 26, 2014): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell-paradox/.
8 Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris, “SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco: ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die,’” Spiegel International Online, November 11, 2009: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/spiegel-interview-with-umberto-eco-we-like-lists-because-we-don-t-want-to-die-a-659577.html. See also Eco’s catalog for Mille e tre, the exhibition he curated for The Louvre, exhibited in the fall and winter of 2009-2010: Umberto Eco, trans. Alastair McEwen, The Infinity of Lists (Rizzoli: New York, 2009).
9 See the project website: www.therainbow.org.
10 Delillo’s Point Omega (New York, Scribner: 2010) begins and ends with a detailed description of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
DARK PSYCHEDELIA: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
GEAN MORENO AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2014
This conversation began in 2012 intended as a contributing text in a catalog documenting ‘The Rainbow: Certain Principles and Shapes Between Forms.’ The conversation was put on pause, and restarted in summer of 2014. The final text was published in DIS in the fall of 2014.
GEAN MORENO: Let’s begin by talking about how time functions in your projects and just see where this takes us.
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: One way time is often addressed is through handling objects as if they were already artifacts. When viewed this way, contemporary objects shed some of their present day qualities, and in doing so, become encoded with a stranger, but perhaps clearer relationship to time. So, as an archaeologist might understand profound and hidden away details about a Neolithic hand axe through analyzing its shape and materiality, someone in a thrift store picking up a by-now ancient Motorola Razr might feel the precise psychic pangs of a pre-crisis 2006. In both cases, each object claims an idiosyncratic, but precise time signature.
Very much related to time, we’re witnessing our lived-through Middle Anthropocenic Period rapidly consolidate into a super sophisticated monoculture, where massive objects like Samsung, The Black Forest, Liberia, the Renminbi, and a copper mine in Chile operate interdependently within ultra-networked systems. To this, we’ve learned that when we burn coal and oil we’re blazing through 300 million years of compounded growth and decay – stored and compressed time – at an unimaginably accelerated rate. This sudden and hyperbolic release of energy creates a radical reconfiguration to our conception of time, while in the process disrupting seemingly stable systems: climates, migrations, economies, ecologies, our evolving human psychology, space itself. Heidegger’s musings about airplane travel fucking with distance/nearness/time seem quaint now, with algorithmically-enhanced high frequency trade distorting capital even further, or machines like the Large Hadron Collider spinning particles at obscene speeds, effectively time-traveling to the nanosecond following the universe’s creation. Or even the very real science of de-extinction as it plays out over the next few years. In all cases, the reliability of time’s arrow – even death itself – becomes more lost in an inchoate warp flow.
Bringing it back to the work, maybe the project that consolidates my interest in time most clearly is certain principles of light and shapes between forms (2012) – the central component being a real, prismatic rainbow. The rainbow form collapses time. It lives unbeholden to circadian, glacial, and geologic registrations, lacking any sort of time signature at all. The rainbow form unbinds itself from these kind of object-oriented archeo-clocks. Immune to age or even evolution, its essential character is consistent in Nairobi, Singapore or Manitoba; in 20,000 BC or 3,000 AD. What we see, when we see one, is the crystallization of an unyielding set of physical principles conspiring together – the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, light waves racing through the upper and lower atmospheres, the proper density of water-prism-drops––all held in precise alignment. These integers form a code sequence that is oblivious, in some deep ontological sense, to the passage of time.
The reverse is that observing a rainbow-event is an incredibly durational experience – another kind of time altogether. I imagine its attraction and importance to so many cultures throughout history is partly due to its fleeting nature. The pronounced gap between these two time registers – both here-and-now, and out-of-time – summarize a lot of my interests with objects and sculpture.
GM: But these two time registers — exo-temporal and now-durational — are complicated in this case. The exo one, which as you say in some way unbinds the rainbow from any specific time and makes it immune to age and evolution, is interesting in that it indexes a kind of absolute time––something beyond our temporalities, if you like. One can imagine the rainbow existing before the possibility of chronological time as we experience it was conceptualized. In fact, one can imagine it before the very possibility of conceptualization, of thought. Unburdened by any need for carbon-based life forms in its production, one can posit the rainbow as a figure, even if devoid of all the meaning we’ve pinned to it, that points to a moment prior to the emergence of life and of a chronological understanding of time.
MJM: Yes, in a speculative, almost psychedelic way one can also imagine how aesthetics and maybe even our conception of the sublime might have co-evolved with naturally occurring out-of-time forms. Rogue synaptic pathways traveling in the brain could have become organized and grooved by witnessing phenomena like the sun rising or an ocean wave crashing, or for that matter, a rainbow. Near the origins of cognitive intelligence, what were the forms that proto-humans had available, and how did these forms imprint themselves on our psyches? Just as our neural capacity for abstraction might have been born and honed while gazing at shifting cloud formations or mentally drawing shapes in the night sky, the rainbow form might have helped prototype our modern understanding of the sublime.
GM: But it may be more wicked that this. The form may index a moment before synaptic pathways, before life and witnesses. A world that precedes us. A world like the one I imagine after biological extinction. Maybe the rainbow, as part of a world that was there before life and that will be there after it, is a paradoxical and unexpected element of a black psychedelia, of the morosely tripped out possibility of us actually not being around. It casts long shadows over, and opens deep voids in, thoughts that orbit an inorganic world.
MJM: The concept of black psychedelia opens up really strange territory. It also feels metaphorically apt – blackness as the compression of the visible spectrum, or color’s acid black inversion. And yes it’s wild to imagine the rainbow reporting to us from the edge-time, a history before our existence, as it races out prophesying a post-human future without us.
However it’s important to mention that through all recorded history – real and mythological – the rainbow exists for humans as a profoundly associative event. It appears as a message from a divine force conjuring proof of creation, or an omen of luck, doom, goodwill, democracy, LGBT pride, hope… The overwhelming spell that the popular rainbow form collectively has cast on us has reached an obsessive perversion. For the object to regain consciousness in sculptural form, it was necessary to escape the orbit of kitsch and branding, symbology and cartooning – all things that bind it pathologically to our cultural moment. It seemed necessary to reverse polarities regarding its image and embrace its origins as an object. An object not in contempt of us, but dissociated from us – living in another orbit of private omniscience.
As a thought experiment, Meillassoux’s idea of ‘objects without us’ or his concept of the ‘arche fossil’ – which your question maybe alludes to – feels immensely generative. In practice, though, we’re still taking the first steps at actualizing the promises of de-anthropomorphism, toward realizing a production that utilizes its offerings. This brings to mind a term you used a couple of weeks back over lunch: the ‘beta version of ourselves.’ It has me wondering if multiple forces conspiring toward some ad hoc singularity might be pointing the way – the kind of reverse myopia that, say, the release of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photograph induces, or the very real way in which social media slowly extends our minds into the hive, or any number of advances in understanding the intelligence of plantlife, new theories about emotion, how exactly our epigenome works…
GM: I know what you mean regarding the difficulty of translating certain speculative lines of thinking into actual physical production, but I also feel that it’s very fertile territory. While sculptural objects will always end up in some kind of transaction with human bodies and their desire for meaning, this may be a historical contingency. Maybe other ways of engagement are possible. What if meaning is deposed as the sole goal of cultural artifacts? What if instead of significance, they diagram unfathomable processes, they point to things that exceed our capacity to fully comprehend them? What if they could just throw us out over a void, zap us with dark affect, and not crystallize into a tight ball of meaning?
MJM: I agree, this kind of old-timey semantic engagement with objects and images looks a little quaint as an end game. Moreover, the collateral damage of developing thought this way seems violent – like 100 million realities, a Babel of kaleidoscopic dimension, razed in pursuit of something hermeneutic.
Still, the question becomes difficult when we consider our neurobiological baseline. We can’t overcome our prefrontal cortex, the brain-space where we process connections, solve problems, build abstractions and think toward an understanding of thought. As an organ, it’s the awesome distillation of slow, beneficially adaptive evolutions enabling us to survive, in part, through creative problem-solving. In this way, humans might be conscripted to meaning-making as an evolutionary default, leading us back to the beta human idea – Homo Sapiens as new Homo Erectus. The question becomes: is there a way to actively rewire our brains, or at least fool them into functioning more unexpectedly?
GM: Some of this rewiring may be afoot. Neuroscience doesn’t tire of challenging our cherished idea of a phenomenal self. Certain strands of it are proposing the the notion of a self is just an evolutionary prop. There literally is no such thing as a self, just chemicals firing up the illusion of such a thing as a survival mechanism. It constantly reminds us that there is no “me” beyond the biochemistry. Once this knowledge seeps into the general culture and replaces our “common-sense” understanding of who and how we are, who knows what biological and cognitive consequences will follow?
But let’s turn to the now-durational time register of the rainbow component of certain principle of light and shapes between forms, which is complicated, I think, in a different way than the “exo-temporal register.” The rainbow is, in some sense, “faked”–that is, mechanically produced–which leads me to its relation to the thoroughly artificially-generated time of spectacle. I’m not thinking of spectacle in a Debordian sense, as much as in relation to the construction of mechanical artifacts. Artifacts that generated events or temporal experiences that shadowed the Industrial Revolution and have crossed over, perhaps amped up, into our digital age. The generation of these events, akin to the production of certain adrenaline-inducing activities like roller coasters and gambling, seem to me –here the spectacle has more to do with Benjamin’s reading of modernity than with Debord’s–to participate in the shock therapies that helped us through the shocks of modernity. The shock of the assembly line was tempered by the controlled shock of the roller coaster. I think the “faked” durational aspect of the rainbow in some way participates in this. Or, at the very least, channels the methods and desire for particular results that come down through modernity into the experience architectures that rise up around us. Out of tune with the mythical or poetic dimensions of the rainbow, as a mysterious event-thing found in nature or whatever, we now have to invent a mirage of it. And the time of this mirage has to be, surely, at an ontological level, different from the “non-fake” time we inhabit.
MJM: You hit on some important concepts. As you mention, the project is odd in that it’s simultaneously an actual rainbow, composed of the same substances, optics, and geometry of the real artifact – in some ways not unlike a readymade – and also a construction, a representation, a fiction. ‘Mere’ when measured against the mythical version you mention. In this way, the project seems all wonky and deranged, a little drunk. I don’t see this as an error or miscalculation, but a reflection of the process of representation itself. Through the machinations of producing a one-off this way – some kind of post-representation representation – it offers-up a self-signifying reality whose relation to time ends up being super elastic.
GM: The distinction between readymade and one-off recalls another time involved in the project: let’s call it the time of planning and production. It took a very long time to get this off the ground. And what is interesting, too, is that all kinds of experts in other fields–engineers, irrigation professionals, etc.–had to be incorporated. This time, I imagine, is registered less in the actual experience generated than in all the infrastructure assembled and installed.
MJM: Time in relation to production and labor isn’t a combination I usually think much about. Of course there are models for artwork where labor becomes a proxy for value or the meaning itself. Like how negotiating, talking, networking, and collaborating become investments in something relational, where one’s time is aestheticized. I’m not interested in performing work. The exchange risks becoming an artifact or an end, rather than a real and powerful means to something more.
With this project and some others, I’ve been working on problems with a high enough degree of difficulty that collaborations are born naturally, out of necessity and from the strong valent attraction they emit. In the end, the relationships that are forged are totally unperformed – unmediated by the desire to collaborate at all.
GM: I was thinking of this time not as somehow aestheticizing the collaboration with all these experts. I was thinking of it more as evidence of something like “infrastructural thinking.” I’m not quite sure what the term means, but it has something to do with complicating the idea and the “necessity” of the discrete object. It seems that increasingly interesting sculptural objects need to be plugged into different lines of production and thinking. It has something to do with networks, but also with tying the vague or ethereal idea of the network into actual physical practices and fields.
MJM: I think I understand you better. An artwork can be imagined as an emergent and metabolic structure, an organism that, if it’s to thrive, must keep absorbing and feeding. This project both necessitates and invites infra-level thinking, so the artwork is serviced by science, engineering, architecture, social relationships, and local governance, and on a intra personal level with the mayor, city planners, scientists, arborists, riggers, irrigation specialists, app coders, curators, writers. As a project absorbs more and more, it creates its own gravitational field. All these interactions form an essential mezzanine level of the project, allowing things to weave in and out of civic scales, from communities, down to households, and our own interior lives and dreams. The resulting meshwork plugs into a style of problem-solving that is perhaps infra-structural in its process.
GM: I like that you used the analogy of a mezzanine for the infra space or activity of the project. It places us in a more architectural field, in some “outside” in relation to the discrete sculptural object. And maybe we can use this as a way to talk about new possibilities of sculptural dimensionality. A few years ago James Meyer wrote about the rise of size in sculpture at the expense of scale. Size was what was needed to spectacularly fill the new mega museums. Scale, charged positively in this account, is what sculptures used to actively engage with by creating a relationship with human bodies and what used to be proportionally sized architectural/exhibition spaces. Meyer proposes Olafur Elliasson’s The Weather Project as a paradigmatic culprit in the perpetuation of Size. I find this binary between good scale and bad (spectacular) size a little dusty. I think there has to be a different conception of Size. It may be true that gigantic new museums have hypertrophied certain sculptural qualities by forcing them to swell unreasonably, but it is also true–or rather, this is the question–that this networked and globalized world that has generated these mega museums has also opened some new space to drive sculpture through.
Size, I think, need not always be defined as scale detrimentally swollen to spectacle; it can name objects with swollen infra or mezzanine levels. Objects that emerge out of a scaffolding of networks and enlarged fields of relations and which, in order to maintain an internal logic with this mode of production, can no longer rely on a final morphology that is tuned to the scales of the human body.
MJM: Yes, but more, as infra or mezzo-level engineering might reveal new possibilities for size and scale, we could also add the concept of ‘scope.’ to the equation. While size and scale might best be measured in centimeters, proportion, volume, or girth, ‘scope’ seems to gauge range or saturation – an expanding and contracting field that encompasses objects and images. In the Age of Hyperobjects and the waning days of Web 2.0, where traditional ideas of size and scale seem inadequate, scope describes different forms of dimensionality. But you’re right, by dissing on size, we dispense with an essential tool enabling the possibility of real contributions to the issues of our time. As many artists retool to extend out of an attention economy paradigm, it will be the sensitive juggle-triangulation of all three – size, scale and scope – where the fruit might lie.
I wonder if some of the ‘size’ backlash you mention comes from a critical orthodoxy still charging art as a watchdog of global capitalism – that art should hold these systems in check by critiquing them through its machinations. And if actual participation is required, it should exist as a formal element, properly end-noted to hedge against complicity. It’s important to qualify this, as I’m not advocating blind acquiescence to these power structures, especially with so many limpen artworks willfully participating in the DeBordian size/spectacle dialectic you describe. Yet, as outlets to produce work with greased-up currency increase, its interesting to imagine ways – and the ‘infra’ is called to mind here – that artists might join the table through the back door and get to deploying size that raw capital might afford in stranger and less predictable ways. The process embraces an accelerated movement through capital as a means of eventually escaping it – some baseline Accelerationist thinking I suppose.
Thinking a little back to an earlier topic in relation to these systems, if a de-anthropic state were ever to actualize, the planet in some sense would shrink. We could no longer divide the world up, the human world and the natural world would merge into one world, and moral-ethical distinctions currently separating ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ production would melt away. By recognizing survival, adaptation, and propagation as emergent biological patterns contained with the embedded directives of cities, athletic teams, brands and corporations, they would become as natural as apple trees, bird flocks, sea coral, or invasive species for that matter.
The mental reprogramming needed to roll back anthropomorphism is already being seeded with Moore’s Law-like strides in science and technology. But these advances are entangled with all sorts of sideways questions and opportunities. For instance, as human and nonhuman worlds Venn together, could a hyper-empathic state emerge creating new forms of solidarity with objects, substances, mammals, plant life, gender, countries, weather, global warming? – like the promise of Object Oriented Ontology revealed itself as a techno infused pan-animism only with massive downstream socio-political perks. Or, as we evolve from the shadow of our beta-selves, how do we navigate the social/cultural pitfalls that emancipation though encryption, 24/7 surveillance and billions of data-mined objects with IP addresses would induce – or is acquiescence and acclimatization to this condition just a waypoint in our march toward unimagined freedoms and networked omniscience? As we and eclipse our understanding of human finitude with newly acquired exo-capacities can we learn to disappear in new, more meaningful ways long enough to diagram these new dimensionalities that the expansion into ultra-networked infra and mezzo ecologies might invite? With an entire generation of artists groomed in the glow of screens, how will the asymmetrically large amounts of content entering our brains lead to the adoption and implementation of new practices, new morphologies, more or less coherent fields of emotion? And in the present tense, how might our murmuring anxieties induced by massive uncertainty, anticipation, accelerating velocity and the omnipresent specter of disaster be re-channeled? The degree to which we might be both excited by these sorts of propositions, yet also intensely fearful of them describe exactly the generative and optimized working conditions artists seem actively in pursuit of.
MIKE DRAKE AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2015
This conversation was published in issue #2 of BLAAAH, in the summer of 2015
MIKE DRAKE: Hey Michael, How’re you doing? Where does the world find you these days?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: I’m in Houston for an exhibition that just opened at Inman Gallery – a hundred twenty six billion acres. Recuperating a bit here, but mostly getting organized for a new project that opens in China this summer, and another project in Pittsburgh in early fall.
MD: Does being a professor in the VCU Sculpture and Extended Media department affect or influence your practice in any unexpected ways?
MJM: Yes, but in ways that are difficult to account for. I can say for certain that being around people who are making choices to become better artists, that are questioning core presumptions while also being mindful and as accurate as possible with their words and work, is completely energizing. Its counterintuitive, but the longer I’m involved with teaching, the more sensitized I am to the process. I’m so much more susceptible and lost, generatively so, inside in the things I’m interesting in sharing, teaching. Somehow teaching as a process inverted itself to an action now approached from the center outward.
MD: You use a lot of specific, often historical, cultural objects and artifacts. Do you pull from your own history and relationships to those objects and materials, or do you try to in some way synthesize what may be the greater relationships that your viewers or society have to them on their own?
MJM: It’s not an easy question. My work doesn’t outwardly mine personal biography or use identity as a concept, but I acknowledge that it always originates internally. Of the hundred million things we can select to make work with, a thing first must move us – imprint itself on our psyches and prompt us to feel something, to make it possible even just to see it. This has everything to do with our experiences, our generation, our biographies priming us for an encounter. In some oblique way, if my work does anything, it diagrams an evolution of what I’ve been interested in exploring and understanding. But for me, this distillation period has to find a backdoor, where inchoate inward-looking interests can graft onto forms that are more shared, collectively accessible, networked.
MD: In dealing with specific objects and artifacts in your artwork, you utilize a broad range of both presentation, and representation. Many are handmade replicas, crafted using traditional sculptural building techniques and materials; objects like a paper-mache replica of cosmonaut Boris Volynov’s helmet, or a carved wooden 1987 Promax J-1 Super Jumbo boom box. While other objects, are the very specific artifacts, pulled from the real world; 5,000 year old meteorites, seashells from Micronesia, a 1967 McCullough chainsaw, even parts of the infamous shipwrecked trimaran Teignmouth Electron. Could you tell us some of the parameters that might guide you as you are both creating from scratch, and curating the existing material manifestations of your artwork?
MJM: I want to understand objects in many ways, to get as physically and psychically close as possible. These strategies you mention are really just processing devices that allow the development of certain kinds of relationships with objects to emerge – to draw-out time, to practice being deliberate, to code switch with them, to be more acutely aware of them as multi-dimensional, fully unknowable things. Each method of processing – borrowed or invented – creates a set of relationships that enable one kind of life in a multiverse of possible lives. A process can be mechanical in that it establishes an action plan, but it can also chart pathways in which we can swerve, pushing us to commune with an object in some peculiar, impossible to pre-conceive way. In this sense, ‘process’ can initiate a rational approach forward, that in turn liberates us, gives us permission to be completely strange with materials, establishing a peculiar solidarity field.
MD: Many of your large scale works are viewed in the round, even if they do have a facade view, there are many behind the scenes details. In a recent work ‘The Religion’ the many elements are only visible face on and are separated into several boxes, each uniquely hued and categorized. The various elements appear to sneak into each other’s spaces though, through cutouts, texturally, or just thematically, leading us through the artwork. This brings to mind the way comic books are divided into individual panels, or the electronic windows and screens that we increasingly experience our world through. Could you tell us about how the relationships between the separated objects relate to the context or the manner in which they are presented as a whole?
MJM: I wanted The Religion to do many things; one was to develop a sculptural form that could project an overarching system of narration, while simultaneously struggling with the limitations of how sculpture can be narrative. At its core, sculpture screws-up sequential time, enfolding all possible starting points and totalizing conclusions – points that might be used to order classic narrative arcs. So without narrative’s most basic tools, a place to begin and end, the time encoded within a sculpture feels wayward, simultaneous and continuous. When measured-up against our age’s de-facto cultural formats – films, books, articles, videos, serial dramas, songs, commercials, all still ticking on Newtonian clocks – sculpture possesses an almost inbred relativity, a kind of mysticism stemming, at least in part, from its relaxed temporal condition.
Also at play in The Religion, as you mention, is its flatness. As our initial and primary experiences of objects occur more and more as images, our brains speed to process the inversion. This is by no means a new problem, but its acceleration is interesting. We’ve reached a ledge where, for most practical purposes, an object’s native state no longer resides in a here-and-now material condition, but in a disembodied image-form. This is a huge shift. Reconditioning ourselves to exist in an image economy initiates all these other downstream ceremonies and gestures for objects – sculptures – to perform, which is really exciting. In the same basic sense, The Religion is a sculpture that plays inside these notions, compressing its life as an image into its 4-dimensional reality as an object.
MD: In 2012, you completed a long-term project in which you successfully produced regularly scheduled rainbows overtop the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska. Using recycled rainwater, pumps, pipes, and nozzles, you were able to capture a phenomenon that is normally so fleeting. Can you tell us what got you started on this endeavor and maybe some of the challenges that you encountered?
MJM: So many challenges. The project from beginning to end took about 10 years. Inside that time were extended periods of just smoothing and surmounting challenges – conceptual, technical, institutional, municipal, personal, intellectual, financial. It was emotionally the most difficult project I have worked on; something that I don’t romanticize but that has imprinted itself on me, really changed me, I hope for the better. This goes back to your question about what started the endeavor. More and more, the projects don’t simply chart a progression of ideas but cue new processes altogether, reversing the typical way thought becomes material. With the rainbow, the scale of questions the project seemed to be asking changed my entire approach – fundamental questions like, is there a way for an artwork to learn – to become smarter than those who make it? For a work to point toward horizons that couldn’t be imagined without it coaxing us, maybe even tricking us? Can this process be anticipated, folded into a style of working? And could such a model – by nature, heavily invested in time and process – capably aggregate the millions of micro attunements leading toward a finished work in such a way as it cold extend past 1 + 1 +1 arithmetic, to something more algebraic, non-linear, fractal?
MD: Your new show at Inman gallery, just opened on the May 29th. Could you give us a preview of what we might encounter? Are there any themes that might be carrying over from previous works?
MJM: I’m showing six new sculptures. Time and its relationship to objects play a big part, which feels central to the work for a while now. The cycling and transmutation of energies, materials exchanging into new substances. One of the sculptures contains a large cryogenic freezer chilling an invisible set of small boulders to pre/post human temperatures – like minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In another work, a chunk of silver is embedded into a representation of a Hudson Bay blanket into which a Mac Book Pro charger has been partially embedded. There are a couple works that use solar panels as substrates for object/hieroglyph/pictogram collage. In another work, a representation of a potted plant physically Venns together with a small diesel generator – its surface impregnated with finely ground meta anthracite…
MD: If you had to go into witness protection and change your identity and career, where would you choose to go and what occupation would you want to do?
MJM: I’m really failing in the speed round. I’ve managed to back into a life where my studio absorbs all my interests. Maybe I’ve had dreams about a life in the hard sciences, physics or working at CERN or something like that, but I don’t really have the aptitude and I’m not wired psychologically for it. With art, any armchair interest – be it Armenian political history, pottery shard morphology, cryogenics, the 10,000 year history of blankets, whatever – channels into the studio. If suddenly I didn’t have this central pivot to rally around, I’m not sure what I would do… Maybe horticulture, maybe a gardener…
THE MATERIAL PRESENT: ON MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN’S THE RELIGION, 2014
This essay by Hannah Walsh first appeared in ‘The Religion’ a 2014 monograph documenting the eponymously titled exhibition shown at the Fosdick-Nelson Gallery, in Alfred, New York, November 1 – December 2, 2013.
It is no small feat that Michael Jones McKean’s The Religion does not beg to be solved in the manner of an equation or a puzzle. It is after all a series of simple things in a complex arrangement. In the gallery you are confronted all at once with the sculpture – a very large open-fronted box subdivided into areas of white, fleshy pink, or very intense green, with each smaller section framing the objects it holds: a branch, a taco, profiled heads, gold chain… If we are struck first by the blunt fact of its presence, then an urgent curiosity about the relationship of its parts is not far behind. If the experience resembles math at all, it is math at the highest level, where problems must be discovered and wrestled creatively. Part of the pleasure of looking at this sculpture is in regrouping the figures, pushing around the parentheses and changing the order of operations. You try and hold one set of references, one kind of feeling in your head, and then let another box of objects, with its particularity and feeling, come to bear on the first.
The Religion doesn’t ask to be solved in part because it lays itself so bare. Nothing touches. Almost all edges are visible at once. The language of archeological documentation seems to assure you that these are the facts of it. You can proceed as you might with a set of data before it has been packaged into a news story or a blog post – idly musing, filling in narrative details, free to wonder. Every object here has been called to a single plane, ready for inspection.
It may be a surprisingly long time before you wonder about the backs of the objects in The Religion. Usually a sculpture will draw its viewers to experience it in the round. The Religion tends to suspend viewers in a narrow plane in front of it. This sculpture borrows the documentary posture of an archeological photograph, where we trust that the most salient details have been presented to the camera and that if there is anything important on the back, that that too will have been photographed. You can in fact comfortably walk behind the sculpture, but there isn’t much to do when you get there. One is tempted to call it “backstage”, and yet there isn’t any of the hushed business of a production in progress. It’s all painted flat black: nothing to see here, folks. The structure of this work is emphatically frontal and clearly bounded. It functions as its own velvet rope, its own black tape on the gallery floor. This may be installation scale work but it is a decidedly discrete object.
The frontal, divided nature of the piece calls to mind display cases, museum exhibits, trophy cases, and store windows. The hidden internal lighting also makes each section into a tableau, lit and ready to be photographed. When looking at the piece you sometimes feel as if you’re already viewing its JPEG. It is posed and lit and sectioned into detail shots. And of course, as much as it references these structures, each section, rather flat and emitting light, also appears as a screen – or at least a screen as built by stagehands.
Inside are real objects pretending to be mediated, as though the best way to get someone to look at actual objects is by having things appear as though they’re on a screen. This is the same kind of slippage that happens when you absentmindedly touch a book to keep it from going to sleep. It’s a funny mistake, but it is also a reminder that we spend most of our time behaving as if it is logical to touch an inanimate object so that it doesn’t “go to sleep”. This kind of magical thinking speaks to a profound shift in the relationships we have with objects. It is much harder to expect sentience from something you’ve put together yourself.
We no longer make most of the objects that inhabit our lives. In fact, most things do not feel made at all. Things simply appear when you buy them and disappear when you discard them. Even being one step removed from production is a rare and upscale luxury – the embarrassing “homemade” of the last generation has been finessed into the expensive “handmade” or “artisanal” of this one. Most production happens so far above or below human scale that we can no longer even intuit how things are put together. Television shows like How It’s Made exist just to explain these quotidian mysteries. You can be surprised and entertained for half an hour learning how a Lemonhead is made, even if you already know it is simply melted sugar and lemon flavor.
The majority of contemporary objects exist in an almost pathologically present tense – they have no imaginable past or future. Michael’s work is affecting in part because it is imbued with a sense of time. The green screen box is filled with our material present: current model devices and perishable foodstuffs. But it is also washed in the surreptitiously nostalgic sentiment that we’re living in the future – in a cloud of information/objects all green-screen green and infinitely mutable. On the opposite end of the sculpture in a slightly more acrid green, a branch drips primordial soup. A box of ashy spires connected by gold chain is somehow untethered from a physical scale or a timescale. Is it an excavated relic or a model for a post-apocalyptic monument? A grid of human bones reflects a contemporary handling of objects from the deep past. Its sister box of gridded heads retain their flesh. They are like uncanny sculptural guesses made from the DNA of a future cult instead of from the ice-preserved body of an unlucky caveman. Here the gap between the distant past and the distant future is collapsed, fit into the same gridded structure and finger-painted. The future has a tendency to sneak around and tap you on the shoulder – Hey, remember grunge? Hey, remember small-scale agriculture? Remember your dark apocalyptic future/past? What time is it anyway?
Besides these overt references to time in the work, there is also the embedded time of an object’s making – ironically perhaps most apparent at its quickest and dirtiest. The heads have an intensely handled quality. The lumpiness of their skin makes it easy to imagine fingers pushing their contours into place. Their hair is mussed. The paint on their faces has been applied by hand, whether you imagine that to be the maker’s or their own. Even things that don’t bear the overt mark of the hand feel made. There is specificity to the forms: the particular delicate right angles in the wire that hold the bones just so, the wonkiness of the flattened vessels and balaclava, the stage craft joints. The grey potted tree is almost impossibly smooth. Its surface and the particular background-grey make it appear as an immaterial idea of a tree – an amplification of the way an office plant sometimes feels like a plant in air quotes. But for a maker, it is also hard to ignore the obvious amount of hand-sanding that goes into a surface like that. For a non-maker, it might bring to mind the unique smoothness that comes from the oily erosion of a handrail. In either case, it feels intensely touched. It is undeniably tangible even while retaining its aura of immateriality.
That paradoxical tension is echoed throughout. Much of the piece feels both incredibly specific and somehow also generalized. This tree. This kind of tree. This bone shard. This way of photographing bone shards. The walls, the wire, all the bones in that box are partially reburied by a uniform peachy nubble. One is compelled to consider each bone not just as part of a group, but as part of a system of looking. Here is the way we organize things we unearth. It is a set of parenthesis that says: solve this part together. This is a unit. You can get lost in its particularities, but when you zoom out, it hangs together as a single thing. This zoom-out allows for a telescoping set of detached observations – a dispassionate gaze at the dispassionate gaze of ethnography or archeology. It is from this distant vantage point that the work is at its coldest. When we try to view ourselves as aliens might, we feel the chill of deep space.
This is of course not the only temperature at play. The work can also feel incredibly warm and up close. Its most handled parts hold the warmth of the body. If those heads make us uncomfortable, it may only be because they’ve pulled us too close. The Religion is both critically distant and warmed through by touch, and it is exactly this kind of opposition that generates the real heat in the work. The past, present and future tense coexist in the same box, sometimes oscillating within a single object. Even the blank white center, what looks like a visual sigh, is quickly flooded by competing associations and neighboring influences. A frictive heat is generated when you surface from a box and try again to conceive of the piece holistically. Everything does not slot together nicely.
Yet this varied climate is populated by things like sunglasses, a bowl, an iPad, a branch – things that could fairly be described as room temperature – that magical non-temperature that disappears against your skin. These objects and structures that are normally camouflaged by familiarity here are placed into a net of complex and problematic relationships. The scope of time, material, connotation, and craft in the work serve as points of contrast – mechanisms for seeing that can pull banal objects back into the realm of scrutiny. But the breadth and simultaneity of the work never calcifies those relationships -an object may flip between figure and ground, past and future, large and small many times in the course of looking at the piece. The Religion feels remarkably limber. It is active. It roams. It points out in all directions, only to reveal its locus in the here and now.
PHARMACEUTICAL TESTS ON AXOLOTLHUMANS:
ON MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN’S OBJECTS, 2014
This text was written on occasion of the exhibition ‘we float above to spit and sing’ at Emerson Dorsch Gallery in Miami, Florida, 2014.
In phenomenal reality, Michael Jones McKean’s Gliese 667C c, Kepler-22 b, Kepler -69 c, Kepler 62 e, Tau Ceti e, Gliese 180 c, Gliese 667C f, Gliese 180 b, HD 40307 g, Kepler-61 b, Kepler-62 f, Kepler-186 f, Gliese 180 b, Gliese 682 b, Kepler-296 f was authored in 2014. We have to believe this in order to maintain the safety-net of shared points of reference and reasonable assertions. But what year is it in the Interzone, the immanent domain, that the work generates for itself in order to lawlessly expand its manifold lines? The numbers and letters in its title designate all the habitable planets that we’ve found in the universe thus far. The images on it are of pottery shards that belong to vanished civilizations. The florescent pigment that rings the images is rescue dye, the sort one spills when shipwrecked. It underscores the point that these are things that have been recovered, pulled up from the dark waters of various prehistories. So, we have the material residue of dead civilizations which lived on planets that we have yet to visit. This is the deep past of an even deeper future. In the work’s time-twisted Interzone, all this is taking place at least a gigaannum or two down the road from us. Civilizations will have risen and fallen, after we’ve landed on these planets, having frightfully fled our own retaliating rock with its Chthonic black ops in the form of ever larger storms and unpredictable volcanos and rising water levels. We’ll be—or are—the neanderthals of the civilizations who made the pots that have been dug up. By then, by the time these shards on the planets named in the title can exist, indexing entire histories still to come, we, these negligible biological artifacts that we are now—the beta version of what will exist then—enjoying this work, in 2014, will be, if we get it right, terrestrial exiles, in communion with alien chemical economies.
If we’re pickpocketing Burroughs for terms here and playing loose with their meaning, it’s because no one grew as giddy as he did at the prospect of off-planet exile and deep mutation. He should be called up, even if slight distortion is necessary. “The human organism is in a state of neoteny,” he wrote. “This is a biological term used to describe an organism fixated at what would normally be a larval or transitional stage. Ordinarily a salamander starts its life cycle in the water with gills; later the gills atrophy, and the animal develops lungs. However, certain salamanders never loose their gills or leave the water…The Xolotl [I’m sure Burroughs means the axolotl; Xolotl is the Aztec God of sunset, who should of course be lording over what is being said here anyway, since fade-outs concern us] salamander in Mexico is an example. Scientists, moved by the plight of this beautiful creature, gave him an injection of hormones, whereupon he shed his gills and left the water after ages of neoteny. It is perhaps too much to hope that one simple injection could jar the human species from its arrested development.” Now, while MJM hasn’t—unfortunately—found the ingredients that would go into such a shot, he may be enticing us to imagine, through his objects, what may lie at the other side of the prick.
The disparate things gathered in MJM’s carefully crafted display structures share a strange quality, more a vibe than a visible trace: they seem to be gazing back at us from the future. Not our future, of course, but theirs—a future which may partially unfold at the other side of the unfathomable edge of our phase-out, after we flower out of our neoteny. I’m not sure what it is exactly that gives them this quality—or what is licensing the bit of sad anthropomorphism that I’m relying on, so out-of-place in these paragraphs: objects with gazes, humanized salamanders, and the like. But I’ll hazard proposing that in the case of MJM’s objects it’s a complex exchange between three elements that is at work.
Firstly, there is the strange tension that is generated between the artifacts that he presents remaining themselves, recognizable, unwilling to sacrifice their familiar forms even as they are compressed and foreshortened, and their growing ever more distant and stony at some other level. Molecularly perhaps. Or in their tool-usefulness. Things we know are aluminum and functional mineralize or petrify. Laptops and Blackberries turn into pieces of polished rock. Meteorites become clay. Hair becomes plastic or plastic-seeming, which is to say that it binds itself, through oil or weird artifact-desire, to extinct species. It’s difficult to pinpoint what has catalyzed the rearrangement of molecules in these things, even if only at a narrative level of the work’s Interzone, but this rearrangement impinges on their affective power. They now seem to march independently of our calls to them, adjusting the margin of discomfort at their autonomy into a more central place in our engagement with them. They are somewhere else, at the service of other creatures. Perhaps these artifacts are prefiguring unpredictable molecular rearrangements that will come from our entwining with alien chemistries, rearrangements our own organisms will have to undergo as well. Or perhaps, if we look at them from this side of the Interzone, from the unimaginative hard fact that we are standing in 2014, they may be gazing back at us from a closer point in the historical timeline, marking the point at which the profit-cost analyses of capitalist production, shot through with automated computation, hit some threshold at which the forces of the absurd are unleashed beyond the timid tidings delivered by any theater that has taken their name. Decorative retro-MacPros all of a sudden become algorithmically fated and therefore the new products of common sense.
The second significant element in generating the vibe I’m claiming for these objects: the micro-atmospherics that they are embedded in. A hint of the psychedelic always envelopes them. This trippy inflection is grounded in the lure of Oliski-esque color spray-fades and in the slowly modulating lights that spread through the display cases. It is there in the floating geometric objects and in a recurrent figure-ground chromatic collapse which reminds us that “figures” are just differentiated patterns extricated from the continuum of matter. It may even be there in the rounded edges and color gradients of the cabinetry, which quote a design aesthetic—let’s say the things that sprouted around Ettore Sottsass, for instance—that sought to capture the glide of the good trip in morphological alterations to common domestic objects.
The psychedelia that cross-cuts MJM’s arrangements, however, is a booby-trapped psychedelia. It enlaces itself, as in a Möbius strip, with its very opposite: if on one side there is the universal chemical continuum into which hallucinogens and mind-expanding exercises ostensibly decant us, on the other there is the unstoppable data torrent that generates the world that all of a sudden we find ourselves sentenced to. It’s like a penal colony of endless algorithms. If the suggestion of an incessant twirl between one side and the the other—between the psychosomatic plug-in to chemical plenitudes and the “tripped out” realization that we are strapped to the cliff-faces of reality by tendrils of code and calculation—collects around these objects in the mode of a vibe, it also finds material presence in slight moments of instability and indeterminacy—moments that find shape in a barrage of questions: Are these objects carved and cast, adhering to traditional sculptural processes, or are they produced on 3D printers? Are they representations of concrete artifacts or are they referent-less mathematically-produced digital specimens? What happens to representation in a world of clones and numbers? Is the search engine an archeological dig site? etc.
The last element conspiring in the generation of the vibe is the encoding of time registrations that are distant from one another in the artifacts. The moments to which some of the objects reproduced or resined-over belong are easily pinned. A floppy disk, a Motorola Razr, even an ancient pottery shard—we can place these historically with some precision. Other objects, however, are more elusive in claiming their moment. Or more reticent in surrendering to any uni-temporality. The white plants in The Garden (2014)—Are they from the obsolete future of dated sci-fi? Are they elements of the nouveaux decor of loft spaces that exist for the most part only as architectural renditions? Are they the still-lifes of algorithmic capitalism? And, once we find out that each is stuffed with a meteorite fragment, some of which are dated to before the emergence of life on the planet—how do we plot them temporally? Are they from “before us” somehow, in part?
When the MacAir and the “timeless” flower, the pizza slice and the Pre-Columbian vase, the meteorite fragment that hit the planet 50,000 years ago and the morphine dose shack up in MJM’s display units, they render what we can call the concretization temporal incommensurability a recurring motif. History is set in knots. And in twisting the linear fantasy of anthropomorphic time, these objects insinuate other temporal arrangements. Times before the very idea of time was on the table, since life itself and the thinking that eventually came to accompany it were not even possibilities. Not times, then, not in the way we like to think them, at scales we can fathom, but something exo-temporal and yet still unfolding. And, of course, as there is the “time” before anthropocentric time, there will also be the “time” after it. We are minor and nearly meaningless agitations in relation to the Absolute.
Of course the time after our Big Snuff-Out—or, more likely, our softly modulated phase-out—is the time of the post-axolotlhuman. We’ll sunset our current form, under the auspices of Xololt, of course, who knows all about vanishment. We’ll cross a threshold and reconfigure anew. Blindly perhaps. Burroughs again: “Mutation involves changes that are literally unimaginable from the perspective of the future mutant.” But how then does the axolotlhuman dream itself otherwise? Maybe other things—strangely-charged artifacts and wayward proposals softly coursing through the world—dream it beyond itself, in a subtle delivery of seemingly preposterous but somehow still enticing suggestions concerning the configuration that will replace it.
Burroughs’ axolotlhuman cannot help but call on another axolotlhuman—Julio Cortazar’s. In “Axolotl,” the narrator first runs into the lung-less salamanders at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and grows soothingly obsessed with them. From the very first moment in front of these creatures, he intimates something that will change him: “I knew we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together.” In the absence of resemblance, which often extorts us into communion, it may just have been the empathy that the unfinished have for one another that binds them.
“The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance that is traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition [of their closeness to us] was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies. Only the little hands…But an eft, the common newt, has such hands also, and we are not at all alike. I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals.”
They are too close to us to be just animals; they are our fellow travelers in neoteny.
“So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold [of the Axolotls] without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
“…Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizing him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began—I learned in the same moment —of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.”
This is how it sometimes feels in front of MJM’s displays, which become like the aquarium in the Jardin des Plantes: we are caught in them as our own axolotl selves—the traces of this historical biological configuration are sequenced in obscure ways into these artifacts and this fact vibrates to an intensity that rises a notch below the threshold of full awareness or complete intelligibility. But it’s there anyway. Impinging at the edge of our encounter with these sculptures. This is the Vibe. We are caught in these objects and we look back at ourselves from inside them, but only to find that we have been displaced to some future that for the time being can only find form in the Interzone of the work. These objects dream us after we’ve superseded our neoteny.
KIM ZITZOW AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2012
An unpublished email interview with Kim Zitzow from December of 2012
KIM ZITZOW: You draw from a vast assortment of historical, cultural and material fragments and tangents. Do you have a research strategy?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: I don’t really have a consistent strategy for research. One sculpture seems to lead to the next. I try to let the work tell me things, let it teach me things. It is a very metabolic system, the work continually eating itself. Over time, through this process, the studio has built-up a strange but important logic – very nonlinear, very inefficient, sometimes bordering on the sinister, devious. But it’s a logic that I have grown to trust; one I actually need to trust. The moment I stop believing in it, everything crumbles.
KZ: In the process of gathering information — both physical and mental — can you describe the activity that occurs between the initial intention of the work and its actual realization?
MJM: The work usually must go through many, many cycles before it gets interesting. Sculptures usually have to get cast-off 2 or 3 or 4 times – multiple periods of intense psychic and emotional attachment swinging into total, abject release and back again before a work really starts to build a gravitational center – its own orbit, it own weather. The process is really slow and being cognizant of the process’ quirks doesn’t make it less heartbreaking to go through – endlessly falling in love only to break up, and repeat, it’s a terrible way to live. It is something I don’t fetishize or romanticize all. I wish I could devise a better system.
KZ: Your MFA is in Ceramics. How would you describe the knowledge of that material and its working processes as influencing your current installation work and the array of materials you use? Could or would you?
MJM: I was trying to understand clay not through a ceramic-process, but more as just earth, dirt, so I didn’t really acquire a lot of traditional technical skills, but my training in school totally still impacts how I understand and use materials. When making sculpture within a ceramics program you’re constantly justifying and conceptualizing your use of clay as a material – really asking it hard, existential, philosophical, social, historical questions. I extended this process to other materials – building intense, troubling, but personalized relationships with a set of materials and objects, trying to embrace all there diegetic and extradiegetic realties. Looking back it seems clear that this process was born within a material specific discourse found in ceramics.
KZ: How do you view nostalgia?
MJM: It feels diseased. I generally try not to think about it.
KZ: In Michelle White’s article in Art Papers she discusses your piece The Possibilities of Men and the River Shallows and includes a detail that you journeyed to the Cayman Islands to bring back weathered wood from Donald Crowhurst’s ship. Much of the ship in the installation is carved foam. How do you reconcile between a meticulously sourced material and a means to an end?
MJM: I think I understand your urge to question materials this way, but in this case I wasn’t viewing foam as means to end. In this project I was building a large sculpture composed of many parts, many different sculptural languages – one of those parts was a stage-set of a boat. In preparation I studied stage design and prop building techniques trying to understand how to make an actual stage set and found that foam is a very common material in prop building and stage design. I tried to build something all the way through and chose a material, in this instance, that that spoke the langue of ‘set.’ But its materiality never gave way and took on a primary meaning – the material didn’t announce itself. It stayed as background noise of this particular object…
KZ: In regards to your work, what has been your greatest failure?
MJM: So many failures. In the end, every project feels like a failure, like I didn’t get it exactly right, I missed opportunities. The work always shows me my weaknesses, plainly, in clear light. I always think I can solve it with the next sculpture.
KZ: Your greatest success?
MJM: Maybe this is related, but nothing really comes to mind. For sure, good things have happened, but I have trouble claiming these moments as successes. I keep going to the studio, working every day on projects, maybe something will happen soon…
Q + A
CLAYTON SEAN HORTON AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2013
This interview was published to coincide with an exhibition, ‘Seven Sculptures’ at Horton Gallery in New York City in June, 2013.
CLAYTON SEAN HORTON: Your artwork often seems to exist in the space between materiality and poetry; in the past you’ve incorporated things like a 1985 Ocean Pacific windbreaker, a Campo del Cielo meteorite, and a cut ponytail from a Mid-Western girl…and you’ve made objects like a monochrome replica of a 1986 Dwight Gooden jersey, a fiberglass replica of the helmet worn by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, and a handmade wooden replica of a 1987 Promax J-1 Super Jumbo Boom Box. How do you decide when to invoke this sort of backstory to an object?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: The space between poetics and materiality is a good frame for a couple of ideas I’m invested in; it’s also an interesting, lateral way to address your question of ‘backstory.’ The sculptures embrace a double-reality where materials and objects travel between their lives ‘with us;’ a reality that supports their associative meanings, poetics, functions, references, mythologies, politics, and ordering systems that we construct for them, and their inward, private lives as pure material ‘without us;’ a parallel, more speculative reality where objects float in psychic voids, ambivalent to our desires and needs for them. I’m curious if somewhere in-between this object-oriented shadow world freed from human associations, and the mind-dependent, literate world we create for objects, there might be a fucked-up, but totally generative ‘third thing.’ Maybe an animistic plane of spirited forms evading us, escaping the gravitational pull of our poems and our metaphors. A place where objects, when they choose to visit us, do so with all their unknowable intelligence and perverse strangeness intact.
Your question about ‘backstory’ – this invisible, unobservable reality existing around objects – could help access this ‘third thing.’ Generationally, we seem increasingly skilled at parsing tiny, even alchemical details that exist, or we believe to exist within objects. Think about going food shopping, maybe for just a single apple. You walk into a store and we see bins and bins of apples. As we peruse the apples we make decisions, not just on how we project the apple might taste, but whether its organic, certified organic, genetically modified, whether its locally grown, or grown far away, or in a country that we agree with politically. And what is the total carbon footprint of an apple sourced from an orchard in New Zealand? And how were the workers treated that picked the apples? As we choose our apple we silently consider many extra-diegetic layers of information, meanings that form an invisible but palpably real backstory to the fruit-object. This kind of connoisseurship isn’t static and carries over to corporate brands and computers and sneakers and chairs, 2 by 4’s and bagged potting soil, koi fish and bottled water and of course is directly transferable to how we think about and consider art objects.
For me, there are moments when specific external details about an object, such as how it was made, or what it was made from, or its compounding meta-histories should surface. These details have the possibility to tell us about ourselves, our time, and belief in things – but it’s not enough. For it to work, an object’s private reserve of hidden-away knowledge and arcane anecdotes – the backstory – must also find access to larger, more shared structures; the ancestral, the civic, the continental. There, an object’s metaphors stretch out from the clique-ish to the communal – something way more generous.
CSH: In addition to your materials, your titles are also a vital component; in particular Sister Giving Birth and A Hundred Twenty Six Billion Acres, which are both on view here. At what point do you introduce language into your process?
MJM: I work with language throughout the process, but titles usually come toward the end. A title is a way of establishing some parameters – a kind of ethos, or logic for a work to exist in. A Hundred Twenty Six Billion Acres refers to, in a very deadpan way, the total acreage of the earth’s surface. It’s also the title for the smallest sculpture in the exhibition: two carved wood cell phones conjoined sculpturally – an iPhone 5 and a Samsung 4S – resting on a common aluminum can form.
Sister Giving Birth is a sculpture of a white olive tree on a low ziggurat-like plinth with a hair braid encased in resin, then re-sculpted in low relief, which levitates near a circle-form. I hope the title helps frame a dual consciousness, one that’s also very literal, like, how do you make a sculpture of a sibling giving birth; this intensely psychedelic moment of entrance and renewal and crazy out-of-time-primacy. ‘Sister’ also references an ancient grove of olive trees in Lebanon called The Sisters. The trees, some aged 7000 years, are older than counties and pyramids each living in a deep continuum of ancient fecundity – dissociated from our births, and rituals, and technologies.
CSH: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms, which was the rainbow that you constructed from harvested and reclaimed rainwater at the Bemis Center for Contemporary art in Omaha, NE, and The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows, a large-scale installation made for Grand Arts, Kansas City, MO and DiverseWorks, Houston, TX are arguably your most well-know works to date. Yet this exhibition marks a clear return to discrete objects. Do you find that the differing scales changes your relationship to narrative?
MJM: I don’t think so. The larger works, although they have the possibility to hold and meter time with much more narrative potential, really screw around with narrative as an efficient delivery mechanism for meaning. In earlier work, there was an overt engagement with using the machinery of narration, in particular theater, so there were a lot of props, sets, risers, the back stage, lighting and special effects to build a relationship with narration as a concept. Although I was using theatrical tropes within the work, I realized, perhaps counterintuitively, that a sculpture is actually missing the tools to communicate a true narrative arc, lacking the most basic elements required in storytelling: a beginning and end. Without an originating point and a totalizing conclusion, a sculpture exists as an inherently unstable device for narration, forever swirling around in medias res. This was an important realization for me, that within sculpture’s genetic makeup I couldn’t create the meanings contained in our most culturally popular forms: think the novel, the essay, film, TV shows, YouTube videos, theater, music. Sculpture is a strange communication outlier, almost mystical by design. Yet for me realizing this limitation created some generative conditions to not only think about the nature sculpture, but to think through the process of how one could make a sculpture.
CSH: For someone who may be seeing your artwork for the first time, what would you suggest are some of the common threads that run throughout the large-scale projects that we’ve mentioned as well as the sculptures currently on view at the gallery?
MJM: Traveling through all my work, there’s a fundamental consideration for objects, materiality and histories with sensitivity to how things build and shed meanings over time. Also, there’s an ongoing involvement with different modes of processing and representing a form. More recently the works play with the intersection of our physical, object-based world with allusions to our screen-based lives – a bifurcated day-to-day reality we’re asked to toggle more and more fluidly between. There’s also an interest in a homemade, armchair branch of Animism, something like techno-voodoo, coming out of an increased reverence for objects through the very negation of them, coupled with exponentially more information about them – classic questions encountered while wading through our shared Post-Internet condition. This relates more generally to a continued interest in the ongoing project of sculpture making – like why make sculpture now? I feel like there is a lot more to mention, but those are some of the ideas that come immediately to mind.
At the risk of over-determining some of the concepts in actual work, maybe it’s helpful to conceptually ground and diagram some ideas here. The central component, as you mentioned earlier of Certain Principles of Light… was a prismatic rainbow that appeared very fleetingly in the sky. In a very speculative way, I wanted to build a structure to understand the rainbow as an ancient form, one totally out-of-time like a time-traveler immune to the effects of age or evolution. When we witness a rainbow it appears to us exactly as the first one did millions of years ago. The project set the rainbow-image in relation to a few other primary forms that included: a Bristlecone Pine tree dug from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains – an object with DNA allowing it to be the oldest living thing on the earth. A massive 110-pound Campo del Cielo meteorite – a non-earth object older than the earth itself. A Micronesian shell pulled from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and a handmade quilt from Pennsylvania made around 1880. Although Certain Principles of Light… was physically huge with the rainbow stretching city blocks, the project’s principle sculptural language is shared with the smaller works in the gallery now. For instance, even as The Throat – a set of three objects levitating on a fabric backdrop – might reference archeological field photography, CGI green-screen magic or quote drapery from Greek and Roman statuary, the work directly engages a similar object-based poem by triangulating a set of shared forms: block of wood, a shell, and a meteorite.
Another work, The Constant Now, is really a conceptual primer for the entire show and condenses a set of core of concepts I’ve been working with for years. The work contains a collaged group of homemade stock photos of hands holding objects – from a lump of clay, to sushi, to an iPhone – all hovering on a black and white photograph of pottery shards from an archeological dig. In some basic way I hope the work speaks about swirling geologic time and our fundamental relationship with objects and substances that are not us: tools, materials, food, chemicals, technology all touching us momentarily before they dissolve into an out-of-time, polymathic reality.
CSH: My original idea for pairing your work alongside that of Jackie Gendel, currently on view in the Front Gallery, was your usage of a sort of Neoclassicism. Do you find inspiration in antiquity and ancient cultures?
MJM: I do, totally, but my interest passes first over archeology and anthropology to get to art history. In terms of Classicism or Neo-Classism as an aesthetic, there is a tonal quality I’m interested in achieving that seems shared with the visual language of classicism. Maybe it’s a breed of stoicism, a kind of inert valent charge that fills the air around a sculpture. When it’s right, it reverses polarity on how we might normally absorb energy from an artwork. So a work’s energy-store is not a frenetic or combusted one, not an expressive one – but an inward, haunted one.
AN EVOLVING TURN:
A CONVERSATION WITH TIMUR SI-QIN, MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, AND PABLO LARIOS, 2013
This conversation took place in the early spring of 2013. It began as a casual back and forth in advance of the exhibition ‘Love and Resources’ with Timur Si-Qin and Michael Jones McKean at Favorite Goods in Los Angeles. The conversation quickly evolved to include Pablo Larios and was published in DIS in April of 2013.
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: In different ways, you both seem invested in discussions involving objects and images produced explicitly for our consumption – commodities that are manufactured, branded and massively marketed to us. If we pan out there is, of course, a long history of artworks using consumer-based objects and images, sprawling from the readymade, synthetic cubism, surrealist collage, arte povera, pop, neo geo and now to our extended epoch of appropriation. Yet this trajectory, leading through appropriation, seems to be shifting, naturalizing into another ethos entirely, one not born in resistance to appropriation, but one that has so fully absorbed its teachings that objects and images designed within corporations and factories are now just other objects – substances – living in a dense, sometimes delirious field of other objects. We can view this consumer class of object (from iPads to Adidas shell toes) as having certain diegetic and extra-diegetic properties just as other unbranded commodities do such as an olive tree, a copper plate, a clay brick, a beta fish, a kiwi fruit. I bring this up to begin because some of the basic ways artists seem to be inviting objects into their work seems to be shifting. These changes seem important to recognize and start to shape a parallel universe where artworks might be asked to perform more speculative tasks and rituals.
TIMUR SI-QIN: I think that’s an excellent way of putting it. A shift is happening in which the hierarchy separating natural and manufactured objects is dissolving. This shift is a conceptual deanthropocentrification since in reality humans and their material outputs are just as much a part of nature as termite mounds and seashells. The idea of a separation between the synthetic and natural is a religious conceptual artifact (God having created the separate categories of animals, man and woman.) I think one thing that is allowing this shift to take place is the slowly building understanding that the consumer-object world is largely governed by uncontrollable, non-agential, natural emergent forces rather than any particular ideologies. Or maybe I should say that ideological forces are emergent, causal and natural forces in and of themselves.
PABLO LARIOS: I think it’s difficult to historicize the shift you allude to, Michael, though it is clear to me that we see traces of changes in the relationship between commodities and objecthood on the one hand, and objecthood and the work of art on the other. This goes beyond the platitude that every work is also a commodity; more pernicious is the reality of situations like the merging of production and consumption, changes in the way knowledge is acquired and monetized, shifts in the distribution of images, or the nature of images altogether (maybe all images, insofar as they’re convertible to 1’s and 0’s, are simultaneously texts, too.) The very phrase ‘nature of commodities’ would have once sounded like an oxymoron, but I’m not sure it is anymore. (At least, no more so than Marx’s likeness of the commodity as a kind of upside-down, or dancing, table. Marx could only approach what was lifeless (un-natural) by animating it, turning it into a kind of animal:
The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.
Another way I notice such a shift, at least in how it relates to art, is in the way ‘appropriation’ seems inapplicable – or at least applicable only incompletely – to works such as yours. The works clearly bring in commodities in a way that once would have been categorized as appropriation. But, as I’ve written before, ‘appropriation’ as such is no longer a stable concept because of shifts in how labor is performed and conceived of. Appropriation as a concept – as a ‘making proper’ what is initially exogenous – reflects a model of working that maintains the ipseity, the self-sameness, of individual agents. I think agency has, quite recently, changed; as agency changes, appropriation begins to appear simplistic because the model of agency it is predicated on is itself outmoded, or at least simplistic.
Just look at our very lexicon: referred to recently as several things: appropriation, recontextualization, détournage, or, as far as the shift in labor practices go, as a shift toward ‘collaborative’ modes, i.e. real-life social networking. I think it’s too soon to say, too early to historicize it; I just feel that the concept has cracks in it. Just look at the eye-rolls the very word ‘appropriation’ tends to produce. As far as a divide in nature/manufactured objects, it’s clear that this is in a state of flux (maybe it always has been).
MJM: I agree it’s weird to historicize topics so alive in our here-and-now. In terms of history, my opening comments were more aimed to suggest that these canonical, heritage-y terms are feeling shopworn, a little tired as active placeholders for what seems to be happening on-the-ground level within cultural production. I think we are mostly in agreement here, Pablo. It’s like after the initial hedonistic blowout of appropriation proper, people slowly forgot who the party was for, but decided to stick around anyway – drinking it up. I think some folks are waking up from the binge now, but with a special clarity achieved only through over-exposure. What’s emerging is not a ‘kill your father’ militarized evolution, but something achieved more silently, gradually – overnourishment breeding special adaptations.
Following up, Timur, yes I agree, we’re in some kind of corrective crawl, mending a lived-through myopia extending back to the notion that our earth must be the center of the universe – a kind of ultimate anthropocentric view. But as we embrace more deeply de-anthropocentrification as an ethos, say for instance within the refinements to the various realist camps and speculative movements, one would imagine we might find ways to re-plug into an equally robust, parallel discussion on ethics. I’m curious if the discussion could become more strange and more generative if a space for verbs, perception, feeling, romance could also open up, making space for a fully emergent and complex form of humanism. In some ways I see this as a classic function that artists have been involved with – borrowing some of the more utilitarian straight-talk within the hard-humanities and scientific communities and extending these findings to some other, totally speculative place, one not so singularly beholden or dogmatic.
TSQ: When thinking about ethics in relation to art I usually have this to say: Art is not directly constrained by ethics; but artists are humans and humans are social-primates who have evolved ethics as an adaptation. In this way, art is indirectly constrained by ethics. I think a form of ethics based on emergence would be coming from sociobiology/evolutionary-psychology. Since the emergent system that is at play would be the human system and it’s emergent and historically evolved social morphologies.
PL: Timur, you align yourself with biological and ecological models; both of you adhere to the tactility of certain objects, and play off the semiological resonances of imagery familiar to us through our everyday consumer experience, but also through all that is “massively marketed” to us. The artist, like a consumer, is choosing between materials; like a character in a video game, adapting different skins or even discrete/conflicting avatars…
One thing I tried to stress in my piece is the reciprocal relationship that consumers and corporations now have; the person has become the product; this is something reflected in micro-advertising tactics – entire markets are developing. Corporations create markets; they don’t simply fulfill them.
Art-historical models can both predict this and seem to go blank on it as a subject. The entire lexicon, inherited from Marxism and capitalism dually, of ‘commodities’ and ‘consumers’ has already fallen apart. … the prosumer, the unreadymade, the neo-material, these hybrid formulations point to an inadequacy in the terminology we’ve inherited from outmoded economic models.
In the same way that certain art objects can simultaneously embrace ‘the market’ and, in discrete instances, seem to offer up resistance to it. The dualities in you guys’ exhibition, the contradictions at play (death as a form of love, say), seem to embody this.
TSQ: Right, the mistake that Marxist materialism made was to make labor the only material that mattered. When in reality, actual materials and their properties, like copper, wood and oil are the real driving forces of the world. Also Manuel De Landa has argued, via economic historian Fernand Braudel that the term “Capitalism” is also only a reified generality that does not actually map to reality. That is, there is no “capitalist” system; there are many emergent heterogenous economic systems alive in the world. Some are more fair than others. But all are predicated by the biological constraints of the body, that we need food, water and shelter, and because we are social animals these are provided to us through systems of exchange with conspecifics. This is why it is irrational and I would argue also an ascetic religious notion to think that we can or should ever escape “the market.” After all it is ultimately economic forces that drive the form of all things, from a frog’s leg to the shape of a leaf.
MJM: Pablo, when you mention that the lexicon of Marxism and the trusted relationship between commodities and consumers has weakened – perhaps its important to also claim with certainty, and total inevitability, that these sacred concepts are really only momentarily useful to us – with time, they will indeed all fail. I agree with you, to me these kinds of terminologies are feeling more and more outmoded – ill – perhaps in a similar way the quickly evolving discussion surrounding real and virtual now seems, by all measures, quaint, totally nostalgic. To me, thinkers like De Landa don’t necessarily lead us out from the hegemony of these models, but they might be pointing toward possible exits.
Not to overly romanticize art making here, but in relation to this topic, the field feels open and exciting as a site to model some of these ideas in a more skewed, malleable way – one not so fixed to a prescribed utility. With De Landa, one of the reasons I think he’s so often brought up in artist circles is the almost psychedelic nature of his thinking, there are these nutritious parallels: the expansion and compression of scales, peripatetic wandering over ages and regions, the fluidity between disciplines. Moreover, the basic supposition of a mind-independent universe, a precept he reminds us of repeatedly, is at its core empathetic. It evokes a solidarity with things – this is deeply abstract, a kind of ethics in and of itself.\
PL: As far as ethics go, works such as yours seem to draw a particular, peculiar form of power in that they seem to underwrite an ethics. If, as I said earlier, shifts are occurring both in what constitutes ‘nature’ as well as in how agency is conceived of, then both of these changes imply shifts in power relations and, by extension, ethics (insofar as ethics concerns itself with economies of power).
MJM: I like this idea of what ‘underwriting an ethic’ might be. Maybe there is a way to parlay this talk of ethics to another topic that drifts in and out of the exhibition – definitely in Timur’s project – violence as a concept. Perhaps the comparison is too abstract, but it makes me think about Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown – a truckload of hot asphalt dumped down a ravine, this sweetly fucked up move. Or watching his film Spiral Jetty and being overwhelmed with long, slow-mo takes of roaring diesel engines, huge machines billowing black fumes, tractors pulverizing and dumping load after load of stone, helicopters cutting up the air while circling the spiral – all this aggression played out within an immaculate landscape. The assault becomes even more aggressive, more forceful, and more punk when contextualized against the historical backdrop of rising, almost militant, environmentalism. In this sense, Smithson’s work embodies an ethos that is so blatantly counter to a pervasively liberal, socially conscious mentality. I’m curious how you think about all this in your work that often uses objects of warfare: compound bows and gauntlets, swords, armor and guns leading to this exhibition with burnt and melted yoga mats – an action when perpetrated on a body-sized artifact like a matt – one can’t help but sense violent undertones.
TSQ: Violence is a theme that is hardwired in us to be relevant. The reason violence and romance are such dominant themes in narrative and entertainment is because they are innately relevant themes to us as biological replicators, e.g. natural selection and sexual selection. What I find extremely interesting in activating these evolutionarily relevant themes is that they provide us with information about the deepest questions one can ask: Who are we? How did we get here? Because truthfully there was a real way that the past happened in order to form the present and influence the future; namely, the universe evolved via causal, historical, and material events.
So in that way the dominance of violence as a theme in narrative can be seen as the fingerprints of evolution itself. The faint cosmic afterglow of all that has happened before.
MJM: Yes, I totally agree. When we zoom out far enough, all the details of living, all the crisscrossing minutiae of day-to-day life get swallowed up and absorbed by causal, almost predictable sequencing. Subtle textures of life suddenly look pre-determined, our choices silently administered by precisely metered chemical spills in the brain – chance becomes an algorithm. So when we feel the sensation ‘love’ – this palpably real bond to another – we’ve slipped into ancient, alchemic communion with our ancestors lured into the beginning stages of an unbroken continuum of procreation that the emotion ‘love’ (or the chemicals that induce its sensation) has tricked us to enable. Or violence as it has been sublimated into sports and feats of risk and peacocking – still by and large wedded to sorting out gene pool selection. As a model, in its consistency there is something totally reassuring about acquiescing to something primordial, causal, genetic. But I can’t help but flip it, or at least try to make it more personalized, local, wayward. We build a life out of an aggregated chain of brief moments: anxieties, sensations, dreams, conversations, objects, choices, people, carnal pleasures.
Getting more specific, if we can use violence as a pivot, I like to think about the subtle inflections, the huge spread of tonality in the way cultural producers decide to represent violence to us and in doing so, tell us very different things about ourselves in the process. So Spring Breakers and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D and Django Unchained or Haneke’s Funny Games all depict violence, but they report to us in vitally different ways, so much so that even as the subject matter of each film may have something to do with violence, the actual carried-away content of each film is vastly different. I’m curious about this in your work, so even if love and violence might be some of the themes operating more globally in the work, the objects come to us delicately, metaphorically, materially – bound to their own internal logic.
TSQ: I think violence is somehow fundamentally about confronting the body with it’s own materiality, however I think it’s interesting that violence comes across at all. After all it’s only a single sheet of PVC plastic that has been burned. But through memory associations we relate the plastic to bodies and people that have been materially compromised in some way. I think that tenuous connection from concrete to abstract thinking is fundamental to the way art is processed.
But coming back to what Michael was saying about determinism and causality. One thing I think should be pointed out is that determinism does not preclude free will. In fact completely causal systems whose complexity passes a certain and (low) threshold will behave in ways that cannot in principle be predicted nor computed. Yet these same unpredictable complex systems (which most systems found in the real world are) are still highly structured displaying deep and elegant patterning. Just think of the patterns exhibited in plants and animals (which happened to be the last subject of study of the brilliant Alan Turing before he was driven to suicide for being homosexual in 1950’s Britain). This simple fact about causality leaves plenty of room for free will, which itself is an emergent adaptation of life. It is why nature is so beautifully patterned yet inherently unpredictable.
PL: I think it’s interesting that you guys have touched on the symbolic potential of violence – violence as association, as material, that is, as a sign. In a way, this is a theme that’s linked very closely to evolution. “Violent” objects – whether artworks or artifacts from nature – might seem marked as falling on either end of the same temporal spectrum. I mean simply that there’s a weird temporality implicit in this scheme. Take something like a warning sign: it points forward (if you do X, Y will happen), proleptically; whereas something like a broken windshield points backward (analeptically, X has occurred). Maybe these serve specific functions on the evolutionary scheme: the horns of certain animals – surely as symbolic as they are functional – vs. the ritual stigmatization of objects of violence (the “spoils” of war). Beware the horn for what could happen; avoid the spoils because they already are stigmatized.
I would argue that there’s not only a temporal split here, but also a subject/object split: the subject of violence points forward, into the future, whereas the object of violence points backward, into the past, as victim. Clearly there’s a certain tribalism/primitivism in these dichotomies. Some of this might seem ‘problematic’, dualistic. I still think it’s worth it to explore. I still maintain that our choice of examples is slightly humorous.
Maybe primitivism is the dark side of any scheme that relies on evolution. Maybe a ‘lighter’ side is how this relates to anthropology. One might see evolutionary schemes as much in something as benign as table manners as in the typology of warfares.
TSL: Can you clarify how subject/object and future/past implies primitivism?
PL: It might not: I just think it’s interesting that the setting for our discussion is a kind of primitivist landscape, with its talks of violence, evolution, and nature. There’s an interesting legacy of artists adopting primitivist frameworks, and I’m interested in pressing you guys on this a bit. It’s not necessarily the dualities (subject, object, future, past) that imply primitivism, it’s the color of our metaphors, the language with which we approach the works. One might also say that it’s not strictly a regressive primitivism, but the temporality is split: it’s a primitivism that implies the future as well as the past, a kind of techno-primitivism.
In a way, the burnt yoga mats in your exhibition invoke a fitness-ready positivism, an embrace of the eating, sex-driven body you mention; the presence of charcoal suggests a desire and necessity for foodstuffs, but in the most base commercial form (“no lighter fluid needed”); the decapitated head, the color grid existing in a kind of – I agree this is all complicated, tense, and contradictory. The temporality of these pieces is both medieval, at times – the head looks like a kind of war trophy – yet indelibly tied to the way we can imagine our futures. These contradictions are not crinkles in our thought; they are constitutive of it, they are markers for the tense and opposing modalities in which we imagine reality in general. So we have it that your works look both futuristic and medieval, just as the deep sea looks like a version of outer space, and outer space looks like a TV show; certain Egyptian pyramids look futuristic (the imagery of the Vulcans in Star Trek clearly draws on this). Isn’t this role-reversal a sci-fi trope anyway? I think of the cave like, Neanderthal-era imagery in The Matrix Reloaded (the fictional city called Zion), or the pervasiveness of our association of alien themes and native American themes (in the X-Files, say): both contain colonial narratives and stories of historical abduction.
TSQ: The thing I’d like to point out is that the methods by which objects are interpreted is largely a priori to culture or ideology. The tenuous link to violence that a burn mark on a sheet of plastic makes is most likely the byproduct of a neural architecture that has been in development for millions of years. As the evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides point out this would explain why in popular media things like attacks by predatory nonhumans, chase scenes, physical violence and blood revenge are so over-represented even if they are no longer a part of and even counterproductive to everyday life.
I think when it comes to the question of why casting art in terms of evolution or evolutionary psychology is important in the first place. I would say that to do otherwise is almost a kind of myopia on the becoming of humanity, or even worse a sort of post-modern creationism. Evolution is the only known causal mechanism by which functional relationships can arise that are more highly ordered than chance. And since our bodies, minds and societies belong to this set, it’s safe to say that everything shaped by humans is ultimately shaped by the events that shaped humans themselves.
Along with the purely philosophical necessity of an evolutionary lense comes a framework from which to understand and analyse artworks, artists and even the art market in ways that more entrenched art historical perspectives are unable to do. Questions such as why art occurs in all human cultures, or why art can stir strong emotions in the first place, since emotions are evolved to signal that something is important to an organism. An evolutionary framework is non-arbitrary and, dare I say, true. As true as the fact that we are related to all other life forms on earth.
MJM: Going back to where Pablo began, the subject of primitivism is really interesting, I just have trouble investing in a style of thought so classically reductionist, so binary. I’m curious how one might build a working model that instead seeks out complexity as a driving ethic – one that embraces a more kaleidoscopic, long-view of events and objects and materials. In terms of a long-view, I can see how primitivism (and I’m really curious about this term techno-primitivism which seems to flank primitivism-proper in a more satisfying way) might be a convenient way into the discussion; especially one that until now has largely focused on violence. But violence as we’ve been discussing it is really just a proxy for a whole set of ancient baselines that stay close to us through time, acting as central pivots. So, over time our tools change, but the impetus to make new, more effective tools does not. The norms and ethics around sex, sexuality and procreation continue to change, but our desire to have sex does not. The food we eat and the techniques used to prepare our food shift with the times, but the need to consume foodstuff does not. Through medicine and genetics we are living longer, but we still confront death. The styles of our dwellings change, but the basic need for shelter is fixed, and on and on… These could seem primitivistic to some, but to me feel way more complicated, fraught, contemporary, and ultimately more realist in its perspective – more ontologically independent.
Very much related, I feel its important to press you, Timur, on evolution as an agent potentially leading us out of a post modern stalemate – I think its really exciting on many levels, but also can feel forced, synthetic – unable to completely service a world with substances as well as sentient beings. Moreover, as a model it seems to prematurely duck-out against a rhythmic progression toward maximum complexity – some kind of ad-hoc Omega Point – one that our continuum of modernisms, each one a corrective for the shortcomings of the last, seems to chart for us; an evolutionary process in and of itself. The success of the evolution-meme shows us that it continually satisfies, giving us enormous security that our world is patterned, inter-connected and distantly knowable. Yet counterintuitively, in its thirst to show us the origin depths of all being, to sweetly explain universal causality, evolutionary thinking seems only able to satisfy us superficially as people. For it to be real, useful, evolutionary thinking should be an option within a larger network of thought models – a kind of synchronistic, see-through, meshwork of tools and ideas. The trouble is, as viable options are shelved in favor of a single unifying rubric, things begin to sound like religion – but religion in drag. All this is to say, evolution is a consistent, reliable drum beat, but not really music. Or, as a lense it can deftly describe how things are, but never begin to describe how things feel, or appear.
TSQ: My interest in evolution has two primary entry points and maybe by disambiguating them I could hopefully address these very good issues Michael raises. The first entry point is evolution as an umbrella term to refer to the fundamental morphogenetic process and potential of the material world. Going beyond the domain of biology, this slightly more abstracted idea of evolution is based on the recognition that like biological evolution, change itself is a form finding process. The change in matter, in information, in stars, universes, quarks, dogs, memes and crystals all occurs through the morphogenetic potential of matter. What unifies the change in all these things and validates the use of the blanket term ‘evolution’ is that their morphogenesese are the results of causal form finding processes just like, and identical to, biological evolution. In fact it is causation itself, the simple relationship between cause and effect, that underlies and unfolds into biological evolution as well as all pattern in the universe. The very same process that sculpted the stars also formed DNA, Humans, Operas, and Opera houses. However, whether one believes in causality or a mind-independent material universe in the first place is another debate at the heart of philosophy, the debate between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism.’ The validity of these positions ultimately rests on which side of this debate one lands. If the structure and patterns of the universe exists outside of our minds, before and after our lives, then evidence tells us that universal form finding processes underlie the formation of all matter and experience in the universe. If the structure and patterns of the universe do not exist outside of consciousness then the very notion of evidence is called into question.
Post modernism as a fundamentally ‘idealist’ philosophical position arose as a need to counter the meta-narratives of modernity. Religion, fascism, colonialism all committed atrocities in the name of their respective meta-narratives. Post modernism, as a reaction, abolished the notion of an ordering meta-narrative and in doing so abandons the notion of a mind-independent objective universe: there are many subjective truths none more true than another. But from the standpoint of realism, this was an over-correction in response to modernity’s failings. A conceptual safeguard that functions with the premise that in order to prevent a false claim of truth (and by extension its consequences), the very notion of truth is abolished, or to a softer degree, access to truth is unattainable. To back up this claim is the idea that since no-one got it correct in the past no-one should claim a truth today, e.g. nazis, copernican revolution, etc… That science or the measure of truth is a construction much like religion or any other worldview. But just because the geocentrism that Galileo challenged was untrue, does it mean that Galileo’s heliocentrism is equally untrue? The problem this argument faces is that it is based on inductive reasoning (e.g. All swans we have seen have been white; therefore all swans are white). It also abandons the idea that truth can be approached, or resolved even in degree. Which renders unintelligible the predictive capacity of science and the ever increasing degree to which materials can be manipulated.
The second entry point into evolution comes from the need to bridge this more cosmic and philosophical notion of morphogenetic causation to art. If one holds a mind independent, causal reality to be true then how does one address the morphology of art? Since art is a product of artists and specifically the thoughts of artists, and artists are humans whose brains are as much a product of causal material evolution as are their thumbs, then evolutionary psychology is the realist-materialist bridge between the morphogenetic potential of matter and art. Evolutionary psychology is more a lens than a branch of psychology and is according to evolutionary psychologist David Buss:
“based on a series of logically consistent and well-confirmed premises: (1) that evolutionary processes have sculpted not merely the body, but also the brain, the psychological mechanisms it houses, and the behavior it produces; (2) many of those mechanisms are best conceptualized as psychological adaptations designed to solve problems that historically contributed to survival and reproduction, broadly conceived; (3) psychological adaptations, along with byproducts of those adaptations, are activated in modern environments that differ in some important ways from ancestral environments; (4) critically, the notion that psychological mechanisms have adaptive functions is a necessary, not an optional, ingredient for a comprehensive psychological science.”
I think this last premise might speak to the point that Michael makes about the evolutionary lens as “an option within a larger meshwork of thought models.” Or rather that it is not an option given a realist-materialist understanding of the natural world. However despite its necessity it also does not necessarily negate other tools or thought models either, with the understanding that tools and thought models themselves are a product of historical, biological, material and causal form finding processes. I hope this explains how an evolutionary lens is not a replacement of other tools of thought, but a necessary foundation to thinking about the natural world, which we and everything we experience are a part of.
Resistance to the idea of an evolutionary lens may come from some misunderstandings about evolutionary theory itself. Misunderstandings that equate evolutionary theory with eugenics or social-darwinism which are misunderstandings of evolution themselves. Take for example the notion of survival of the fittest. The idea that natural selection ordains the strong to dominate over the weak. Fitness in the biological sense does not necessarily mean strong or physically fit but instead refers to the differential reproduction of genetic traits however that may happen. A lion is not better or stronger evolved than an earthworm, instead they are independently and equally evolved for their respective environments. Another misunderstanding of ‘fitness’ is the idea that there is one perfect ‘fittest’ solution and it’s imperfect copies. In contrast evolution requires variation in order to function. So if one were to imagine evolutionary solutions they are never a single perfect individual but rather a dynamic population of variation. There is no perfect platonic zebra and many imperfect copies, instead there is a constantly evolving variable population of zebras in dynamic interplay with their environment.
MJM: You covered a lot of important territory, and for the most part I don’t disagree at all with what you’ve laid out. These ideas are so clearly defined to the point of being non-negotiable – like arguing against the grid as a capable compositional device – it just works. My issues stem from limitations the concept imposes on modeling full-bodied, and at the risk of using your word, truthful registrations of thingness – one where more sleepy, mezzanine levels of reality are called upon to occasionally do some heavy lifting. Take for instance ‘glare’ – glare is very real, everyday, and glare of course exists as something mind independent – its reflective, gleam exists whether or not you or I are around to bare witness. But even with all of glare’s here-and-now qualities, evolutionary doctrine has trouble supporting an interesting, holistic, and faceted philosophy of glare past addressing our eyes and minds as evolved sensory organs capable of perceiving glare, or millions of miles away gravity churning particles into light-projecting producers of glare; or why even suggesting the study of glare might be a beneficially adaptive trait. Yes, sure, but by adapting a strong-arm causal position through the backdoor we shutter-away millions of mezzo levels of information – information that is real but that exists below, adjacent, lateral, inbetween, or just plain outside of causality.
If a working philosophy (perhaps neo-materialist) is to take hold, it doesn’t actually behoove us to edit these levels out because they’re unpleasant or don’t play well within the elegant organizing systems we have designs on. It starts to look like weird intellectual orthodoxy, something strangely totalitarian given the hardscrabble plurality we are emerging from. But more accurately, and maybe worse, the governing logic of any organizing system puts into motion an operational style that slowly erases the possibility of producing rogue structures – in this case extinguishing the very possibility of, say, exploring the intelligence of glare. Here, the editing happened not because we manually pressed delete, but because we couldn’t even see the ships. This is where a mind independent reality – and perhaps old school realist-materialist ideas find a functional limit – because, of course, Columbus’ ships were real.
Maybe all this is too far afield. I wonder if we can dovetail the discussion back to art-making, using it as a basecamp to model some of what’s in the air. This surge in evolutionary thinking to me seems attached to something larger, an upswell of burgeoning ideas that for me bring into focus many good things. So pivoting off evolutionary thinking’s baseline de-anthropocentrification, nearby we might find Speculative Realism or its nerdy brother Object Oriented Ontology. We might also find strains of Techno-Animism, (maybe the cousin of Pablo’s techno-primitivism) like an iMysticism bubbling up from our inability to see, or intellectually grasp the overwhelming complexity of everyday systems and objects (from how my iPhone receives Wifi signals, to a massive meteorite breaking apart over Russia, to the compression strength of neoprene, to the unseen cancer causing agents in eyeliner remover). The backdrop to all this of course being the Internet which asks us to ever more fluidly toggle between a screen-based world and an object based world giving rise to New Aesthetics or Whatever Aesthetics and on and on. Here, art making becomes an urgent, and in many ways a strangely utilitarian, polymathic tool able to build-out some of these ideas – not just offer up more illustrations.
YOU YOUR SUN AND SHADOW, 2012
MICHAEL JONES JONES
This essay written by Michael Jones McKean, first appeared in the exhibition catalog for ‘you your sun and shadow’, curated by MJM at the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University in January of 2012. The show included works by: Hany Armanious, Rashid Johnson, Pam Lins, Tony Matelli, Ian Pedigo, Dario Robleto, Haim Steinbach, Sarah Sze, Tatiana Trouvé, and Daniel Turner.
i. objects and shadow
Our eyes are complex sense organs, ones that require a medium—light—with which to register the things within our field of vision: objects, surfaces, colors, contours, and shapes. With light and objects comes shadow: light’s inversion, an object’s surrogate ghost twin, the most basic evidence that a thing even exists.
ii. the exhibition
you, your sun and shadow is a speculative exhibition focused on a small branch of objects we collectively call sculpture. The artworks contained within these pages (placeholders for the actual) offer up a willfully subjective index of dimensional marks and moves and materials and objects transformed into meta-fictions, each volunteering distinctly eccentric versions of our thing-based world. Though in another universe, only slightly altered from where we now sit, the same show would be viewed as an anthropology of origin-unknown objects, an archeo-catalogue of ambient volumetric displacements, an abridged lexicon of alchemically formed things, an extended mediation on spatially feral mark-making techniques, a depository of rogue shapes that are not screens, or an Inchoate History of Late Sculpture/Objects From Before the Siege. Playfully, in the plastic universe of thought, perhaps the exhibition will masquerade as these things, if only for a moment.
iii. the sovereign object
There is a myth that describes the existence of a truly sovereign object—an object purged of all relationships, a thing emasculated of reference, politic, memory, and discourse. In its amnesia and hermeticism, this object lives in a void—invisible, untouchable, and shadowless, endlessly devouring itself without comfort, pleasure, or pain.
iv. object anomalies
Occasionally we encounter an uncatalogued object for which we haven’t yet established a template in our minds. In defiance, the object eludes our attempts at categorization. At the limits of our perception, we’re able to understand it only in terms of its otherness: anomalous, aberrant, stray, vexing, deviant, rogue, curious, just weird… a thing. Tasked with processing this unique object, we must actively develop our own neurology, dedicating a small bit of mental real estate to it. The process ensues not by absolving the object’s signature strangeness, but by finding ways of incorporating its strangeness into our psyche. To do this, our brains go to work constructing and rebuilding taxonomies. New analogies are made; scripts rewritten; old ideas recalled, unshelved, recataloged, or discarded. This project, although complicated, tiring, and imperfect, is also intensely pleasurable. These odd, here-and-now deviations in space come to us as small gifts that test our private and collective assumptions and, in some way, build our world anew.
v. else as ethos
Embedded within the discipline of sculpture, is a breed of intellectualism yearns not for “and” and “also,” but for “else.” The concept of else distinguishes itself through a fundamental desire for something that isn’t exactly around yet, something slightly out of reach, not even imagined. Although the spirit of else is coded deep within us, it primarily lies dormant as it runs counter to defaults that happily conform to the ease of preformed, off-the-shelf mental orthodoxies. Practicing else is just harder. Else makes demands. It leans on us. It lives in our fever dreams. It keeps asking. But in all of its wanton insistence, the virtue of else lies in its sublimated generative spirit. In its thirst, it trolls for the sweetness of swerve and sex and love and sun and shadows and must, craving the fecundity of creation.
As we move around, we travel through object-fields. These fields are bounded by their functions as much as by the limitations of our vision: a table after dinner, a bookshelf, a primeval forest floor, an unmade bedroom. In each of these spaces, there’s an invisible valence generated by the objects contained in the field that also claims hold on them and, momentarily, on us. The valent pull is liminal and delicate, but the tonality and distinct character of each field would be demonstrably altered if something was removed or even repositioned slightly—the magnetism recalibrated, the poem rewritten.
Within this concept, there are unusual moments when a set of objects within a field develops dimensional clarity and continuity. A sweet contingency emerges, a special form of solidarity: object harmonics. We realize that these aggregative, seemingly random forms in space are linked in an ontologically and spatially meaningful way. Our mind shutters off whole chambers in devotion to these few things in space. The fullness of the light and the triangles and distinctions of you and it vanishes and, for a moment, things feel infinite and complete—majestically, ecstatically human. As you bask in the eloquence of this suddenly interconnected world, off to your right, in your vision’s periphery, something shifts. Perhaps just a shadow. Your gaze immediately switches back to the object-field as you stagger to reclaim the brilliant balance of the moment. But it has passed, and the feeling of realness, wholeness, interconnectedness, and satiated empathy becomes rounded and dulled. This visit to a kaleidoscopic world dims, and space, which only movements ago exceeded earthly dimension, rushes back to the limits of corporality. As you survey the object-field, still drunk in the secret afterglow of the moment, the sweet ecstasy you felt seconds earlier tips mournful as you realize this moment cannot be repeated, never prompted on cue. Three and a half seconds tick by; we stare into the field, and the objects remain, volunteering.
vii. circles become spheres
Imagine a Venn diagram that travels with you in your mind’s eye. Picture the diagram as a screen, an interface overlaid on all you see and do, its triad of circles making silent adjustments as you move through your day. You see a piece a paper. There is an image on the paper. Its appearance indicates it is not a photocopy or a true photograph, but an inkjet print. As you try, with difficulty, to discern the quality of paper with regard to the saturation of ink into its fibers, your Venn diagram shifts suddenly, and an image comes into focus. It is figurative, outdoors, high-noon light. It is Oprah. The Color Purple Oprah, sun-bonnet-and-flower-dress Oprah, Spielberg’s Alice Walker’s Sophia’s Oprah. The cogs of your Venn diagram rearrange themselves again. You notice this print is a film still turned into a jpeg, printed out from a Google search. Oprah’s image, living now on cheap copy paper, was rephotographed as it lay on a wooden surface, an oak table. You suddenly remember that you are sitting with your screen, your feet placed solidly on the floor, eyes trained toward the incandescence of your monitor. Oprah glows like an angel from the atomized pixels of your laptop, a 13” MacBook Pro; the interface is Tumblr, overlaid on a Skype chat window, and you realize the sun is behind you; its starburst reflection hovers bright over your shoulder, held on the surface of your screen; your eyes refocus, landing on its skin-oil smudged surface as the silhouette of Oprah dissolves into pure glare-light reflection. The gleam feels sacred as it rebounds and touches the lens of your eye, and all these jangly layers of information compress like nova into crystalline meaning and, in the Venn, the circles become spheres.
viii. the comfort of stone
Standing on a stone. The solidity of stone is comforting and reminds us that it is okay to be still for a while and slow down and relish the stone. With our body weight on this dominion of stone, swaying from our heels through the arch of our feet to straining toes, we rise. We feel our weight again as we crest. The dance is ours but still fixed in ancient communion with our stone. Our chest expands, we breathe and, for a moment, we believe the stone breathes with us. Our toes gradually depart, and we float above.
ix. confidence man
When you see magic performed excellently, you’re witnessing the honed gap separating our accrued knowledge and learned beliefs of how the world is supposed to work from some event we simply can’t account for. The fixed laws and wisdom we draw upon daily are momentarily thrown into doubt. In this way, I’m very curious about how a sculpture might lie to us. Even as we stand in their shadow, objects are often unreliable narrators of their own embedded histories.
x. sculptural time
In many ways sculpture can never truly be narrative because it lacks the most essential tools to narrate—a beginning and an end. More and more, our brains are hardwired to skillfully follow narrative arcs coded in books, films, theater, songs, and YouTube’s ubiquitous bubble, floating left to right. But time is conscripted in sculpture differently. For all of its material edges and volumetric limitations, temporally sculpture doesn’t have the advantage of “the end” as a conceptual tool to construct meaning. Time enfolds, wrapping back on itself, and, in the process, sculpture swallows time’s arc.
xi. an exhibition is a value system
The exhibition is a sustained attempt to build a psychic space where straightforward logic doesn’t always win, where things without readymade functions congregate and play, where silence never suggests absence, where meaning drifts in suspended determination, and where sculptures possess restorative capabilities.
JAMES GADDY AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2012
A short interview with James Gaddy of Surface Magazine discussing ‘The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms,’ June 4, 2012
JAMES GADDY: Can you elaborate a little bit on how you became interested in the rainbow phenomena and when / how you decided to incorporate it into your practice?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: The project’s genesis has its roots in objects and time. In a poetic way, but also in some sense a phenomenological way — through all of time there has been only one rainbow. Coded within the image there is a consistency, an extreme fidelity in the essential form of a rainbow. The image doesn’t evolve or degrade in the same way a piece of fruit does, or an iPod does, or even more stoically the way a mountain does — it is a constant. When we see a rainbow we are communing with our ancestors — seeing exactly the same shape they saw just as we astral project into the future witnessing the same event our children’s children will see. It races out to the edges of time. But this image is also fully absorbed in the here-and-now and in all its fleeting fragility, at the moment we witness a rainbow it reminds us that we are also here, and right now. As someone that thinks a lot about objects and time, the rainbow became an interesting starting point to build a series of metaphors about objects, time and people….
JG: What was the most difficult or surprising aspect you discovered in the process of trying to create a rainbow ‘on demand’ as it were?
MJM: I do not really understand the project as ‘on demand.’ I’m interested in the extreme contingency the project embraces. But if I were to push it a bit, in some sense the ‘on demand’ quality you’re interpreting was the easiest part. When we see a rainbow we are witnessing the result of a fixed set of constants, a set of principles that behave in very predictable ways: basic geometry and sight lines, the orbit of the earth in the relation to the sun, the tilt and spin of the planet on its axis and the miniature prism-water droplets all collaborating to produce an elegant optical effect — a rainbow. But even as these parts can be relied on and are known — the result still feels like magic.
What made the project difficult had to do with scale and more specifically the insistence of harvesting and reclaiming rainwater in a perpetual loop. From the beginning, it was essential to consider water as a rare commodity within the project — from this, a set of difficult problems cascaded down in which to solve — problems that required a very specialized group of people and an organization willing to step into the unknown.
JG: How much concern do you have about the weather itself and whether it will conspire against you during the project? Are there specific elements that are outside your control, which keep you up at night?
MJM: It is a good question. With a project like this, one with so many working parts and possible contingencies I might never sleep, panicked that a cloud might pass in front of the sun at an inopportune moment. But early on I realized that it was essential to fully embrace fragility and the delicate nature of the project not only as important conceptual pillars — but as something that gave the project a sweetness — a kind of mortality. The project could never be about overcoming nature or battling nature, it’s about embracing things that are already there — about creating a bizarre internal logic and following it through logically.
JG: Do you think that much of the power of the rainbow comes from its surprise — like a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio? And if so, do you think that re-creating this effect will reduce that power somewhat?
MJM: To answer the question it’s critical to understand that I’m making an artwork. In some ways your question is like asking, “might making a film about love diminish the power of love?” I just don’t see it that way. I’m making a project that flirts with the charged space between something that is in of itself actual and real, but also a representation — a fiction. And as with any fiction, the project exudes a vital ‘mere-ness’ when measured next to the magnitude of life…
In the way this project has been conceived, it could never complete with the majesty of a rainbow hovering in the sky after a shower arcing 30 miles over terrain, linking shore to town. Buried within the DNA of the project I’ve tried to maintain a decency and resiliency to the image. Over the course of the entire project, the rainbow appears only fleetingly — a few minutes here and there. To some degree, the rainbow is never there, we wait for it in all its contingency and fragility, leaning on the whims of nature with sun and rainwater as fixed tenets within the project. Even as we’ve gone to extreme measures to produce a rainbow the project exists for most people more as a figment in the mind, a ghost, in many ways as a real one does…
THE OBJECT IN THE LIMIT, 2008
This essay by Stacy Switzer, Curator and Director of Grand Arts in Kansas City, first appeared in the catalog “Michael Jones McKean: Selected Projects 2003-2008” in spring of 2008.
“By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end—
Methinks it is no journey.”
“Being more X than K
‘Feet don’t fail me miaow’
Carved above the grave
‘Curved above the groov’”
The Meta, The Mercy
Choose a place to enter into Michael Jones McKean’s mysterious, poetic and complex work. To do so, you will have to let go of beginnings, middles, endings: for linear narrative is of little consequence in this artist’s constructed parallel worlds. McKean’s elegant assemblages and ambitious installations are places-out-of-place within times-out-of-time. They can be hallucinatory, elliptical, and vexing despite their insistent materiality in the here-now. But even without endings, there are ends in these works, plenty of them. Consider some of McKean’s sources and subjects: Albert Ayler, the legendary jazz saxophonist whose body was found floating in New York City’s East River (an apparent, though unconfirmed suicide); Donald Crowhurst, the amateur seafarer who set sail to circle the globe, but ended up adrift in the Atlantic, beaconing the water to swallow him up, which it did; Radio Raheem, the Boom Box-toting character in Spike Lee’s now classic film Do the Right Thing, whose murder ignited a race riot; and Hall and Oates (a.k.a. H2O) the soft-rocking duo whose creepy indelible love/loss songs could be soundtracks for suicide at sea. There is enough death in this work to go ‘round. And yet, it is also clear through McKean’s work that the final limit is never the last note in a song or a story; it, like anywhere else, is a fine place to begin, as good a place as rainbows (their inherent placelessness notwithstanding), and eerie glows, as sperm whales, as colonial expeditions, and as a 1967 McCullough chainsaw, as gold chains, as Mississippi River silt, and modern furniture design, as Fitzcarraldo and Home Depot, and as an Argentinian meteorite (its unfathomable origin totally withstanding) whose calculated place happens to be right here, in the gallery, displacing space with you and I. We could begin here, but we won’t. We’ll begin somewhere else. Above the groove.
Begin with object lust. The 1987 J1 Super Jumbo Promax Boom Box. McKean wanted it. Badly. According to everything it meant and could mean: one of the largest boom boxes ever made, it played a starring role in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, blasting out Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on the arm of Radio Raheem. Lee’s movie made the Promax into an icon—a symbol of resistance, racial conflict, and slick product design that’s since achieved a near-mythic status among certain collectors of 1980’s gear.
McKean found one on eBay, and it became an art object.
But then his landlord stole it.
He got it back.
Though not quite.
He sculpted an exact copy of the Box out of wood. An effigy.
Certain works of visual art seem to have their analog in writing, rather than objects or images, and McKean’s work is often striking in this regard. Like a poem rendered in three dimensions, McKean’s sculpture affects us through the things it collects (bits of history, popular culture, arcane knowledge, artifacts) and the accumulation of meaning outside its own breadth, it lives between consonants (e.g. lines, textures, edges) and dissonance (the friction of objects, the rawness of being) in the irreconcilable space between the thing (say, an expedition to an unknown land) and the representation of the thing (a handmade replica of the helmet worn by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, for example.) Here, the distances between things (whether problems of representation, geography, or psychic disconnect) are always considered, if not resolved—they are like breaths between words, a wind on the skin; listen closely, McKean seems to say, and you will hear the hum of the Earth turning; be still, and you will feel it on your face.
“I’m trying to understand things I can barely see,” McKean has said, “but [which I] still believe are palpable and real.” McKean’s adventuring spirit situates him among the explorers and dreamers whose stories are threaded into his work. In 2006, the artist employed a team of university researchers to help him find the longest navigable route around the Earth. The project involved a complex computer algorithm that tested the elevation of more than a billion points on the Earth’s surface to arrive at what McKean titled The Great Circuit. The Great Circuit is a conceptual artwork and a counterintuitive test of limits based on a hypothetical journey that may or may not be physically possible. As the catalyst for an extraordinary body of information—one born of hard science but which hovers unfixed to the realm of common utility—McKean performs a kind of radical, interdisciplinary sleight-of-hand. The Great Circuit project remains profoundly elusive even as it directly engages realms as diverse as phenomenology, mathematics, economics, ecology and spirituality. Why, The Great Circuit asks, do we so insistently privilege certain modes of being are methods of inquiry over others? What hierarchies are in place? What journeys are worth undertaking? Here as elsewhere in McKean’s work, what seems like an imaginative dalliance deftly slices to the core of what we value and how we choose to live our days on the planet.
The late sculptor Jason Rhoades described the impossible this way: juggling it, he said “was always an issue throughout my work – to take three objects, like a rubber ball, a chain saw and a live African elephant and try to juggle.” McKean’s affinity for risk and surreal convergence can be understood in a similar way, although it is crucial to note that McKean’s selection of objects and events is never random. Both artists, though, seem to have a vital appreciation for spectacular failure, and the generative possibilities that courting such risk can open up. “I’ve begun to understand failure and success as living in close proximity to one another,” McKean said in a 2007 interview. “With two opposing forces occupying nearly the same psychic space, the small gap between them becomes an extreme location. I like to imagine the work trying to negotiate this charged space, where it has to strain to keep everything together.” In two grand-scale installations of 2006 and 2007 (Riverboat Lovesongs for the Ghost Whale Regatta at Grand Arts, and The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows, at DiverseWorks) McKean clearly drew inspiration from the well of creative and physical strain, as he fashioned a forty-foot long riverboat of MDF and foam which referenced, among other things, Werner Herzog’s Sisyphean attempt to drag an actual riverboat up the side of a mountain in the Amazon jungle for the movie Fitzcarraldo. Smaller and more recent works, such as The Freeing of Cosmonaut Volynov and Pitcher Gooden’s Song (2007) likewise meditate upon the extremes of ambition, folly, and worse. In 1969, the Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov came close to being incinerated in mid-air when the space module he was traveling in failed to disengage from its companion craft. Like the once-celebrated, later-shamed American pitcher Dwight Gooden, Volynov survived one calamitous encounter only to find himself on the brink of seemingly inevitable destruction again a few years later. In McKean’s work, Volynov and Gooden’s contemporary mythologies converge as materials in a stark white assemblage; an elegy, perhaps, for the kind of dream that transcends space, time, materials, and cultural bounds. At the same time, the glint of humor in McKean’s homespun reproductions of Radio Raheem’s oversized Love and Hate rings alerts us to be cautious in any reading that would view the work as a sober paean to that most spectacular failure (or triumph) of all: Modernism.
McKean’s juggling at the limits of representation and experience, both within the work and as its maker, have led him to be characterized as a romantic optimist, a modernist in ship’s clothing, and a savvy self-saboteur. At stake in these readings is the deeply anxious question of whether any artist can escape modernism’s (or -isms’) impossibly strong gravitational pull. Perhaps it is more useful (and amusing) to consider Rhoades’ impossibility echoed in McKean’s 1967 McCullough chainsaw, in The Allegory of Rule and The Geometry of Wind (2007.) Liquid gold puddles and drips like fresh oil around the chainsaw’s base. “And would you save or live your life?” it goads the gentle viewer. “The beauty is in the failure.”
MATTHEW EDGEWORTH AND MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN, 2008
This published conversation with archeologist Matthew Edgeworth, a PhD Research Associate in the School of Archaeology at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom took place via email during the first week of January 2008. The resulting text appeared in the exhibition catalog “The wake, the saint, the sound, the branch” published to accompany the eponymous exhibition at Project Gentili, in Prato, Italy.
MATTHEW EDGEWORTH: Looking at your sculptures reminds me of being on an archaeological excavation. Artifacts and natural objects from different times emerge to form a new and original assemblage in the here and now. Highly artificial utilitarian objects contrast with materials that have an earth-like roughness. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern things, mixed up with our own gear and equipment, is very reminiscent of what archaeologists encounter on a dig. Torn out of their original context of meaning and use, the discovered objects invite us to ascribe meanings that take account of their incongruous collectivity as well as their individual identities.
In creating these sculptures, were you conscious that you were in some sense taking on the role of archaeologist, making meanings about the past in the present, or the present in the past..?
MICHAEL JONES MCKEAN: I see what you are suggesting; it seems we’re both trying to notice and worry about objects, wondering about their potential, what they could be. But your question, for me, is really about gaps. When I imagine borrowing the mechanics of archeology to think about work that was created using a different logic suddenly all these cracks appear. Ideas that felt solid are suddenly unreliable, open for suggestion, compromise. The work becomes vulnerable. I think an archeological model provides an interesting scaffolding to support the work, but it also has the possibility of acting like a rogue wave, positively de-centering everything. In the work I’m proposing some plastic methods for organizing disparate collections of objects, styles and materials in order to speculate about meaning itself. These methods aren’t beholden to utility or linearity or even hard and fast agreed-upon logic as the governing forces behind the inquiry; the reasoning is more elliptical, rhyming, and flexible.
I’m interested in ways people figure out objects. One approach is to mentally upload all our conceptual tools and theoretical equipment, to drag all our cultural, personal and ideological baggage with us to interrogate an object. In this case a work acts as a surface to throw our speculative assumptions against – as these assumptions rebound they get recalibrated, confirmed, contested and adjusted. But when this process is complete we may walk away with a better grasp of our own ideas than with a deep and sensitive understanding of the object we tried to fix our gaze on. I think this method has its place, it just seems steeped in a strain of formal academism that’s been a long-held default strategy for looking at stuff.
Another approach to looking at objects is to mentally shelve all our collected baggage, to actually try and clear out space in our brains for the poetic possibility of a new thing to exist. If we can succeed, we momentarily visit a place where meaning exists on it’s own terms. I think this is very complicated, risky and by design difficult to sustain because we can’t just borrow a pre-existing theoretical armature for help; we have to use the work.
Of course my descriptions of these two models are simplifications, but it’s clear that each requires a different practice and ethics. They each route images through a totally individual coordinate pattern in our brains resulting in inquiries with completely different characters and syntax. The difficulty is trying to juggle both simultaneously, to get them to run parallel to one another. This requires some dexterity.
ME: It’s similar in archaeology as in art. Much of the time (in our everyday mode of archaeological perception), we tend to treat material objects and patterns as though they really are ‘objective’ and separate from ourselves. We observe and record and describe ‘what is there’, almost as though objects can speak for themselves about the past. Like you say, it’s a default strategy. But our own cultural knowledge – our habitual ways of seeing and doing and understanding things – is still there in the background. It’s still influencing every aspect of the encounter with material things.
On the other hand, as an anthropologist I’m also interested in how we use our cultural knowledge to figure out what objects are. I’ve tried experimenting with the very different perspective of an ethnographer looking at archaeological encounters, as if from outside. But as I’ve discovered, it’s very difficult to be an archaeologist and an ethnographer at the same time! And it’s not easy to find that momentary place where meaning exists on its own terms! Like you say, the trick is using both methods simultaneously, so that one doesn’t lose sight either of the object or the subjective and social processes of construction that go into the making of the object. But this really is one of the hardest things to do.
I think this one reason why I find your sculptures intriguing. Not all are fully formed. Some are almost in the process of taking shape as the perceiver moves around them. And mixed up with this shifting objective reality are the very bits of equipment that go into the making and maintenance of it – not just the artifacts of a constructed past, but also and especially the wires and plugs and iPods and other stage installations that are very much part of the constitution of the object in the present. How do you as a sculptor resolve the paradox that on the one hand the objects we find in the world seem to be ready made and complete unto themselves, separate from the present day subject or observer, while on the other hand they seem to need us and a whole battery of our cultural apparatus to (more or less tacitly) give them form and meaning?
MJM: Your question makes me think about the last time I was in New York and saw the new wing of Greek and Roman statuary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing in front of these sculptures made elegantly plain to me a sophisticated and durable built-in conceptualism.
Imagine a sailing ship carrying goods and a marble statue sinking off the coast of Italy in a storm around 200 B.C. The boat and its cargo are lost, forgotten. Over hundreds of years the statue’s gilded and polychromed surface is washed away. Sometime in the 15th century the ship’s cargo is accidentally discovered by spear fishermen. Free divers are hired by a salvage company to swim 50 meters down to the bottom of the ocean and dredge up its contents. A nearly intact statue is raised to the surface. The work is sold to a rich merchant who admires antiquities. The object changes hands twice in 60 years and eventually is given to a museum where its few broken parts are mended and its entire surface is cleaned and polished. It is put on display. Artists and scholars come to see it. They make drawings of it, measure it, make plaster casts of it, write poetry about it, debate its merits, all the while trying to understand how the Ancients were able to make such a thing. During wars the sculpture was hidden and protected. After years in storage it is forgotten. Eventually, the small museum sells the work to another. It travels across an ocean where it lives sometimes in public, sometimes in private. It is analyzed by academics, archivists, geologists, archeologists and historians. It is photographed and x-rayed. Years later its propriety is questioned. The work travels back to the Mediterranean on a ship designed with rooms that control moisture and air temperature. Oils from human hands never touch it.
I tell this story because during this time frame the specificity of the work’s meaning has changed, yet meaning itself has somehow remained resilient. The sculpture is no longer about Dionysus in any usable way, at this point it reveals more about our collective agreement of its cultural value. But more importantly it also still manages to grip our attention because something about the object itself, in spite of everything, is capable of sustaining our imaginations and rewarding our gaze. Incredibly its meaning is still largely undetermined, way outside our fixed and tidy narratives that attempt to package it. It’s actually become mystical.
This is really about our complicated and peculiar ritual of looking at objects and its deep connection to pleasure. A version of this story could just as easily to told about a mass-produced napkin with a printed image of a buttercup on it as it can about a sculpture preserved from antiquity.
ME: Moments of extraordinary pleasure taken in an object occur often in excavation. As you say, it’s not just the classically beautiful object like the marble statue. Often it’s a very humble object like an arrowhead or even a sherd of pottery with a distinctive pattern or shape, or some other distinctive trace of human workmanship. Unlike in your example of the much traveled and culturally embedded ancient work of art, however, there is in excavation the additional factor of sudden emergence. Like a meteorite from outer space or a time machine that suddenly materialises in the here and now, these objects suddenly emerge into our cultural space from their former state of hidden-ness in the earth. It may be a child or a volunteer who finds it and takes delight in it, or it may be a trained archaeologist. Finding such objects from the past is the essence of the archaeological experience. One moment the object is not there, the next moment it is suddenly and immediately present in fully-fledged being. There is the sense of closeness to the person(s) who made or used or owned or threw away the object in the distant past, almost as though only a very short time has elapsed between them touching it and you holding it in your own hands. There is something very special about these moments of discovery, these sudden encounters with an object world almost before we’ve had a chance to assimilate it into our conceptual schemes or to assign conventional cultural values. But can it ever have that pristine freshness about it again when it has been washed, scrubbed, studied, drawn, labeled, photographed, encased?
MJM: Trying to imagine an a priori encounter is very complicated for me, but maybe the bridge I can make has something to do with beauty. Despite how played out and bemoaned the concept of beauty is, the moment of beauty is totally undomesticated because, as you say, it’s an extreme, original encounter. It can’t be graphed algebraically or philosophically determined. It’s a fragile poetic anomaly too unstable to be transferred as our psychic registration can never be fixed or frozen. In this respect I think our relationship to beauty has everything to do with our habits of consumption. After we experience this extreme moment we need it again.
ME: There’s a deep paradox here because on the one hand beauty is culturally defined and everything to do with habit. On the other hand the experience of beauty as you describe it is a stepping outside of our customary ways of seeing. It is to see things anew. To be astonished. To see what has become mundane as it really is – extraordinary.
Perhaps recently unearthed archaeological objects may strike us as beautiful precisely because their original cultural significance and context has been cleared away, and the imposition of our own cultural values has yet to fully take place. The thing for an instant appears as close as it will ever get to just being ‘itself’.
Of course we have talked as though beauty is just a matter of visual aesthetics. But you as a sculptor and I as an archaeologist also encounter materials and patterns all the time that are not just ‘there’ in their entirety all in one go. They have to be moulded into shape or worked with tools in order for them to properly emerge and take form. Or they have to be perceived by walking round or through them, peering round corners or delving into hidden recesses. And these can be experienced as beautiful or delightful too, or might otherwise stimulate our interest / curiosity, but somehow our relation to such unfolding things is far more tactile and embodied – a matter of actively touching and exploring as much as looking. Many archaeological patterns of evidence are like this. Complex series of interlocking features such as pits and ditches and house platforms and postholes only take form as they are actually being dug, just as a sculpture only emerges from a raw material as it is being kneaded or carved or otherwise worked with hands or tools. Is there not a deep correspondence here, perhaps, between archaeology and sculpture?
MJM: Yes, there are absolutely moments where our disciplines comfortably overlap and common entry points that emerge where we can neatly borrow vernacular strategies and language from each other. As interesting as this kind of correspondence is, there’s also a certain inevitability in it, especially when we align two fields that both deeply fetishize objects and things. Perhaps it illustrates a generational condition of privileging interdisciplinary and collaborative practices as status quo. As I’m starting to see it, one of the challenges is to try to find new terms that re-articulate the specifics of a given discipline; to me there is still something speculative and radical about how “form” and “surface” convey meaning in an object.
The discussion of archeologically is relative in my work. I want to consider a silver and chrome 1982 Sharp GF-777z boom box or vintage Ocean Pacific windbreaker on the same field hierarchically as a 5,000 year old meteorite from Argentina or a replica of King Tutankhamen’s funerary mask. I’m curious how you understand the specifics of your own archeological practice in relation to “new” things. For instance, a first generation iPod feels almost 5,000 years old, but it imports, quite efficiently, a lot of information about its time.
ME: Archaeology comes from the Greek word ‘archaiologia’ which means the study of antiquity. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the study of artifacts from the Hittite empire or old Inca sites. As you rightly point out, a 2001 iPod or mobile phone can seem truly antique to us – all the more so for the fact that we have memories and associations of the time that is gone. In similar vein, an underground nuclear bunker from the Cold War is as much a relic of a former age as an ancient Egyptian tomb. Archaeological theories about material culture – for example about how the distribution of artifacts within such subterranean structures might reflect or symbolize or create wider social and political realities – are applicable to both. The methods and techniques we use are sometimes even more relevant to recent things than to old. It might be said, for example, that the Berlin Wall has suffered so much more from the ravages of time than the Great Wall of China, that it has more to offer an archaeological anaysis. Archaeology is about the present and the recent past just as much as it is about ancient times.
The upshot of this is that archaeology as a discipline is constantly shifting the boundaries of its domain of study forward in time, to accommodate the ever increasing categories of things that are becoming ‘past’. Like a dragon chasing its own tail, it has even had to face the fact that the very practice of archaeology itself leaves traces in the ground which can and often are apprehended by archaeological means. An archaeological site comprises more than just the objective material evidence of the past. Mixed up with old walls, postholes, potsherds and other archaeological artifacts emerging from the ground are the traces of the archaeological excavation itself – the trenches and sondages and sections and smoothed surfaces through which the more ancient evidence is being brought to light. Then there the tools of excavation such as the trowels, spades, wheelbarrows, total stations, finds bags, recording sheets, cameras, vehicles, site huts, computers, mobile phones and other paraphenalia – not to mention the team of archaeologists themselves with their distinctive and unusual fashions of dress. Archaeological theories of material culture, in my view, should at least in principle be applicable to the whole array of surfaces and things and actions, all mixed up together as they are.
Which brings me back to the aspect of your work which strikes such a chord with me – the assembling together of artifacts from different times in particular arrangements. The conjunctions and/or disconnections between these things, their disparate meanings and affordances, have archaeological resonances. I agree there are limits to any analogy between sculpture and archaeology, both of which have their own quite distinctive practices and rationales. Yet there is a still a sense in which I believe the archaeologist is a kind of sculptor. And however we characterize the artist, is it not the case that the person who subsequently views / explores / interprets the sculptures really is a kind of archaeologist, adopting a similar stance and approach towards material things? Can the putting together by the viewer of the fragments of pasts that you have provided – assembling them in perception into some sort of coherent whole in the present – be characterised, do you think, as an archaeological act?
MJM: Although I’m absolutely quoting archeological tropes, it doesn’t make sense for me to make this characterization. It smoothes things out too nicely. But the way you described the dig offers up some parallels to my work in relation to archaeology. Similar to your description, I like to imagine my work skidding across time, gathering up stuff into unifying constellations with the intent of articulating potential in objects and styles, materials and their arrangement. This image of the dig site is really a bizarre field of evidence that points toward the possibility of a larger narrative or allegorical structure. These kinds of places appeal to our imaginations as much as they do to us analytically.
In imagining this excavation there are imperceptible moments as we scan over the tools, the pipes and mounds, and ditches and tents and shadows, when suddenly the focus of our gaze shifts. The site flattens out, and the objects in relation to our body become aligned in a momentary geometry linking us to this field in four dimensions. These once discreet objects melt into a totality which reports back to us, telling us something about ourselves, about being human, about our yearning and active minds, about failure, our hopes for the future, about being careful. In objects and statues and boom boxes and the fleeting symmetry inside an archaeological dig site is all this latent information that has the ability to recalibrate our modern ideas through ancient, ancestral channels; to re-articulate our involvement with forms and meaning. I think this is important for both sculpture and archeology.