Party Pooper (or The Basics of Bases) [on Hany Armanious]

June 2011

Hany Armanious: The Golden Thread
Australia Council for the Arts

1.

Hany Armanious’s Party Pooper (2010) is an unlikely arrangement of five objects—a folksy ashtray, a cartoonish hippopotamus, a diamond-like gemstone, a seashell, a crumpled wad of … well, some kind of malleable stuff all off-handedly situated on a melamine table top precariously held aloft by three thin fluorescent light tubes. At first glance it’s difficult to know what to make of this curious assemblage; on second glance a few formal congruities begin to emerge: the white fingernails of the hippo match the indentations on the ashtray, and on a somewhat related note the malleable grey wad appears to have been crushed in a hand. But that hardly accounts for the work. Further inspection reveals that the horizontal surface is a remnant from a piece of IKEA furniture; the hippo is not a toy, but a toilet-paper holder. Still, the arrangement maintains an element of Sphinx-like mystery: there’s a sense that no amount of information could fully explain or resolve this lost-and-found grouping.

2.

Any cultural anthropologist would tell you that the whole idea of the table developed out of a need to elevate what we put in our mouths above the ground, the threshold between us and the land of the dead—the domain of animals, dirt, feet. In this sense, the table serves to elevate objects both physically and symbolically, and the pedestal or plinth functions in a similar way in the history of sculpture. It serves to valorise heroes formed of earthen materials such as stone, wood or metal by putting them that much closer to the heavens while also making them more visible—more, well, heroic—to the masses on the ground. In a symbolic economy, relative distance from the filthy plane of earth is usually a sure measure of value.

If the pedestal typically confers value on the object or objects placed upon it, then Armanious has upset expectations by employing the base of sculpture—in Party Pooper, but elsewhere, frequently—in a complex act of transvaluation, short-circuiting the symbolic economy and thereby disrupting the meaning-production that base presumably engenders. While the ad hoc table seems to unify these disparate elements, its apparent instability, insinuated by those three spindly legs, is both literal and symbolic. How could a table possibly unify a diamond and a toilet-paper holder? And why these particular objects? Is it possible to elevate these two objects equally … on a crude scrap of cheap melamine? All five objects? And what if the table—hardly an emblem of stability, in this case—should topple?

3.

“Let us not undervalue this,” demanded Nietszche over a century ago: “We ourselves, we free spirits, are already for a ‘reevaluation of all values’… “[1] The idea of transvaluation is not new, and one can certainly connect the notion to any number of significant artistic gestures of the twentieth century—particularly in the wake of Dada: Duchamp’s urinal, placed on a pedestal and claimed as an artwork titled Fountain in 1917, is only the most obvious example; Kurt Schwitters’s concept of Merz, the artist’s neologism for fragmented material extracted from the world, is another. The potency of these gestures resides in raising base material (a urinal, yesterday’s newspaper, and so on) to the category of ‘art’, thereby generating symbolic value.[2]

By the mid-1960s the plinth was declared dead, or at least severely devalued: its ability to confer symbolic value was disabled as the product of an anachronistic belief system. Carl Andre placed modules of wood, metal or brick directly on the floor of the gallery (or the ground outside), and Robert Morris made featureless, box-like sculptures that looked suspiciously like the pedestals they rendered obsolete. But, by the end of the century, the pedestal had made something of a comeback in a variety of new guises. It was hardly a heroic return. Rather than simply conferring value upon objects, for many artists the pedestal became a plane for negotiating (or re-negotiating) symbolic value, and it often became a device as worthy of attention as the objects it supported.

Since the mid-1980s, Haim Steinbach has deployed wall-bound plywood and Formica shelves to situate products of mass consumption: Air Jordan hi-tops, boomboxes, lava lamps, novelty erotic coffee mugs, dog toys, Halloween masks and so on. With a consumer good often ganged, sometimes alongside handmade or unique artefacts, these arrangements generally highlight formal or semantic relationships. As Brian Wallis observed in his essay for Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object, his topical 1986 exhibition at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, ‘Steinbach dramatises the overproduction of late capitalism, in which there is a product for every need and in which even toilet bowl brushes are designed as if destined for the Museum of Modern Art gift store.’[3] Steinbach’s shelves obliterate hierarchy between objects—singly or in exhausting proliferation—calling into question symbolic value as much as affirming it.

In the late 1980s Mike Kelley employed a similarly disruptive tactic by grouping and arranging used objects found at thrift stores, factoring a handmade object’s emotional baggage into its symbolic value. The very title of Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), in which a substrate of blankets—a unifying device, not unlike a table or pedestal—is overloaded, physically and symbolically, with innumerable, orphaned stuffed animals. In Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991) a similar variety of stuffed ‘animals’ (many of which are more or less humanoid) is arranged on an array of inexpensive folding tables, grouping like objects (sock monkeys, for example) and presenting more idiosyncratic finds singly, recalling a bargain-basement laboratory. But a totalising organising principle or taxonomy never fully materialises, and the viewer is instead left to draw absurd connections between these objects, which will presumably lead one to broader scepticism about taxonomies, hierarchies and other systems of value and belief.

4.

For Armanious, the pedestal or base initially functions in a similar manner to these important precedents: it destabilises—paradoxically—whatever objects are situated on it, and whatever relationships are assumed or expected between those objects. This destabilisation is in the realm of the symbolic, but a sense of physical instability is also frequently in evidence (as with Party Pooper). And Armanious is often eager to engage the floor as well as an elevated support—sometimes both at once, as with the chock-a-block, multi-tiered installation Selflok (1994-2001) or the appropriately titled Year of the Pig Sty (2007), in which dozens of pairs of pink Crocs and a pile of other objects overflow an oversized polystyrene fruit box backed into the corner, with scattered shoe boxes serving as provisional bases as well. His delirious assemblies of objects invoke belief systems even as they short-circuit straightforward signification, rendering the ‘system’ itself illegible.[4]

Much of the strategy in play is located in the physical composition of Armanious’s objects and their bases, which are not found but made by the artist—cast in pigmented polyurethane resin to look exactly like objects in (or extracted from) the world. With Party Pooper, all of the objects—the IKEA melamine scrap and the light tubes serving as legs, as well as the ashtray, hippo, diamond and seashell—are made of the same material, and in this sense, the crumpled grey wad on the table is, perhaps, the most ‘honest’ part of the work. It refers to the casting process explicitly, literally revealing the imprints of the artist’s hand. Casting an object, much like situating it on a pedestal, traditionally confers value—marking a shift from commodity good to symbol: think of a parent getting a baby’s first pair of shoes bronzed.

But, unlike the sculptural arrangements of Kelley or Steinbach, Armanious’s casting allows for a potential rupture from the signifying circuit of the readymade. Armanious makes objects that are, at once, stand-ins or approximations of the objects they’re cast from as well as heightened versions of these originals, imbued with value associated not only with the artist’s selection (i.e. in the case of the readymade) but also the labour-intensive effort in replicating the original. Alchemy has been invoked to describe this aspect of the artist’s process, and there is surely something more magical about an object—even a banal one—exquisitely remade. In this sense, he frequently transplants ordinary, mass-produced stuff to the heightened realm of the auratic, the extraordinary.

Armanious employs the value-added process of casting, along with an assertive reconsideration of the base, in order to overturn expectations and hierarchies between objects and their presumed value. In Party Pooper, the diamond is as valuable as the toilet-paper holder, which is as valuable as the glob of Plasticine—which are all as valuable at the provisional table they both sit on. The table only pretends to unify the work; the cast material actually does. Discovering that all the parts are made of the same material hardly ruins the sculpture or its subtly delirious play of signification. Rather, gaining knowledge of the work’s construction sets the work in motion, allowing its provisional, precarious structure to teeter on the edge of symbolic collapse, even when—especially when—a unifying agent enters the equation.

5.

It’s worth mentioning that a play on words—or several, really—operates behind the scenes here. The term base, for example, could serve as a synonym for pedestal or plinth, but also refers to something inferior, contemptible, devoid of value. Base also suggests a more general unifying principle, the primal, primary, primordial—as with basis or basic. To wit: the artist referred to an earlier work, Snake Oil (1994), as an “attempt at finding the source of all matter and form.”[5]

Likewise, casting describes the fundamental sculptural process of replicating the form of an object using a mould, but it also suggests something cast off or cast out, cast aside or cast adrift—waste product. Then again, one also casts a net—or a spell—in a productive attempt to harness nature. Often, when using these words—base, cast—to discuss the work of Armanious, all of these myriad meanings seem not only latent but also entirely relevant at the same time, even as they begin to contradict one another.

Robert Leonard, among others, has pointed to similar recurring examples of language play:

It is often noted that Armanious’s work is marked by its playful use of analogy; links based on resemblances of material, form, function and process; word plays, homonyms, anagrams. There are rhymes within works and rhymes between works. An habitual category corrupter and cultural recaster, Armanious uses rhyming to connect and conflate opposing values, sometimes with seriousness, sometimes with humour. He exploits our tendency to see links between ideas due to arbitrary superficial resemblances between their signifiers, as if these affinities underpinned a deeper connection—a classic fallacy called ‘isomorphism.’[6]

The charge of Armanious’s work for a viewer results from the difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of putting his cast objects, and the relationships between them, into language. Naming things, whether individual objects or networks of them, allows for a sense of fixity, whereas the inability to readily identify things—say, that grey glob of crumpled Plasticine in Party Pooper—creates instability, with the pedestal providing a false sense, or ‘classic fallacy’, of structural logic because it tenaciously continues to stand.

6.

Snake Oil (1994) represents a significant early work by Armanious, because it inaugurates this ongoing instability of identification in the artist’s work, and uses a series of tables to do so. The work’s title suggests a simultaneous embrace and scepticism about belief systems: the term ‘snake oil’ is generally recognised as a euphemism for quackery, pseudo-science, false advertising, and other shams, but it’s worth noting the term actually refers to a traditional Chinese medicine still in use. As an Egyptian-born artist living in Australia, it makes sense that Armanious has frequently indulged in an interpenetration of East and West, and the belief systems, cultural mythologies and values suggested by those terms.[7]

Transvaluation is perhaps too anodyne a term—too polite, too tidy—to accurately describe the excess of matter and dizzying signification at work here. In attempting to apprehend this artist’s mash-ups of mysticism and capitalist overproduction, the resulting sense of overload evades language, and its expected balm. Or, to put it in sculptural terms, meaning can maintain plasticity even as the forms inducing this play of signification solidify into objects.

In Snake Oil, each of four simple, elegant tables—sheets of plywood on angular bent-steel frames—is covered with an assortment of, well, stuff that eludes easy characterisation. Armanious created these blobs by dropping Hot Melt—a petroleum-based material developed for the manufacture of fishing lures—into cold water, not unlike poaching an egg. According to the artist, “It would explode and congeal as soon as it made contact with the water. Snake Oil was a presentation of this experiment. The title alludes to the cure-all qualities of the Hot Melt as at the time I thought that this material would solve all the issues surrounding sculpture and the readymade.”[8]

Here, the past tense of Armanious’s phrasing intimates that ‘all the issues surrounding sculpture and the readymade’ were indeed not solved. It’s probably just as well: these issues—really, a dialectical relation tied to values symbolic and economic, and meaning attached to material, labour, the hand-made, the auratic, and so on—continue to circulate, proliferate, pile up and gather throughout the artist’s body of work into the present. The readymade—and the artistic values attached to it over the past century—is only a point of beginning for meaning-production, another provisional base from which to get back to the basics of sculpture.

1. From The Anti-Christ. The entire sentence, which opens Section 13, reads: ‘Let us not undervalue this: we ourselves, we free spirits, are already for a “reevaluation of all values,” an incarnate declaration of war and victory over all ancient conceptions of “true” and “untrue.”’ [Emphasis in the original.] See Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 135.

2. A discourse of transvaluation surfaced in and around the art world in the 1990s, largely influenced by Georges Bataille’s writings on l’informe (the formless), and more recently Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection and Jean Baudrillard’s writings on symbolic exchange. The most influential example of this is the exhibition Informe (Formless), organised by Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss at the Pompidou Centre in 1996, and the accompanying catalogue Formless: A User’s Guide (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1997). An earlier (if less theoretically developed) example is Ralph Rugoff’s 1990 exhibition Just Pathetic at Rosamund Felsen in Los Angeles (and its accompanying catalogue), which included examples of ‘pathetic art [that] makes failure its medium’ by artists such as Mike Kelley, John Miller, Cady Noland and David Hammons.

3. Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object (exhibition catalogue), curated by Brian Wallis [generally a catalogue editor, not exhibition curator, is given here – did Wallis serve as both?] [[Stephanie: I checked the catalogue. It provides this info: “This publication has been organized by Marcia Landsman, Publications Coordinator and Brian Wallis, Adjunct Curator”]] (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986).

4. Additional examples of the pedestal or plinth used in a similarly aggressive and potentially ironic manner in the wake of Steinbach and Kelley are too numerous to fully account for, but on this count one could point to artists as varied as Rachel Harrison, Joe Scanlan, Thomas Hirschhorn and Richard Hawkins who might constitute some kind of generational ‘peer group’ for Armanious.

5. Email to author, November 21, 2010.

6. See Robert Leonard, ‘A Catalogue of Errors’, in Hany Armanious: Morphic Resonance (exhibition catalogue), (Brisbane and Wellington: Institute of Modern Art and City Gallery, 2007).

7. The sculptural installation Turns in Arraba (2004), for example, presents the artist’s Middle Eastern‒style recording of Abba’s music, and similarly, the artist has also invoked the name of an imagined, hybridised nation named ‘Swegypt’.

8. The configuration of Snake Oil loosely recalls the laboratory-like set-up of Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart, and its objects would be no easier to classify according to existing taxonomies. Notably, a slightly later work, Untitled Snake Oil, 1998, comprises both cast and readymade in a dynamic relationship. A variety of found wine glasses were used as moulds for coloured resin [[yes?]] [[Stephanie or Anne: can we confirm this is indeed resin? Thanks.]], and the resulting casts were subsequently displayed on the glasses, which when turned upside-down served as bases.