The Maker Movement comes to Honolulu (with invisible dog parts).
[sidebar] On Display
The Contemporary Museum,
2411 Makiki Heights Drive
January 27- May 8, 2011
In attempting to place value in the absurd conditions of modern employment, 20th century philosopher Albert Camus turned to the metaphoric toil of Sisyphus, the Greek tragic hero banished to forever roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it consistently tumble every time he reached the summit. As Camus wrote, “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Camus was interested in the thoughts of Sisyphus as he marched down the hill to begin his task anew. In concluding his famous essay, Camus the existentialist wrote that “all is well,” and that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In 21st century art, it seems we have rediscovered Sisyphus’s rock long after Sisyphus himself has moved on; that object of so much toil, separated by time from the human and God drama that placed it (again) at the bottom of the hill. Our experience with that rock is new, so we can re-imagine it, carve it, paint it, move it. The “Maker Movement,” consisting of crafters whose “craft” has made the subtle transition to “art,” have done just that with the detritus of 20th century life. Those items, absurd now in their very existence, can be re-imagined as new utility, as art. Make Magazine and fancy East Coast editorials display the work of these new creators, who create flower planters made of helmets, bird feeders made of old tin boxes, entire homes made of discarded materials that are somehow more comfortable than many pre-fabricated condominiums.
From January 27 to May 8, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu hosts a show by some of these new Makers. 9769 Radio Drive is the work of Stephen and William Ladd, two brothers who grew up in St. Louis (on 9769 Radio Drive) and now live in Brooklyn, New York. Their work consists of found materials, intricately hand-sewn pieces, and lots and lots of images of ants on paper.
At the opening of their Honolulu premiere, the brothers Ladd “performed” the installation of one of their pieces. Beginning at one end of the gallery was a stack of what looked like hand-made shoeboxes, the total area the size of a shipping palette. In fashion show form, the brothers proceeded to place each box in its appropriate place in three squares in the gallery.
As the piece took form, viewers could see the intricacy in each box; the hand sewn scraps of discarded fabric re-imagined in each segment, or the thousands of little metal ants sewed into their place, set up to battle each other. Of three segmented pieces, the center boxes were slowly opened to reveal even more intricate hand work of fabric scraps and beads, each representing dozens of human hours.
A whole room was dedicated to boxes of miscellaneous tiny metal pieces arranged in knee-high containers, the display as a whole almost resembling a crowded city block. Inside the boxes are parts from what used to be one of those invisible dog toys – that disposable gag of an invisible dog being walked by a visible person with a floating leash. Little metal buttons and buckle parts fill the handmade fabric containers.
[sidebar]Stack Infection (detail), 2009
Courtesy of the artists
Photo by Andrew Zuckerman[/sidebar]
In a back room, small fabric scrolls elucidate more of the change in the modes of 21st-century work. Long scrolls the width of a belt have been made by hand by sewing discarded scraps of fabric together. Under the direction of the Ladd brothers, in their day jobs as teachers, each scroll was created by young second and third graders, then worked on by fourth and fifth graders, and finally completed by sixth graders. In the center of the gallery, past the intricate grenades made of discarded calendars and the scrolls, were thousands upon thousands of ants on paper. Legions of ants battling with other legions of ants, ants building things, ants destroying things. Thirty foot walls of ants, ants, ants.
A hundred years ago New York school kids worked with scraps of fabric too. At the outset of the American century, women and children sewed and cut scraps of fabric in the piecemeal garment industry, reworking parts of garments at home instead of in factories. Generations of immigrant Americans spent their childhoods working their fingers raw to bring their families a few meager pennies for their labor. Like the scroll kids of the present, they never got to work on the whole thing. Unlike the scroll kids, they had no rights and their experience was certainly not fun. It took federal law and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to end that period of American history. Now the experience of crafting bits of fabric is art in school, and in the gallery, their pictures are placed next to the scrolls they created. Marx is silenced as the young workers are no longer alienated from their labor, their happy images displayed with their work.
The obscure little parts that now make up the scaled down city block once combined to create a toy, an odd invisible dog. The Brooklyn factory that once created that random piece of commodity has now been converted to an artist enclave, giving Gotham artists a place to work, play, and create in a massive industrial building. All those invisible dog parts had to go somewhere, and instead of an incinerator or landfill, they were used to create jewelry and installations by the Ladd brothers. They don’t make invisible dogs anymore. If they did, those factories would have moved far offshore last decade, where workers now make Gucci bags and happy meal toys.
Without entering the definitional debates of modern vs. post-modern, it is clear we live in a post-invisible dog world. Obscure toy parts that would ordinarily end up smelted have been given value by a new generation. Cable television celebrates the previously unattractive work of pickers, pawn shop employees and handymen, the sorts of occupations once relegated to that vast level of society that can’t afford new commodities and still knows how to use its hands. Somehow, hand-in-hand with a downturn in the economy and the prospect of a 21st century world that can’t sustain an American appetite for shiny and new, our desire for patina and heritage has reemerged.
One might imagine a future anthropologist coming upon that room of handmade boxes, filled with little brass buttons and buckle parts, like stumbling upon Sisyphus’s rock without knowing any of the back story. It would be difficult for that outside anthropologist to figure out what all the little parts combine to make. If she were to finally figure out that it’s an invisible dog toy, there would come the inevitable question: Why would anybody want an invisible dog? One must imagine the ants happy.