“Lighthouse” and “Bright White Underground”
We are attracted to decay.
It has something to do with time. Maybe it’s the death drive – as humans we are too aware of temporality. Living towards death – the living dead, perhaps? There is a human specificity to this stance. At once nostalgic and apocalyptic, we are the never-present.
This is to say, thinking means being related to time. Pure presence is the fleeting fruit tree to our Tantalus mediations – always just out of reach. We think. We reminisce about the past, bathed in the golden glow it casts. We plan for the future, sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear. Being present means seeing ourselves from above, abstracted through the imagined gaze of the other, our camera-framed existence, fantasy.
We are narratives. There is a story to everything. The very objects that surround us. The locations we inhabit. They, too, live. And just like us, they die. Their stories, open wounds. This is what’s specific about decay. They say the beautiful die young. Is this just naïve pop culture rubbish? Or is it not naïve enough? Perhaps beauty is always already death.
And that’s the point – beauty and decay are enigmatically intertwined. For me, personally, I find an almost romantic attraction to decay, to abandoned buildings and systems in decline. When I see pictures like these – my mind races.
Time, literally, inhabits these rooms. When we look at decay, we are looking at the movements of time itself, which is to say, narrativity. There is a story to be found here, in the objects themselves. The site is transformed from space to time. Suddenly there is a cast of characters. There is a beginning, middle and end. But compressed, happening all at once – the very way in which we experience time ourselves. This is what I find beautiful in decay: it’s simultaneously the indexical mark of time, of narrativity, and an idea, an entire story at once, non-temporally. Which means it’s both a story and an object, itself and its opposite. Just like art.
Michael C. McMillen – “Lighthouse”
On show at LA Louver until October 30th, McMillen’s sculptures exemplify what decay looks like as objects.
We see, arranged in the gallery as art objects, miniatures of decay. A decrepit submarine hugs a wall. An abandoned building sits alone on a pedestal. A broken section of a boat hangs from the ceiling. It is as if a model-ship collector started producing shipwrecks.
There is an important distinction to be made: these aren’t sets, locations or sites – but objects. They are isolated as such and stand solely as objects. McMillen materializes decay. At first I read this as a contradiction, that these miniatures seem like sets, but they are presented as objects.
For instance, the similar work of Juan Munoz creates a completely different effect by the way in which his objects are installed in the museum space. Munoz’s work engages the viewer structurally via the space itself, both enacting and speaking about intersubjectivity.
While McMillian’s world, on the other hand, is subject-less. It’s the world long after the apocalypse, after all people have died. But almost even further than that. It’s almost as if this show presents our post-apocalyptic world as a natural-history museum exhibition. We see these decaying locations not as sites to be engaged, but as relics, objects.
This might sound negative, but let me say – this show is strangely compelling. What do these boats mean? What does their decay mean? Is there a story, or are there only objects?
I’ve never understood model-boat collecting (something my father does). But maybe now, after McMillian’s “Lighthouse,” I do. There is a dialectical materialism at work in miniatures. It subtracts subjects from intersubjectivity. It takes the narrativity out of story. There is a form-centered gaze created by de-narrativizing these objects, and highlighting instead their materiality.
This form, it seems, is the real of time itself.
Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe – “Bright White Underground”
On show at Country Club / Los Angeles until October 30th, Freeman and Lowe’s enormous, conceptual installation highlights the inherent plot line of decay.
Once on-site, the viewer instantly becomes part of a greater mythology. Something happened here, that much is obvious. But how is the story told? Through everything. Every peeling strip of wallpaper, crack in concrete or hole punched through drywall speaks.
Each box and can, each labeled consistently with the project’s mythos, enunciates the nature of decay. Yes, there is a story. It can either be pieced together experientially through navigating the installation, or directly during the artists’ nearly hour-long presentation.
Freeman and Lowe tell the story of a drug safe-house run by psychonaut Dr. Arthur Cook, inventor of LSD-like drug Marasa. Their rambling and reference-laden talk never failed to entertain, but most importantly, it succeeded in painting a vibrant picture. We were shown a world where psychiatrists cross the line from mystical shamen to stoned socialites to paranoid researchers and back again. We were shown a world where parties cause transcendence. Guests literally levitate. Everyone’s on the run, from one safe-house to the next. Their only escape is to be consumed by these very sites, and in turn, history itself.
The specifics of this narrative, however pleasurable, weren’t the point. The meaning, quite simply, was this: there is a mythology. That’s what was articulated. That there was a story. Every room and every object screamed it – “This is important.”
I have to say, Bright White Underground was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my lifetime. The space was seeped in story. Mythology was their art and destruction their medium.
A wall is just a wall. But what happens when you punch a hole in it? Burn it down? Tear it to shreds? You don’t just have a destroyed wall. You have an object-cause. You have an implied reason. You have meaning.
If Dr. Cook’s drug-fueled goal was spiritual alchemy, coal to gold, then Freeman and Lowe finished this project. They showed us that decay is alchemy.
The Meaning of Decay
McMillen demonstrates a materialist approach to decay – he fetishizes the objects themselves as such, as objects, as ideas of time. On the other hand, Freeman and Lowe revel in the mythology of decay. There are objects and sites left behind, of course, but there is always a reason, a story.
This is why it’s beautiful. Because we, as humans, have found our most meaningful relationship to time in the form of decay, collapse and apocalypse narratives. Why is this? Because decay is alchemy. Decay imbues everything with meaning. With a story, with a narrative. And this does something. It does the exact same thing art does.
Decay is an art-machine.