In an intriguing gesture of enticement, the information provided on Altman Siegel’s sparse four-part installation is limited to the poem by Matthea Harvey, from which the exhibition borrows its title.
Everything Must Go
Today’s class 3-Deifying:
Godgrass, godtrees, godroad.
A sheet of geese bisects the rainstorm.
The water tower is ten times full.
We practice drawing cubes—
That’s the house squared away
& the incubator with Baby.
The dead are in their grid.
Oh the sleeping bag contains the body
But not the dreaming head.
In October of 1912, Harriet Monroe christened the inaugural issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse by pleading the case for its existence in the Wild West of early 20th century publishing. “Poetry has been left to herself,” she wrote, “and blamed for inefficiency, a process as unreasonable as blaming the desert for barrenness.”
Monroe’s sentiment is a bit ironic. Poetry is about exercising economy with words in order to create meaning: its bag of perse tricks, privileged tropes, and loaded plays on the whiteness of the page are efficient insofar as they aim to make the most out of every word. Poetry uses every part of the pig, but its compactness is also part of its unintelligibility (say that word five times fast—it’s almost a poem). Poetry leans on the reader; it begs effort, discourse, permeation, secret handshakes. It is then, I suppose, a rather inefficient form of entertainment. It seems self-evident that such an enterprise would get elided in the midst of a growing mass culture industry (is economy necessarily opposed to efficiency?) but while eloquently recognizing that poetry is being condemned for its own sake, Monroe can’t seem to find the words to defend poetry for its own sake, but adopts the diction of capitalism: “We believe that there is a public for poetry,” she says politely, “and that it will grow.”
Alice Channer, Body Fluids, 2012, Digital print on heavy crepe de chine, cast aluminum, chrome bar, 290 x 139 x 3 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel Gallery
The barrenness of a white cube gallery can be a symbol of inefficiency, a pop culture joke about the war between art and common sense, based on assumptions about size and value exchange. Even I was taken aback by the apparent emptiness of the space (though I will say that Altman Siegel, situated as it is on the fourth floor and flooded with light from two large windows, makes for a particularly beautiful white cube). Without the soundbyte-quilt of a traditional press release to prop up mental turpitude, I approached the works with the same apprehension I do with poems. Impenetrable texts, I call them more often than I’d like.
Start with the basics, tease out the particularities, and eventually some impression of what it’s all about will emerge. Paying good mind to the works in person lets their contents seep into the skin like so much fair-trade shea butter. Alice Channer’s Body Fluids, 2012, initially registered as a photograph of two white plastic wig heads in long brown tresses, digitally stretched to fit the length of crêpe de chine it’s printed on. After getting close, the “heads” are actually bottles of Pantene Pro-V, digitally superimposed on the length of hair. The interplay is equivocal, the perception of the viewer bends back and forth between an image of “fake” beauty and a product hawked in the interest of creating “natural” beauty. The impossibly long hair is digitally enlarged so that from far away, it appears soft and silky as any Pantene executive could want, but up close, the pixelated strands begin to look coarse, dry, like the former half of a before-and-after photo. Conversely, the cast-aluminum finger that is Very Dry Skin, 2013, only comes into focus from far away.
Anicka Yi, Prada String Quartet No. 15 3/4 in A Minor, First Movement, 2013 (detail), Glycerin soap, sodium silicate, desiccant bead, acrylic paint, acetate, plastic petri dish, Prada moisturizer package, teeth whitener, gum eraser, fish oil capsule, silicone insole, wax, clay, spray paint, aluminum frame, 48 x 34 x 1 in.; Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel Gallery.
It’s difficult to talk bodies without talking politics, to talk skin without talking about color, and while no amount of sleuthing could get me past the hard plastic shell of Aaron Flint Jamison’s Turbine, STL?, 2013, Anicka Yi’s Prada String Quartet No. 15 3/4 in A Minor, First Movement, 2013, seems like an obscure legend of all the elements at play. Just reading the list of materials is a pleasure: glycerin soap, sodium silicate, desiccant bead, acrylic paint, acetate, plastic petri dish, Prada moisturizer package, teeth whitener, gum eraser, fish oil capsule, silicone insole, wax, clay, spray paint, aluminum frame... everything is spilled and splayed, locked into place by the block of glycerin that houses it. It asks you to consider the way goods and commodities, the way stuff gets into our bodies. This usually happens because we buy the stuff, we put it into and onto our bodies, with sexy names like Prada acting as a catalyst to speed up the process. Consider the desiccant bead, a surprisingly poetic name for those little balls of silica gel that come with our boxes of new shoes and electronics.
DO NOT EAT. THROW AWAY.
It all feels like the inverse of Monroe’s defense of her magazine; critiquing commodity culture on poetic terms, as opposed to defending poetics on commodity culture’s terms. It leans, it leaves an impression, it plays on the Great White Page of the gallery wall. And reminds me that I’m out of shampoo.