October 16, 2014
Christina Schmid reviews Alexa Horochowski's melancholic new work, "Club Disminucion," which she calls a playful but also dead-serious tribute to the decline of the human age.
On the photograph tucked away in the farthest corner of the Soap Factory, two collapsible chairs perch on a concrete, rooftop terrace, facing the sunset. White letters on the chairs’ black backrests spell “CLUB Disminución.” Inspired by a fellow Argentinian, writer Gabrielo Saez, Horochowski founded the club as a playful but philosophical fiction which doubles as a dead-serious tribute to decline.
In a bit of mock advice included in his 2011 essay, “Decline in Style,” Saez writes, "don’t worry, obsessive decline isn’t all bad. It’s a bonanza for booksellers, shrinks, and pessimistic political analysts. It turns taxi drivers into philosophers. It seems to do wonders, as well, for red meat-and-wine consumption, not to mention late-night, angst-ridden café conversations. Buenos Aires does late and angst like no one else. Maybe Kansas will see the emergence of its own tango-like melancholic dance."
Horochowski's Club Disminución echoes Saez's darkly humorous invitation, encouraging the United States to join the club of formerly great nations and have-beens who lament the waning of past glories. Celebrating diminishing economic opportunity anticipates the twilight on the horizon: come, have a seat amid the lengthening shadows. But Horochowski does not stop with irreverence in the face of recession. Her work pushes past the specter of decline, unabashedly speculating on the emergence of a post-human future, when people, the global force shaping the Anthropocene (literally, the Age of Man), will have ceased to be the determining factor in the planet's future. Club Disminución, then, inhabits a twisted, pre-post-apocalyptic future-perfect: not just a world of could-have-beens, but a world of will-have-beens.
Let’s go back to the collapsible chairs -- the forsaken seats of absent directors temporarily furnishing the roof of Casa Poli, a structure straight out of modernist fantasy. The white-cube cultural center, designed by architects Mauricio Pezo and Sofía Von Ellrichshausen, sits on a promontory high above the surf-pounded cliffs of the Chilean coast. "Working in Casa Poli is like having a studio inside a Sol Lewitt sculpture," writes Horochowski in the artist book that accompanies the exhibition. Casa Poli reads both as a tribute to Le Corbusier's stark architecture and to the site itself, strangely in keeping with a place swept clean of all but the most resilient vegetation. Raptors soar outside the windows and the air, humid and ocean-heavy, always smells of salt. Horochowski visited in 2012 and returned in 2013 for a second artist residency, inspired by a place that epitomizes the end of the world. After all, this is the coast where Europe's imperialist dreams of westward expansion ended.
When Horochowski first visited Casa Poli, she took to walking, measuring the land with her steps and the rhythm of her body. Followed by a friendly pack of semi-wild dogs, she walked to the closest fishing village, explored beaches and scrambled over rock and through brush. Then, she made a fateful discovery: Durvillaea antarctica, Antarctic Kelp, or, as the local Chileans call it, cochayuyo. It’s an edible plant, but still more compelling to Horochowski aesthetically: tangled black cables alive in the furious surf, attached to the coastal rocks but swaying endlessly, nests of dark tentacles roiling in the pounding waves. Fascinated by cochayuyo's strange, alien beauty, she started gathering it, draping it across Casa Poli's pristine white staircases and hanging it from window ledges. A material dialogue of organic black lines and austere white planes was thus born. Horochowski was hooked.
Soon, she started carrying dried cochayuyo back to the United States in suitcases and boxes, rehydrating it in her South Minneapolis studio and shaping it into sculptural forms. (When I first visited her studio, her tabby cat joined us and snuggled against the kelp, attracted by its salty, fishy smell -- a piece of faraway ocean on the studio floor.) At the Soap Factory, displayed on upright logs, roughly hewn and reminiscent of driftwood, the sculptures maintain their organic quality even, or especially, when Horochowski teases the coils of kelp into cube-like shapes. Her dialogue with modernist-minimalist shapes continues in the gallery: woven through a rusty skeleton of a cube, tongues of kelp caress oxidized metal, infiltrating it with organic growth.
The sensuality, at times, is sinister. Whether it is the disintegrating investment in modernist masterpieces, the material suggestion of a slow but inevitable takeover, or a gradual waning of human hubris en route to a fundamental humbling, something stirs in the shadows over which Club Disminución presides. In Horochowski's hands, cochayuyo becomes a metaphor for this strange presence, hinting at the specter of the sublime beauty of a world without us.
Three large-scale video projections show Durvillaea Antarctica in its element. Defying the discipline of cubes, the kelp rushes and gushes in the waves. Horochowski records and digitally mirrors its incessant movements into organic kaleidoscopes. If the ocean itself, as Edmund Burke (along with Kant) acceded, "is an object of no small terror," then this same ocean, bristling with dark tentacles that reach into the undertows’ white foam, only to emerge again, glistening and wet, is more terrifying still. Horochowski’s more-than-vaguely vaginal imagery suggests a gendering of the dialogue: macho modernism's tragic-heroic quest for mastery quavers, about to be engulfed and swallowed up by an entirely different sensibility. No more "safety net of distance," as Timothy Morton puts it. "Here" is no longer separable from "there." The sublime of the twenty-first century is speculative and "of disturbing intimacy."
Horochowski proposes that we dare look into the dark. We can face the sunset, her work argues. Club Disminución gathers in the fading light and dwells, affectionately, in the lengthening shadows of the human age.
Horochowski's work is deeply entangled with recent ecological thinking. Her simple shifts of scale produce disorienting results, effectively de-centering the human: here, we are not all that matters. In a series of black and white digital scans, Horochowski enlarges and thus estranges the minute architecture of barnacles, sand roses, and hearts of palm. Face to face with the intricate details of material emergence, I find myself speculating, what exactly am I looking at? An alien colony, a settlement built for unimaginable creatures? A wasp nest cast in metal suggests a degree of organic organization poised to outlast us all. Reliable taxonomies waver.
Horochowski conjures moments when what we thought we knew for sure suddenly seems considerably less certain. On what she calls “specimen tables,” carefully arranged arrays of objects further complicate categories, in the tradition of old natural history museums and Wunderkammern. We are left to wonder: is that piece of wood smoothed by water or carved by hand? What about the strip of tightly woven metal thread: what device might it have been part of? Which function could it have served once upon a time? Objects so stripped of functionality become elusive and strange. Their withdrawal from the world of workaday use imbues them with a different presence, a life beyond human purpose.
A case in point: photographs of a model airplane caught on a power line, turned into an impromptu weather vane; a soccer ball, its seams coming undone, half-buried in sand; a poster heralding national renovation shredded by wind and rain. What reads like an affectionate chronicle of failures points also to an agency beyond the human.
This posthuman presence comes closest to being personified in Horochowski's video of a sea cave. Facing the cave's opening, the camera captures a narrow tunnel opening into the surf. At times, the narrow tunnel is completely obscured by incoming waves. Mirrored, the disc of light at the far end resembles two glowing eye sockets: an eerie, dramatic, and disturbing allegory of a planet in distress. The video, projected on the aging brick walls of a former soap factory, evinces the waning, the onset of darkness at the heart of Club Disminución.
In the elegant artist book Horochowski released two weeks after the exhibition's opening, the sea cave, as seen from the water, reappears as the site of fiery performances: above the dark cleft in the cliff face, out of the heaving waves' reach, flares of flame rise into a chorus of elemental elegies. The Gothic sensibility of Horochowski's work is most tangible here.
Recently on the rise, the Gothic, in the words of Shamim M. Momin, is "profoundly opposed to the progressive aspirations of modernity."[i] In its 21st-century incarnation, the Gothic is laced with an ecological edge. Its dark and voluptuous theater mixes violence and vulnerability; desire meets anguish, vision destruction, erosion, and ruin. Club Disminución embodies the melancholy ethics of "dark ecologies," Morton's phrase for a situation marked by paradox: "the end of the world has already occurred," he writes.[ii] Put another way: the future has already happened and is sending ripples of what is to come into the past.
This skewed temporality, too, is part of the new sublime. Horochowski's metal sculptures, the artifacts she calls her "fake fossils," participate in this distorted unfolding of time: a birch tree's bark, hollowed by rot and cast in bronze, promises a permanence at odds with human life spans.
To Horochowski's credit, Club Disminución is not a depressing show. But it may well be a melancholic one, in the sense that melancholia troubles our comfortable relationship to objects and people.[iii] Melancholia unmoors us, disorients us. Club Disminución courts this confusion, refusing to accept the twin idiocies of our time - denialism and escapism. Calmly and not without humor (remember that tango in Kansas?), Horochowski proposes that we dare look into the dark. We can face the sunset, her work argues. Club Disminución gathers in the fading light and dwells, affectionately, in the lengthening shadows of the human age. Who knows? We may find beauty in decline, love among the ruins.
Related exhibition information:
Alexa Horochowski:Club Disminución (The Club of Diminishing Returns) is on view at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, September 6 to November 9, 2014.
Christina Schmid is a writer, teacher, and occasional curator whose essays and reviews have been published in Artforum, ArtPulse, Afterimage, Flash Art, Foam, and in a range of online venues. She teaches critical thinking and writing at the Art Department of the University of Minnesota, where she gets to talk about art for a living. From 2009-2013, she co-edited and wrote for Quodlibetica, an online publication devoted to the arts, writing, and criticism.
[i] Shamim M. Momin, "Beneath the Remains: What Magic in Myth?" (2004). In: The Gothic. Ed. Gilda Williams. (Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press; London: Whitechapel Gallery. 2007) 49.
[ii] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). 7.
[iii] See Eric Wilson, Against Happiness. New York: Sarah Crichton Books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2008) 43.