The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery.” – Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D.
Five hundred years ago, all worldly knowledge could be retained within the mind of a single individual, the putative Renaissance Man. This was an illusion, of course, based on false assumptions and cultural hubris. Since then, not only has the scope of history and science outstripped the ability of one person to make sense of it all, but the advent of quantum physics, with its conjectures of multiple dimensions and parallel universes, has rendered the very idea of a knowable reality obsolete.
Rather than face a life of isolated, existential insignificance in an indifferent universe too busy carrying out its own quantum functions to tend to our fates, we retreat into a comfort zone where the course of our lives is determined by human and/or divine hands. Personal failings are rationalized into belief systems, and belief systems are cited to rationalize the failures of society. The only thing that a conspiracy theory proves with any certainty is that our innate craving for attention is such that we’d prefer to feel persecuted than ignored.
Things Got Legs by Jesse Bercowetz & Matt Bua is a multi-part sculptural installation of physical and psychological dross, a subterranean narrative of queasy speculation and borderline paranoia. Constructed from debris recycled from the street, tatty discount stores and their own past works, its materials define its content-the paranormal, the psychotic, the perverse-as the dingy mental sweepings passed over by well-mannered minds.
A broken, backless office chair becomes the centerpiece of a mind control machine; encrusted pieces of a sunken Scottish fishing boat lead to a method of raising the dead Lazarus with ping pong balls, as inspired by a Donald Duck comic book; an enormous tentacle, riffing on the idea that Roosevelt Island is a living being, twists across the ceiling and down to the floor, revealing its grubby skin of flotsam and wire.
Our evolutionary impulse toward pattern recognition, the survival mechanism that allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to visualize a tiger lurking behind a scrim of reeds, has led us to connect the dots, to imagine behaviors and images in our own likeness where often none exist. We discern faces in mountain ridges, old socks, shooting flames -
as the Christians burn all their non-Christian books and records, they photograph the fire to … enjoy the demonic likeness the flames themselves produce
- and glean political or spiritual significance from coincidences that, given the trillions of human interactions and natural phenomena colliding every day, would be statistically impossible not to occur.
In news reporting, a story has legs not when it relays significant information about our social or political situation, but when it tells a gripping narrative. For a reckoning of facts to be worthwhile, it must be complete and unassailable-neither of which can be guaranteed in a quantum universe or political spin zone. But a good story divulges the workings of our secret desires and fears, which is the structure of myth.
Bercowetz and Bua pursue their narratives down every digression, diversion, false start and dead end that presents itself. The work can never be complete, because the stories never end: a bowling ball sits undisturbed on top of a rickety seven-foot-tall model of a World Trade Center tower made from cheap wooden shish kebob skewers; audio interviews with authors of books on the supernatural and the sub-rosa, spinning tales of ransacked apartments, Charles Manson and the Virgin Mary; a room memorializing missing children topped by an outsized milk carton, while a bookshelf beneath is stuffed with dozens of CD jewel boxes labeled with the names of countries invaded by the US military or infiltrated by the CIA.
The human sacrifices of the past are not far from the ones of today.
We have transferred the indolence of the gods, who swatted their mortal subjects like flies, to the machinations of foreign cabals, conniving politicians and corporate elites pursuing an economic order that’s as imbalanced as a shanty grafted onto a mountaintop mansion:
makeshift additions are connected with poverty, catastrophe, war, and removal from society …build a sunroom from windshields of demolished cars, turn your pool house into a swamp monster…
And we imagine a shadow stratum of espionage networks, drug runners, pedophilia rings, mercenaries and terrorists who carry out the dirty work of the more respectable criminals, but trying to pinpoint where the nighttime world intersects with the day is a sucker’s bet.
Conspiracies and illusions of conspiracies, cunning, coincidence, chaos. John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate, drove Robert F. Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of his assassination. Rumors of mind control in Montauk and snuff films in Vegas. A German Nazi torture center in Pinochet’s Chile. A giant tentacle floating in the East River. Can burning jet fuel really melt steel?
[It] may not tell a complete story, But the holes it leaves can suck you in.
-Thomas Micchelli, August 2006
All italicized passages are from notes by Jesse Bercowetz & Matt Bua.
Thomas Micchelli, an artist, writer and filmmaker, is co-managing art editor of The Brooklyn Rail.
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