It’s not often that I get to make direct connections between an exhibition in the galleries and the collection of public art that we have on permanent display around the campus. The opportunity is probably there more often than I’m aware, but during my tenure anyway, the times when the similarities have been palpable have been rare. This spring, with Environment and Object • Recent African Art on view in several of our galleries there’s a theme that’s begging to be explored both inside and out. And it’s totally rubbish.
The truism “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is perhaps nowhere else as true as it is within the realm of art. Picasso’s Bull Head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars and Duchamp’s Urinal are perhaps two of the more widely recognized examples. Found objects—items that one person has jettisoned for lack of value only to be claimed by another and assigned new value—come in and out of our lives every day, but we seldom stop and think, “this has meaning, this is art.”
Some of the artists represented in Environment and Object have done exactly that. They’ve collected the detritus of our modern consumer culture, cast aside as garbage, and recontextualized it, redistributed its impact along the continuum of social perception.
One of my favorite examples in the show is a mask, shown above, by Romuald Hazoumé. The genius of the piece is simple yet eloquent. He’s taken an ordinary plastic jug, an object that once held bleach or motor oil or some other equally quotidian substance, and with a few deft alterations and the addition of some hair he’s turned it into a female face full of character, depth, and intrigue. Confronting her in the gallery is an astonishing experience. I’m taken aback by the sense that I know her, that I’ve seen her somewhere before. Does she work here in town? Or wait, maybe I went to school with her. I bet she’s on Facebook.
Wow. From a plastic jug to Facebook in the blink of an eye. Behold the power of art.
But the real power of this piece of art, the deepest most nagging takeaway, is the realization that I could have done this myself. Plastic jug, hair, pair of scissors, and Bob’s your uncle. Really it seems as though it would be that simple. But I DIDN’T do it. There’s a regular parade of plastic jugs through the recycling bin outside my office—there are half a dozen there right now—but never once have I looked at one and thought “hey, that would make an interesting head.” The real power of this and other works of art assembled from found objects is their ability to re-mind, to reposition our frame of reference such that it can accommodate galaxies of new information that we had not previously known to exist within the grains of sand upon which we walk each day.
There are indeed a number of those “new galaxy” experiences awaiting visitors to the Environment and Object exhibit, and one of them has just been installed through a painstaking process that occupied two entire days. Senegalese artist Viyé Diba is in residence through Friday as he installs Nous sommes nombreux, et nos problemes avec…(We are many, and our problems too), a conceptual arrangement of stuff—lots of stuff, everything from photographs to vials and baggies filled with more stuff—designed to evoke downtown Dakkar within the confines of our Overbrook Gallery. The entire floor of the gallery is covered with Dakkar, and visitors will have to walk through all of the Dakkar to view the installation. I kid you not, there will be no way to avoid stepping on the Dakkar.
We’ve been talking about and planning for Diba’s visit for some time now, and all the while I’ve suspected that Nous sommes nombreux would soon inflame my imagination in ways heretofore unfulfilled. Well, he’s come through in spades, and I’d be shocked if others didn’t have a similar reaction to it. The end result can only be described as the aftermath of a Dakkar bomb explosion. But don’t take my word for it. Come to the museum and spend some time walking through downtown Dakkar. You’ll be challenged and fascinated, I promise.
But long after this show has been packed up and shipped off visitors to campus will still have the opportunity to be wowed by found objects every time they wander past the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. Along its curved wall sits Deborah Fisher’s Solid State Change, an aggregation of discarded tires and electrical insulation commissioned specifically for the site. It’s one of my favorite works in the public collection, and I’ve always been surprised that so many others claim to be repelled by it. They say it’s ugly, strange, offensive. Really?
I find Solid State Change to be such a stimulating piece. The contrast of colored electrical insulation with black tires is arresting and hypnotic, and there is a flow to the piece, a kinetic energy that reminds me of lava bubbling out of a volcanic fissure. Indeed, the piece is intended to evoke the metamorphic bedrock that sits below us, making the installation an almost interactive window onto the geology of our area. It’s like getting a taste of what would happen if seismic activity were to push the earth’s crust up into our backyard. The work has a primal presence about it, and the added contrast of the piece against the polished metal of the curved wall is stunning. What’s not to like?
In a way, Solid State Change is the ultimate in found object art. Not only is it constructed of discarded every day materials, but the piece is itself a found object in that the viewer really does just stumble upon it without warning. It’s a sudden revelation within the landscape, an “oh, say, that’s different” gift of a moment within your day. It, too, will reposition your frame of reference in a new galaxy sort of way. No longer are those tires scattered along the edge of the Garden State Parkway. No longer is that electrical insulation piled in a heap on the outskirts of some construction project. They are now bolted together in a molten reenactment of the upheaval that lives beneath and perhaps within us. They are now relevant to everyday life in a most surprising way much like Hazoumé’s mask or Diba’s explosion of Dakkar.
One other thing these works have in common: they are NOT in a landfill. They are on our campus and in our galleries ready to be appreciated.
If your inner geek is as strong as mine, then you may have guessed that the title of this post is a reference to a scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As King Arthur and his faithful servant happen upon the anarcho-syndicalist commune centered around a castle on a hill, a peasant, entirely unaware of Arthur’s presence or his station in life, is busy collecting piles of mud. As she admires her work she calls to a nearby cohort, “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here.” In that moment, the rituals and pageantry so often thrust upon us by social convention are cast aside, and the very soil upon which we walk becomes exalted, commoditized even. Trash becomes treasure, filth becomes fabulous, and galaxies are revealed in a grain of sand. The same phenomenon is happening right here at Middlebury, in our museum and across our campus. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.