The recent history of Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill that became the resting place for the rubble of the Twin Towers, is the real world parable for a group of artworks that are simultaneously destitute and monumental.
Featuring: Jan Bünnig Dan Colen Rachel Foullon Sara Greenberger Rafferty Daniel Gordon Carter Mull Hannes Schmidt Ruby Sky Stiler
Fresh Kills is the aptly named landfill on Staten Island, resting ground for over fifty years to New York City’s highly orchestrated waste disposal. Due to new environmental regulations in the late 1970’s, the city began to clean the 2,200 acre landfill with the intention of giving it back to the citizens of New York as a usable park after a designated number of years. The landfill was officially closed in March of 2001. A few months later, on September 13, 2001, the Mayor of New York, the NYPD and the FBI announced that it would begin hauling all debris from the freshly destroyed World Trade Center to Fresh Kills. One of the four grass- covered trash mounds would now become the world’s largest crime lab.
The following is an excerpt from the court testimony of a contracted worker hired by Taylor Recycling Facility to sift through the rubble of the World Trade Center:
“When we began our work sifting debris at Fresh Kills, we were told by an NYPD official to spread the material out as thinly as possible, sift it, and get rid of it. There was, however, an enormous amount of steel in the debris that would have clogged our screening machines. To prevent this, we had a worker running an excavator machine that pulled the steel out of the debris before it was sifted. Once we had removed the steel, a loader would scoop up the debris and dump it into our sifting machine. The sifter sorted through the debris with its “fingers”, divided it into three streams of material (small, medium, and large), and placed the three streams on three separate conveyor belts. In addition to the ten Taylor workers assigned to each machine, sixteen NYPD officers stood next to the conveyor belts, ready to look for human body parts, human remains, and personal belongings.
Through the process, we found many human body parts, including bones, fingers, skulls, feet, and hands. I vividly remember finding a man’s full chest and the entire body of a man still dressed in a suit. Personal belongings we recovered included keys, wallets, pictures and jewelry. Whatever body parts we found were put into buckets and taken to the medical examiner’s area. The debris that was sifted by our machines down to one-quarter of an inch was known as fines. The Dept of Sanitation took the fines from the conveyor belts, loaded it onto tractors, and used it to pave roads and fill in potholes, dips, and ruts.
In the early months, we identified approximately two thousand bones per day. I believe we found fewer body parts in the last months because we were sifting through the debris from the bottom floors of the World Trade Center, and the people who had been on those floors either escaped or their entire bodies were crushed, leaving no bones.
The firm Phillips and Jordan had been hired to oversee the work at Fresh Kills. I was constantly told by their supervisors to ‘move the job,’ to run the conveyor belts faster, and to ‘keep the tonnage up,’ referring to the tons sifted per hour. One official did not let us drop below a certain quota of tons per hour; another did nothing but drive around the site all day, checking our progress.
Meanwhile, NYPD officers working along the conveyor belts kept telling me to slow the belts so they could properly sift through the debris. Because only sixteen officers could work on each of our machines, other officers continued to sift through debris using rakes and shovels, until the end of 2001, when the temperature dropped to such a point that some of the materials froze.”
Such a surreal scene happened within our midst, in our city, and in our time. And yet this account sounds more and more familiar as the veneers of society’s workings are peeled back. Anecdotes of such shocking revelation and high abstraction abound, challenging yet another generation of artists to conceive of sufficient representations of the time. The exhibition Fresh Kills presents artworks that exist in a contradictory physical state of being simultaneously destitute and monumental. Visual comprehension is achieved through the active essence of the work and not the superficial nature of surface. The works attempt to reveal and elevate the recently departed; expose the haunting things in our midst; to alchemize profound meaning from the unwanted, the valueless, the void of potential.
I have titled the exhibition Fresh Kills not to be sensational, but to find a parable in the real world for a group of younger artists whose works essentially “fall apart” through their formal, material or conceptual construction. Many of the works included are not discrete objects, but are instead scattered or dropped, disguised or disfigured, and when they are closer to conventional artworks (photography, painting or sculpture), they conjure a sort of “after-ness:” made desperately from physical, conceptual and digital detritus. Many of the works are flaccid or weak emblems that betray their own structure. The artists deal not with pop gestures or cultural critiques, but instead elevate garbage, base material, found imagery and natural materials to a level of intense meaning, much like the abstracted fragments of the World Trade Center.
Much of the work is darkly beautiful: glowing representations of entropy, materials that evoke the macabre, artificial spills on the floor, works propped against the wall, grotesque constructions of the human body, symbolic artifacts that return to nature or exist in desolation. The closest precedent to an exhibition of this nature is that of the group exhibitions of the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960’s. But unlike their counter-cultural predecessors defying the dominant academic and political hegemony of the era, these artists may be perhaps filled with a much more desperate optimism. By cobbling together entropic and elusive subjects, these artworks are given a level of monumentality and glamour through their intricate construction, their carnal associations, and their suggestions of flailing action. It could be said that these artists find beauty in both entropy and structure. If a defiant humor emanates from these works it is a sad kind of humor: a sort of bad joke, a truthful distilment of culture to its material foundation.
Carter Mull scatters photographs about the floor, ceiling, or over a sculptural substrate. The piles of hundreds of prints conjure an entropic cosmos of compiled detritus, but are often derived from an archive of specific reference (in a past work he photographed each step in the process of the destruction of an institutional drop ceiling). The images, printed onto a metallic glittery paper, are spread about in a casual overlapping arrangement. The combined effect skews spatial comprehension and erodes legibility. The work hovers somewhere between mediums : photography, sculpture and gestural action all mash into a display that is at once colorfully seductive and maddeningly discordant.
Ruby Sky Stiler’s elaborate arrangements of objects are at once perfectly coifed and disjunctively awkward. Her giant vase, a hot-glued mosaic of trompe l’oeil impersonations of many smaller vases, is cobbled together in a frenzied attempt to resurrect the past glory of classical civilizations. The bloated and fractured vase seems a ludicrous interpretation of the patina of ancient beauty. Occupying the same room as the oversized jug is its physical opposite: standing at average human height, a sculpted tree branch reaches upward, its withering branches sheathed in evening gloves. The skinny delicacy of the rising form suggests innocent delight or careless abandon, but the hand-stitched felt gloves appear like squashed, severed cartoon arms. Stiler’s works exude grace but feel startlingly schizophrenic, as if the personified objects got lost on their way to perfection.
Jan Bünnig’s clay works hover somewhere between performance and static sculpture. After creating a lumpy conglomeration of clay on an armature made of fishing wire hung from the ceiling, Bünnig cuts the hanging wire at the beginning of the opening of the exhibition so that the clay monstrosity flops, contorts and eventually splats to the ground making a final “fallen” sculpture blob. Bünnig combines the material spirit of Arte Povera with the performative aspects of the underground club scene is his native Berlin. The result is something that is both static and shifting, wholly natural while artificially coerced.
Daniel Gordon cleverly indicts the photographic tradition of the 20th Century by photographing intricate but awkward three-dimensional sculptures. He sifts through endless Internet imagery to create a still life, a portrait or a ‘historical’ scene in a three-dimensional collage. They could be described as photographs of dioramas. The jarring scenes of humans and everyday objects confound the viewer as to how the photographs were made—yet somehow by reclaiming the digital imagery through the physical process of construction, Gordon’s photographic practice usurps the practitioners of big-budget fictional photography in favor of a collaged subjective fiction. In Pregnant and Red Headed Woman the tight focus of the lens on its ‘subjects’ removes key parts of the narrative. Gordon’s female characters seem to be peeling back, falling apart, lugubriously drooping, vulnerable, threatened.
Rachel Foullon’s wood structure emerges from the floor and barrels upward, its gray slats unfurl like a swooping, upended deck. The monochrome surface is interrupted on its protruding curve by a large nail. Dangling from the nail are three twisted and tied loops of fabric. The subtle colors and tied ends of the fabric loops suggest they might be bandanas or handkerchiefs hung up to dry. The sculpture’s austere presence of enveloping gray is undercut by the offerings tied to it. What seems monumentally static is softened by delicately placed manifestations of memory.
Sara Greenberger Rafferty is the star and only character of her looped video projection. She idles the time perched on an awkwardly high shelf while watching something on a portable DVD player that sits on her lap. The footage of a mundane occurrence is made uncanny by her decision to project her image life-size at a curious height against the gallery wall. What seems like an exercise in absurdity is a multi-layered inversion of expectations: the footage is projected onto the actual shelf where it was filmed, the same shelf on which the projector normally sits. Rafferty is both the audience and subject, her image above heightening the real-world viewer’s passivity. She remains focused on her hermetic video experience and nullifies the requisite artistic offering to the viewer. Whatever she watches is distilled through her reactions to become nothing but a awkward joke that hovers in the air—the whole thing a performance within a performance that has been ‘shelved’, has fallen on its face, has been strung up for its transgressions.
Hannes Schmidt’s installations often present objects of utility in precarious ways: frames, mat-boards, drawings, trash bags and suit jackets that are propped against the wall using thin wood strips; glass picture frames are cut so they appear to be sinking under the floor; found structural materials are arranged carefully but look destitute; print media and office supplies are stacked, marked, eroded, cut. He contrasts sculpture arrangements with photography and print imagery of persons and man-made structures that are enigmatic: the black and gray imagery is deadpan, yet is filled with macabre associations. The compiled effect is a perfect aesthetic arrangement that is haunted by lingering structural collapse. Perhaps the artist describes it best: “things falling apart into place.”
Dan Colen’s works methodically recreate the unwanted, un-gentrified canvases of urban expression: appropriated graffiti, bubblegum, and birdshit are rendered three-dimensional with oil paint, painstakingly taking street “expressionism” to the level of “high” art. The average New York shit-sprayed brick shaftway is transposed through thick impastos of oil paint onto Colen’s canvases. Originating from a humorous scatological impulse, the paintings reclaim “Impressionism“ as a method to deliver painting to solemn and beautiful ends.
copyright David Kennedy Cutler, 2008
Fresh Kills is the first exhibition to be realized at the Dumbo Arts Center, which was selected via an Open Call process initiated in 2007.
David Kennedy Cutler is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. He has had recent solo exhibitions at Nice & Fit, Berlin, Germany and D’amelio Terras, New York. His projects and writing have been featured in North Drive Press and Lovely Daze, and reviewed in Flash Art, The New York Times, artnet.com, artnet.de, Ka thimerini, Arton Paper, The Village Voice, and ExBerliner. Kennedy-Cutler made his curatorial debut with The Summer Show Proposal Show at Capsule, New York, in 2005. Fresh Kills is the second exhibition he has curated.
This exhibition has been funded, in part, by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.