At the center of this exhibition is a full-sized "lifeboat" fabricated by the artist out of plastic siding and engraved on its exterior with images and text exploring the intertwined stories of labor, consumerism and the environment. Michael Dinges employs the maritime practice of scrimshaw — originally the engraving of whale bones or teeth — which originated on whaling ships in the mid-1700s. Also on display will be several pieces from the Dead Laptop series, in which Dinges applies scrimshaw to defunct laptop computers, resulting in hand-decorated objects of mass-produced origin that comment on our use of, and dependency on, technology to mediate our experience and understanding of the world around us.
“Underwater” is a neologism—referring to the state of owing more on one’s home than its current market value—arising in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble in the late 2000s. Not coincidentally, “underwater” is what one might feel when confronted by Michael Dinges’ Lifeboat: The Wreck of the Invisible Hand, a full-sized replica of a whaling boat fabricated of vinyl home siding and engraved with images and text exploring the intertwined stories of labor, consumerism and the environment, and the political and social fallout resulting from the excesses of globalization. The orientation of Lifeboat to the viewer is such that, were the boat afloat in water, the onlooker’s head would be just above the water line.
Dinges’ use of a Dremel tool to engrave the surfaces of 21st century objects and material—including the plastic chair and the dead laptop computers seen here—derives from the maritime practice of scrimshaw, the engraving of whale bones or teeth, which originated in the mid-1700s. With Lifeboat, Dinges combines the form of a whaling boat with his own adaptation of scrimshaw to trace the timeline of our consumerist tendencies and attendant environmental destruction back to the original global workers—whalers. Working at the dawn of the industrial revolution to meet an ever-increasing demand for fuel in the form of whale oil, they destroyed the very source of their livelihood, hunting whales nearly to extinction and altering the ocean ecosystem. The scrimshaw art they made on their journeys using whale bones—the waste product of the whaling industry—often included poetry, and transformed refuse into beautiful, even valuable objects that outlived their makers.
Likewise, the engravings on the surface of Lifeboat or the computers of the artist’s Dead Laptops series turn materials ultimately destined for the landfill—after their useful lives are served—into beautiful objects. Dinges’ poems are not mere decoration, however; Lifeboat is a warning, rescue vessel and distress signal in one. “Bubble, trouble, folly and lust, it’s human nature to boom and bust,” strikes a chord with anyone who has followed the aftermath of the housing bubble, the bailouts of auto-makers and banks, and the global economic downturn. A reference to long-chain polymers reminds us that the plastic that goes into the products we consume, and even the houses we live in, will be around long after we are gone. “Beware of RFID” refers to radio-frequency identification—a means of tracking merchandise, which has the potential to facilitate the non-consensual gathering of personal information—while “DIY” and “Union” suggest that we might be our own rescuers, if we act in time to regain agency over our own goods.