Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Future of Labor

Design and the Elastic Mind
Museum of Modern Art
reviewed by Julie Ashcraft

In this age of "colony collapse", farmers wonder where the honey bees have gone to, how crops will be pollinated and food shortages averted. The bees have left the farm for college, if this show is any indication. Bees are doing prestigious work, sniffing out Cancer under Susana Soares' guidance in the Design Interactions Department of the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom. And bees are making lovely vases for Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny at Studio Libertiny in the Netherlands. Small wonder art assisting work is increasingly competitive, with insects in the labor market. No worry about the crops, though. By the time crops are failing, perhaps the robotic flies developed by Robert J. Wood at Harvard Microbiotics Laboratory in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science will be able to do some pollen heavy-lifting and save the day. (If not, and if humans get surly during ensuing food shortages, perhaps tiny tasers will be attached to the robotic flies in an effort to keep the humans under control.)

Even houseplants and lowly algae are being put to work at Harvard, and at Le Laboratoire in France. Designers Matthieu Lehanneur and David Edwards promote plants found by NASA to be especially good at removing toxins and adding oxygen to the air as components central to their air filtering machines. (The information in this part of the exhibit had a direct, beneficial impact on my health. Leaving this show, I immediately bought a dozen of the plants NASA recommends for cleaning air and brought them home to my downtown apartment. The air quality in the apartment immediately improved, my breathing became deeper and headaches disappeared.)

Fluttering English ivy plants are the apparent inspiration for the beautiful GROW prototype, by Samuel Cabot Cochran and Benjamin Wheeler Howes of SMIT--Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology. This energy capturing system is not only innovative for making solar panels aesthetically pleasing, but for allowing them to capture wind energy as well. Perhaps the love that seems to emanate from this project will capture consumers willing to let the sun and wind work for them.

Human energy is put to good use in NSSa: Non-Stop Shoes, by emiliana designstudio's Emiti Padros. These shoes gather enough energy generated by a wearer walking around in them to power a light bulb when the shoes are later taken off. Gastric acid from a decomposing human corpse is proportedly used to make batteries power a vibrator, a flashlight and a tree ornament in the macabrely humorous Afterlife, by James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau of the Design Interactions Department of the Royal College of Art, UK.

There is a serious "yuck factor" to Amir Lipsicas' large, glossy image of Oded Ezer's Typosperma. The exhibit card lists them as "cloned human sperm with typographic information implanted into their DNA". What would THAT turn into if it impregnated a woman? And what would her labor be like? If she was a paid surrogate birth mother, would the designers be legally obligated to inform her of the nature of the bio-engineered life inside her?

Perhaps due to efforts to avoid complications that sex, body fluids and even casual human relations may bring, machines/robots may conquer even the illicit labor market to have the last wordless gesture, as they do in Accessories for Lonely Men, by Noam Toran. At last a man may have a woman's shadow projected near him, sheets pulled off him, hair flicked across him, smoke blown at him and dishes thrown at him in his solitude, alone with his Accessories.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Blow up

Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Through March 22, 2009

Reviewed by Julie Ashcraft

Stumbling upon this exhibit after wandering through galleries of crusty mummies is a bit of a shock. The extremely glossy surface the chromogenic print by Thomas Demand is comparable to the coated surface of high grade European fetish porn. Overcoming the initial desire provoked by this form allows the aftershock of the content to settle in. Attempt, 2005 depicts stacks of explosives with long fuses on the desk of an artist’s studio targeted in the 1970’s by the German terrorist Baader-Meinhof Gang. They placed the explosives there in an effort to blow up the state prosecutor next door.

The gallery card reveals that the artist who created Attempt, 2005, Thomas Demand, makes life-size 3-D models from colored paper and cardboard based upon existing images. After photographing his models, he destroys them. There is no information given as to how he destroys them, and whether anyone gets hurt.

Lower on the Richter Scale, but higher on the Humanist, empathetic emotional scale, is a photograph by another model-builder, James Casebere. His plaintive B/W Silver Dye bleach print, Hospital, 1997, gently draws the viewer into a darkened roomful of empty hospital beds. Where did everybody go? Are they all healthy, or did they all die? Is the light dappling into the room from above moonlight or searchlights? The aura of charm and mystery is enhanced by the cleanliness of the snow-white beds--and the fact that if you look close enough you know they aren’t real. Casebere makes the models he photographs from plaster, styrofoam and cardboard. There is no mention on the gallery card of him destroying the models. If anything, one gets the feeling he might cherish and preserve them.

Exceptionally well conserved and well guarded ’models’ are captured in Polar Bear, 1976, a Gelatin Silver print by Hiroshi Sugimato. Arriving in New York City in 1974, he frequented the American Museum of Natural History animal dioramas. The gallery card quotes him as saying, “I made a curious discovery. The stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I’d found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once it’s photographed, it’s as good as real.”

These, and other challenges to the common perception that photographs document reality, await you in the Contemporary Photography gallery, on the second floor of the Met, through
March 22, 2009.

This article was originally published here: