• Review

  • February 20th, 2014 02.20.2014

    The Way of the Shovel, Part II: MCA Chicago


    Republished with retracted edits

    The Way Of The Shovel is an enticing exhibition for the curious mind. Part one of this review focused on the archeological attitudes the show is built upon, and the dialectic relationship between art and scholastic practices. The attempt to trace this major current movement in art – the interdisciplinary, hyper-intellectualized, attention to research-based practices is formed, naturally, on the grid of historical and archeological disciplines. Through this approach, it collides both practices, of art and theory, deteriorates the pace of academic steadiness, and exposes it to effective fictions and speculations.

    A clear image of this collision may be seen in Mark Dion’s work, the godfather of the archeological impulse in art. Dion presents Concerning The Dig from 2013, an archeological workstation, a set of which is only a partly fabricated. Shovels and spades are cramped next to a desk of a cleaning station. On the table, among other objects, is a closed wooden box. A bulletin board with notes and pictures is placed above it. A full trashcan, a bookshelf, more boxes, a second table, a chair and a stool, a stand with pristine white lab coats, and a brand new fishing hat hang in proximity. In attempting to decipher the figure of the absent archeologist that embodies the set, we read through this material culture of the field. In doing so, we activate – quite accidently – the anthropological gaze. This strategic move creates a short circuit in the scientific system presented in front of us, one branch suddenly projects and writes the other.

    And yet, still, we haven’t finished digging.

    Mark Dion, Concerning the Dig, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago November 9, 2013 – March 9, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

    While standing in front of the piece, it is impossible to shake the feeling of artificiality that surrounds it, as if we were inside a glassless museum diorama, on display is The Archeologist. Dion is an artful collector, or rather, an artist for whom collecting and displaying are his mediums. One notices that on the shelf, among other books, the exhibition’s catalogue is placed. On its spine appears a drawing of a shovel. It is one of Dion’s; the favorite one, we are been told.1 Displaying the catalogue as part of the installation, while on it appears a drawing of one of the installations’ objects, feels like a lapse in time. The site of production, and by this I mean the production of experience – the installation itself – caves in on the site of reflection, the catalogue. Despite the assumption that one precedes the other, here the experience and its aftermath exist in a constant present, which means that they’re both are transformative, or at least hold this potential. But we are not allowed pry, only speculate. During a private tour with the exhibition’s curator, Dieter Roelstraete, he paused next to Dion’s installation, and after few sentences, suddenly pointed to the closed wooden box, the one that’s placed on the table, and said, “this box holds a secret.” “I cannot tell you what it is because I promised,” he asserted, although I didn’t press, “all I can say, it contains the punctum.” I wondered many times why Roelstraete had mentioned it, this double negative of a closed unknown. Without coming to a conclusion I do amuse myself by paralleling it to Duchamps’ With Hidden Noise (1916) – another secret contract between an artist and a curator.

    This speculative, or rather suspicious, reading of Dion’s installation radiates into the gallery space as a contagious quality.  In front of it, Stan Douglas’ large photograph, does not fail to absorb this radiation. The McLeod’s Books, Vancouver (2006) depicts the overstock of an immense room in a bookstore. Roelstraete intents to present this vertical labyrinth as the new set of tools of the contemporary artist, which abandons the physical dig and turns instead to the intellectual one. I, on the other hand, cannot resist reading the photograph as an archeological site of itself; a site that covers stories and evidence of the unknown as concealed secrets, closed and hidden books, uncovered, forgotten histories present themselves – and yet, they are withheld.

    McLeods 002
    Stan Douglas, MacLeod’s, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

    The next room screens Overture by Douglas (1986). The footage is from the turn of the twentieth century, archival material of the Edison Film Company. We see a depiction of a train motion; a ghostly, mechanized gaze that rides through the Rocky Mountain tunnels. The spoken text is composed of fragments from the “overture” – as Douglas puts it – to the monolithic novel Remembrance of Things Past by Proust.2 The piece, which is in fact Douglas’ first video work, is trapped in an endless loop; its bodiless, inhuman gaze circles through darkness and light, marking the verge of the expansions of the white civilizations in North America, and the technological revolution that followed. While arresting this moment that vanished, with speed of the modernity itself, the piece narrates the voice that is emblematic of a prologue to the modern world. Remembrance of Things Past, published between 1871–1922, voices the modern subjects’ melancholic relationship with its own past; the subject that mourns the passing of time, alongside the offenses imposed by involuntary memories.

    Stan Douglas, Film still, Overture, 1986. Courtesy the artist.

    The proximity in the video’s location to the psychoanalytic excavation section, featuring works by Rebecca Keller, Jason Lazarus, and Shellbrune Thurber, calls to mind an appended reading. The video depicts, as we noted, a monotonic circling movement through mountain tunnels – at times, in pure abstractions due to the deterioration of the film. The meditative narration follows, evincing a dreamlike quality; the trains’ mechanized gaze seems to awake and fall asleep, to and fro, in its ride through the channels.

    I am tempted to read the piece through a fundamental thesis of Lacanian philosophy, one which positions fantasy on the side of reality, and in effect, reality on the side of the dream.3 With this equation in mind, what do we see while watching this piece? Do the flickering images go against the Lacanian structure of these turn-of-the-century dreams? And if so, are we the future of this dream, its manifestation, or dissolution?  This is only the beginning of the conversation, many questions remained unuttered, and the current platform is limited to contain its entire scope. This “problem” points to one of the exhibition’s strongest virtues; its excursive space that fosters new, or rather, reconsidered experiences and thought.

    It will be safe to describe the exhibition as an imported project. While Roelstraete was hired by the MCA last year, he was working on this thesis since 2009. It firstly appeared as a textual piece, published in e-flux journal, and followed by the 2010 The Archeologists exhibition, in Ursula Blickle Stiftung, Kraichtal, Germany, that featured five of the artists that are currently participating in the show. Nonetheless – the outcome of the extensive research within the concept of the exhibition is not only welcome, it is vital.

    Tony Tasset, Robert Smithson (Las Vegas), 1995. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery; and restricted gift of Jack and Sandra P. Guthman. © 1995 Tony Tasset. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta CHICAGO I BERLIN.

    This itinerary opens up the question of location. How are we view this exhibition in Chicago today, when it is, as Roelstraete writes, based generally upon a European affair?4 Yes, of course, not all the exhibiting artists are European, and there is even a fair representation of Chicago artists within the show, but the presented attitude is European in nature. How should the local audience view these art practices, practices obsessed with remembering and memorializing, while we may assume their own relation to concept of history is fundamentally different? For there is an essential distinction between European and American historical consciousness, and it is the later which has an intrinsic link with myth. American history constitutes the American myth, and in that it serves as a plateau for the American consciousness, though this path is left quite undone within the exhibition framework. However, the American Myth in question does slither and reappear within the exhibitions’ preoccupation with Robert Smithson, mainly because from a close observation, the different projects treat Smithson, and not his art, as an object of fascination, like a lost archeological artifact (see for example Zin Taylor’s Wrong Way To Spiral Jetty, 2006). Roelstraete hints on this point in his statement, in that it is the mythical figure of the seeker that Smithson personifies, a figure that encapsulates both the artist and the archeologist.

    Nourishing this line of thought gives privilege to national differences, while neglecting migrational and multinational identities. However, it does shed light on an interesting phenomenon: the thing that is considered a pathological, escapist cultural inclination in Europe, instead gains its vitality back over seas.5 The thought-provoking question regarding the divisions between American and European, the local and global, local and foreign, and local and multinational, remains open. While it seems that the multinational threat hovers over the waters of authentic subjectivity, the collection of artists in this exhibition prove otherwise. While local artists dealing with their own history will not necessary produce a relevant and vital body of work – on the other hand, allured artists touring through the new exotics can produce complex and engaging projects.6 The multinational identities within this exhibition indeed produce both homogeneity and new multiplicities. The later allows for history to be rewritten in new grammars.

    The Way of the Shovel at the MCA Chicago runs through March 9, 2014.

    1. Dieter Roelstraete, The Way Of The Shovel, Pub. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in association with The University Of Chicago, 2013, p. 102
    2. Stan Douglas lecturing at YYZ gallery, The Independent Eye, Vol. 10 #2 (Winter 1989): http://mikehoolboom.com/?p=94
    3. For further reading: Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime OBJECT of Ideology, London, Verso, 1989.
    4. Dieter Roelstraete, Field Notes, The Way Of The Shovel, Pub. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in association with The University Of Chicago, 2013, p.20, (note 8)
    5. Roelstraete stated in a private conversation that he would have not produce this show in Europe due to the apparent oversaturation of these attitudes.
    6. See, for example, the German Susanne Kreimann’s project in Texas, in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 2013