The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms

This Spring semester, Professors Jaudon and Pissarro pioneered a new format of Theory and Crit class, in which  MA and MFA students are paired. Working as a team, each pair exhibits, curates, and critiques once during the semester. This is the catalogue essay for Isaac Aden’s exhibition The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms, on view at 205 Hudson Street and curated by Elizabeth Williams and Anna Jimenez.

Isaac Aden’s The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms is an immersive grouping of diverse objects compelled to hang together by the demarcated gray gallery space. The grouping resists the traditional notion of exhibition by challenging the objects’ status as art—texts, drawings, neon signs, souvenirs, video, framed vegetables, weapons and models are equalized within a gray and orange aesthetic unity. As Jean-Paul Sartre commented on the poet Francis Ponge’s use of words, they appear strange, as if “after the disappearance of our species, in the hands of other species that look at them as we look at shells on the sand.”[1] Aden’s works, like shells, are formally present but divested of their use, vestiges of the past or perhaps latent with potential for the future. Suspended in a gallery space without context and removed from use, these objects call upon our tendency towards pattern recognition, inciting the desire for a demonstrable connection between an architectural outline of the city of Worms, model drones, a neon Walgreens sign, Army manuals, a calendar, bear traps with a basketball, an Amish quilt, a bulawa (a Ukrainian mace), and a Lutheran Bible, but each eludes standard categorizations. Even more confounding, the objects range from the everydayness of a quilt to the ominousness of a drone, from the playfulness of a basketball to the gravity of a bible.

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The focus on formal variation within a homogenized space challenges assumptions about the ability to use or to “read” objects. Every day we navigate the world with the help of objects, whether by direct use or the abstraction of meaning. Unlike our quotidian experience, though, Aden’s installation confronts us with its opacity. The gray space, not an artist’s meretricious glossing, rather unfolds to challenge the hierarchical relationship between subject and object. As in Louis Althusser’s theory of random materialism, the gallery space becomes a meeting place of contingencies. The works in The Banality of Freedom challenge our notions about everyday encounters. Objects are no longer reliable containers for meaning, but resist our anthropocentric assumptions about space and time. Kantian space, and by extension the physical objects it contains, is described as a logical field of subjective experience. Like the empty outline of the city of Worms on the gallery wall, space is assumed to function as a transparent container of cultural significance. As Henri Lefebvre so succinctly put it, “(social) space is a (social) product.”[2] Cultural value is assigned to spaces through naming and the remembrance of designated historical events, i.e. stories, monuments, signs, plaques, gravestones, etc. Only by sharing and retelling these stories do we come to know space. Our personal navigation system, then, is not so much geographical as cultural. In a sense, the topography of our world is predetermined, the result of common assumptions about the significance of space. Objects, the physical confirmation of theoretical space, are expected to retell those assumptions. In other words, they become visual signs. On a daily basis, the diversity of subjective experience is subjugated by homogenized cultural constructions that dictate our encounters with objects. We know signs even before we experience them. As noted by the artist Robert Smithson, it is said when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they mistook the Mayan phrase “UY U TAN A KIN PECH’ (listen how they talk),” for the name of the place they “discovered,” now known as the Yucatan Peninsula.[3] Encountering unknown territory, the Spanish expected signs, in this case language, to orient them and speak directly to their concerns, not to point out their own strangeness.

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Time, perhaps more noticeably than space, is also culturally structured. Time is understood to be an accretive process, producing history up until the present moment. Events progress from past to present in logical succession. This theoretical understanding of the forward flow of time is based on physical reality—the world and the objects it contains change as time moves. The ravages of time deteriorate while evolutionary time alters and creates. Civilization is described in similar terms: progress, development, etc. Dynasties, epochs, and time zones all flow with time. As described by George Kubler in The Shape of Time, an important text for Aden, we tend to assign objects’ place within time based on their formal characteristics, thus imposing a logical progression of history onto objects. These ideas were central to Hegel’s theory of the end of art. Aden’s work assumes a distinctly less anthropocentric view of physical objects’ relationship to space and time, hence expanding the arbitrary nature of their sign function. As de Saussure pointed out, the sign function is completely arbitrary, yet the assumption that space and time are transparently logical extensions of subjective experience affects, or contaminates, our understanding of signs. Aden, by removing objects from everyday experience and context, confronts the viewer with sleek, opaque objects. Removed from the forward flow of functionality and distribution, the objects are impervious to our habitually projected ideas. We are forced to acknowledge the everyday struggle of confrontation with outer reality that does not conform to our inner constructed space.

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Aden draws inspiration for his work from his own experiences and interests. Living in Nashville for years, he learned of the sit-ins at Walgreens as part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He also spent time living in Germany and knew of Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The objects in the exhibition, though, do not transparently relay this information. We experience them aesthetically, as independent objects immune to tautological constructs. The philosopher Henri Bergson stated in his essay Laughter, “Could reality come into direct contact with sense and consciousness, could we enter into immediate communion with things and with ourselves, probably art would be useless…”[4] Aden capitalizes on this distance in his work in order to open up space for humor and new understandings of history’s place in quotidian experience.

 

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’Homme et les choses,” in Situations I (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1947, 252. Translated in Tom McDonough, “No Ghost,” October 110 (Autumn, 2004): 114.

[2] Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, Maiden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1974: 26.

[3] Robert Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” Artforum, Sept. 1969: 28-33.

[4]Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005.

 

by Megan Hines

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