Monday, October 17, 2011


I have lived in the Cleveland area for over 7 years now, and yet yesterday was the first time I ever visited MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). I often stumble and utterly fail to apprehend or assimilate contemporary/modern art; it all seems so meta- and hypertextual, and aside from a passing familiarity with pre-17th c. Western artists, my knowledge of art history and technique is scanty at best. When I stand before some esoteric canvas splattered in paint and string and mud and blood and appearing to have been bludgeoned with a hammer, I feel like an immigrant learning English for the first time and being asked to really comprehend the poetry of T.S. Eliot. But occasionally I encounter a contemporary artist whose work transcends that inbred, art-community-only kind of work, and yesterday (before a fun and fennel-filled trip to Whole Foods) I did just that.

The artist is Ursula von Rydingsvard. Her massive sculptures, painstakingly constructed by gluing together small blocks of cedar into craggy, twisting monuments of wood and graphite, reminded me of Latour’s Principle of Irreduction as expounded by Harman in Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009). Irreduction rejects the materialist idea that the physical world can “be reduced to a final layer of tiny pampered physical elements that are more real than everything else” (161). Object ontologists believe instead that nothing can be reduced to anything else, just as each von Rydingsvard sculpture cannot be reduced to its cedar pieces. Although one can see the individual chunks of wood that are used to construct the objects, like Legos or atoms, to focus only on the pieces is to miss the monuments themselves. The vitality of her works is only felt when they are perceived as whole objects, not just assemblies of parts.

Standing before her “Weeping Plates,” I noticed the way the vertical planks of wood pull the gaze down towards the mass of ligneous tears accumulated at the base of each eye-like disc; but to focus only on those strips of cedar is to miss the potency and melancholy of the plates. The violent texture of “Halo with a Straight Line” (pictured here) is the product of the chaotic jamming together of those individual chunks of wood, but the intimidation I felt standing before that awe-inspiring phallic tower was induced by the object as a whole, not by its parts. To see only the fragments of “Collar with Dots” is to miss the play between the ordinariness of a woman’s lace collar and its resemblance to a massive, threatening but familiar uterus. While it is true that I am constructed of billions of atoms swirling and dancing about in the unique dance of the sentient creature, the real Alan-object emerges as a whole being with a vitality that cannot be explained away by the micro-particles from which I am composed. If I were nothing more than the atoms and the spaces between those atoms, there would not exist a difference between myself and von Rydingsvard’s “Ocean Floor,” and thus I could not be an actor that finds comfort in the shallows and shadows of that paradoxically tumultuous yet pacifying structure.