Golden Dust

I have a miser­ly dis­po­si­tion. This is not an easy thing nowa­days. The gen­er­al cli­mate con­sid­ers miser­li­ness a sin; great voic­es tell me to spend, to con­tin­ue as usu­al, to keep liq­uid. We are meant to despair at the peo­ple of Japan, who have retreat­ed from spend­ing, from pro­duc­tion, and keep to their beds to hold down the mon­ey under their mat­tress­es. The small­er voic­es who con­gre­gate around me agree; they say to spend your time in asso­ci­a­tion, keep join­ing, keep con­nect­ing. The small must get big­ger, must put out its elbows. 

a duck swimming in money
A diving duck.

No one talks about misers late­ly, since it has become axiomat­ic that wealth should be diver­si­fied, autonomous, and dif­fi­cult to track, an immense fun­gus spread­ing in fil­a­ments under the sur­face and sprout­ing up fine mush­rooms here, there, and every­where. Misers do not spread, but con­dense – they col­lapse mate­r­i­al togeth­er. They are not hoard­ers, quite, because they are mind­ful enough to select and trans­form as they go. Most typ­i­cal­ly, they pri­or­i­tize exchange into mon­ey and then the con­cen­tra­tion of that mon­ey into one place. A con­tain­er full of liq­uid mon­ey, become light, uni­form, and mate­r­i­al, a new kind of water to swim in. 

Miser­li­ness has the effect, then, of gath­er­ing into a place – a hov­el, or a vault. But if we remove the secre­tive aspect of the miser, and not coin­ci­den­tal­ly remove at the same time the spe­cif­ic dri­ve to accu­mu­late mon­ey, we may instead have an out­ward-fac­ing miser­li­ness, that in gath­er­ing and arrang­ing mate­r­i­al increas­es its val­ue – it makes them worth being expe­ri­enced. This could var­i­ous­ly come in the form of point­ing out what the mate­r­i­al resem­bles, aggre­gat­ing the mate­r­i­al into the forms the mate­r­i­al seems to sug­gest, or only throw­ing the mate­r­i­al into unfa­mil­iar arrange­ments to re-enchant it.

Nicodemus Boffin
The Golden Dustman, rendered by James Mahoney.

This is anoth­er way of see­ing artis­tic pro­duc­tion. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, it uses labor skill to con­vert incon­se­quen­tial mate­ri­als into aes­thet­ic val­ue. But we can also see artis­tic pro­duc­tion as a means to avert waste – in a miser­ly spir­it, to avoid dis­card­ing any worth on hand. Once its intend­ed use has passed, its last resort is in the cre­ative realm. This is the Japan­ese mot­tainai, the shame in wast­ing, the habit of reusing or repair­ing to the fur­thest degree.

Once accu­mu­lat­ed and point­ed out­ward at the world, recy­cled mate­r­i­al can inter­act with the qual­i­ties of the place it inhab­its, set­ting up a two-way exchange. As the site of accu­mu­la­tion becomes a site of val­ue by art­ful­ly amass­ing the loose mate­r­i­al that sur­rounds it, depend­ing on the means of amass­ing, it may also simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­fer val­ue on the larg­er area in which it rests. In the process of con­vert­ing a vil­lage into a tourist des­ti­na­tion, Lu Wenyu and Wang Shu’s Ning­bo Muse­um does not only put the locale on the map; it ges­tures at the char­ac­ter and worth of what sur­rounds it.

Sze's The Uncountables
Sze's The Uncountables (Encyclopedia) (2010)

What I am inter­est­ed in, from the precincts of land­scape, the coun­try cousin of the visu­al arts, is how to process raw phys­i­cal mate­r­i­al as direct­ly as pos­si­ble into envi­ron­ments. Here, we pre­serve the con­nec­tion to the source, keep­ing the capac­i­ty of this per­cep­ti­ble two-way exchange. The tra­di­tion here in land­scape is present but not entire­ly benign, and most often takes the form of sim­ply treat­ing what is found in the local catch­ment as though artis­tic mate­r­i­al (clum­si­ly) or social mate­r­i­al (illeg­i­bly). Giv­en the site of a rail depot, we stack rail­road ties into a fac­sim­i­le of a bench, and shine spot­lights on them to tell a sto­ry about the dig­ni­ty of labor. What we can do instead is to start from the capac­i­ties of the mate­r­i­al itself, using their base tec­ton­ic and semi­otic qual­i­ties to build entire­ly new arrange­ments and places. In doing so, we avoid wast­ing or seques­ter­ing the con­sid­er­able pow­ers of the material.

The test with such work comes in the abil­i­ty to nav­i­gate the nar­row strait between kitsch and impas­siv­i­ty. I start here with the artists Jes­si­ca Stock­hold­er and Sarah Sze as exam­ples of such a mean in artis­tic prac­tices. Both work with assem­blages of every­day objects and mate­r­i­al, and both clear­ly have one foot in a tra­di­tion of artis­tic col­lage. Where they dif­fer is in extend­ing the planes and jux­ta­po­si­tions of past work – say, Robert Rauschenberg’s Mono­gram – fur­ther out into envi­ron­ments. Stock­hold­er and Sze both rec­og­nize store­hous­es, clos­ets, sheds, attics – places where mate­r­i­al finds new ecolo­gies, new set­tings, new posi­tions of repose.

Stockholder's Sweet...
Stockholder's Sweet for Three Oranges (1995)

They do not much relate these object-spaces to human affect and sen­ti­ment – you retain the sense of a place where objects are chiefly relat­ing to one anoth­er. They also stands dis­tinct from the car­go cultism of a Haim Stein­bach or Jeff Koons – goods are not treat­ed as self-evi­dent or inter­nal­ly lumi­nous. Their objects – oranges, desk lamps, fans, books – reveal pow­ers to asso­ciate that are at once relat­ed to and dis­tinct from their every­day function. 

Beyond my own miser­li­ness, my unwill­ing­ness to pay more at Utrecht, or for a new edi­tion of Cre­ative Suite, I see two great sources of strength in this genre. One, it shows a way to mod­el through a designed envi­ron­ment the rela­tion­ship of humans with the man­u­fac­tured envi­ron­ment they inhab­it on an every­day basis, in a way anal­o­gous to how how the typ­i­cal gar­den mod­els a rela­tion­ship to the world of nature. Stockholder’s and Sze’s work is most clear­ly mir­rored in the world of land­scape through folk pro­duc­tion, from the tra­di­tion of yard shows to the vision­ary Chris­t­ian gar­dens of Howard Fin­ster or Leonard Knight. This shades fur­ther into the work of half-cre­den­tialed artists like Noah Puri­foy and Har­vey Fite, whose pro­cliv­i­ties led them out of the gallery space and its asso­ci­at­ed social habits. If such envi­ron­ments with­draw from their sur­round­ings, they do not abduct their vis­i­tors into rar­efied space – they do not ele­vate. They show our usu­al habits of use, enchanted. 

Sec­ond, this genre embod­ies work, and makes it vis­i­ble. Every ounce of work done has a vis­i­ble and mate­r­i­al equiv­a­lent. The work can­not be reduced to great spir­it, to inge­nu­ity, to genius mold­ing mat­ter. It does not hide behind paint­ed dry­wall, or any oth­er skin of fin­ish. Kept vis­i­ble, this work becomes an argu­ment. It argues for its own main­te­nance, because it would be a shame if all this work would be for naught. It adver­tis­es how mate­ri­als near­ly with­out val­ue can be trans­lat­ed up – upcy­cled, real­ly – through man­u­al and con­cep­tu­al inge­nu­ity. And it sug­gests a con­si­cous choice of mate­ri­als that is nei­ther indis­crim­i­nate nor curat­ed, nei­ther found in the back alley nor ordered from the dis­trib­u­tor with grant mon­ey. Again, the work falls in the mean of watch­ful expe­ri­ence, which ranges and selects as it goes. 

The miser, the Gold­en Dust­man, reels before what has been pro­duced, and how to con­vert it – how is some liquor to be made from it. Gold­en dust is two things. It is gath­er­ing shav­ings, things ren­dered beside the point, to be rea­massed because of their inher­ent worth. It is also the prop­er­ty of dust, when kicked up in a cer­tain quan­ti­ty in a cer­tain qual­i­ty of light, to be glo­ri­ous, to fly per­pet­u­al­ly in Brown­ian motion, to shine. For most, it is not rea­son­able to expect to see this qual­i­ty at all times in dust; it will only come out in the prop­er sit­u­a­tion. So we should stage and pro­long this sit­u­a­tion as much as we can.

giant dustheap
View of a dust heap by E.H. Dixon, King's Cross, London (1837)

(April 2017)