Hannes Schmidt: Untitled 1, 2006, courtesy of Nice & Fit, Berlin, Germany
The recent history of Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill
the resting place for the rubble of the Twin
Towers, is the real world
parable for a group of artworks
that are simultaneously destitute and
Sara Greenberger Rafferty
Ruby Sky Stiler
Fresh Kills is the aptly named landfill on Staten Island,
fifty years to New York City’s
highly orchestrated waste disposal.
Due to new
environmental regulations in the late 1970’s, the city began
clean the 2,200
acre landfill with the intention of giving
it back to the
citizens of New York as a
usable park after
a designated number of years.
The landfill was officially
in March of 2001. A few months later, on
September 13, 2001, the Mayor of New
York, the NYPD
and the FBI
announced that it would begin hauling all
the freshly destroyed
World Trade Center to
Fresh Kills. One of the four grass-
would now become the world’s largest crime lab.
The following is an excerpt from the court testimony of a
hired by Taylor Recycling Facility to sift
through the rubble of the World Trade
“When we began our work sifting debris at Fresh Kills, we were told by an
NYPD official to spread the material out as thinly as possible, sift it, and get
rid of it. There was, however, an enormous amount of steel in the debris
that would have clogged our screening machines. To prevent this, we had
a worker running an excavator machine that pulled the steel out of the
debris before it was sifted. Once we had removed the steel, a loader would
scoop up the debris and dump it into our sifting machine. The sifter sorted
through the debris with its “fingers”, divided it into three streams of material
(small, medium, and large), and placed the three streams on three separate
conveyor belts. In addition to the ten Taylor workers assigned to each
sixteen NYPD officers stood next to the conveyor belts,
ready to look for human body parts, human remains, and personal belongings.
Through the process, we found many human body parts, including bones,
fingers, skulls, feet, and hands. I vividly remember finding a man’s full
chest and the entire body of a man still dressed in a suit. Personal
we recovered included keys, wallets, pictures and jewelry.
Whatever body parts
we found were put into buckets and taken to the
medical examiner’s area. The
debris that was sifted by our machines
down to one-quarter of an inch was known
as fines. The Dept of Sanitation
took the fines from the conveyor belts, loaded it
onto tractors, and used it to
pave roads and fill in potholes, dips, and ruts.
In the early months, we identified approximately two thousand bones per day.
I believe we found fewer body parts in the last months because we were
sifting through the debris from the bottom floors of the World Trade Center,
and the people who had been on those floors either escaped or their entire
bodies were crushed, leaving no bones.
The firm Phillips and Jordan had been hired to oversee the work at Fresh
Kills. I was constantly told by their supervisors to ‘move the job,’ to run the
conveyor belts faster, and to ‘keep the tonnage up,’ referring to the tons sifted
per hour. One official did not let us drop below a certain quota of tons per
hour; another did nothing but drive around the site all day, checking our progress.
Meanwhile, NYPD officers working along the conveyor belts kept telling me
to slow the belts so they could properly sift through the debris. Because
only sixteen officers could work on each of our machines, other officers
continued to sift through debris using rakes and shovels, until the end of 2001,
when the temperature dropped to such a point that some of the materials froze.”
Such a surreal scene happened within our midst, in our city, and in our time.
And yet this account sounds more and more familiar as the veneers of
society’s workings are peeled back. Anecdotes of such shocking revelation and
high abstraction abound, challenging yet another generation of artists to conceive
of sufficient representations of the time. The exhibition Fresh Kills presents
artworks that exist in a contradictory physical state of being simultaneously
destitute and monumental. Visual comprehension is achieved through the active
essence of the work and not the superficial nature of surface. The works
attempt to reveal and elevate the recently departed; expose the haunting
things in our midst; to alchemize profound meaning from the unwanted, the
valueless, the void of potential.
I have titled the exhibition Fresh Kills not to be sensational, but to find a parable
in the real world for a group of younger artists whose works essentially “fall
apart” through their formal, material or conceptual construction. Many of the
works included are not discrete objects, but are instead scattered or dropped,
disguised or disfigured, and when they are closer to conventional artworks
(photography, painting or sculpture), they conjure a sort of “after-ness:” made
desperately from physical, conceptual and digital detritus. Many of the works are
flaccid or weak emblems that betray their own structure. The artists deal not
with pop gestures or cultural critiques, but instead elevate garbage, base material,
found imagery and natural materials to a level of intense meaning, much like the
abstracted fragments of the World Trade Center.
Much of the work is darkly beautiful: glowing representations of entropy, materials
that evoke the macabre, artificial spills on the floor, works propped against the
wall, grotesque constructions of the human body, symbolic artifacts that return to
nature or exist in desolation. The closest precedent to an exhibition of this nature is
that of the group exhibitions of the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960’s. But
unlike their counter-cultural predecessors defying the dominant academic and political
hegemony of the era, these artists may be perhaps filled with a much more
desperate optimism. By cobbling together entropic and elusive subjects, these
artworks are given a level of monumentality and glamour through their intricate
construction, their carnal associations, and their suggestions of flailing action.
It could be said that these artists find beauty in both entropy and structure. If a
defiant humor emanates from these works it is a sad kind of humor: a sort of
a truthful distilment of culture to its material foundation.
Carter Mull scatters photographs about the floor, ceiling, or over a sculptural
substrate. The piles of hundreds of prints conjure an entropic cosmos of
compiled detritus, but are often derived from an archive of specific reference (in a past
work he photographed each step in the process of the destruction of an institutional
drop ceiling). The images, printed onto a metallic glittery paper, are spread about in a
casual overlapping arrangement. The combined effect skews spatial
comprehension and erodes legibility. The work hovers somewhere between mediums
: photography, sculpture and gestural action all mash into a display that is at once
colorfully seductive and maddeningly discordant.
Ruby Sky Stiler’s elaborate arrangements of objects are at once perfectly
coifed and disjunctively awkward. Her giant vase, a hot-glued mosaic of trompe
l’oeil impersonations of many smaller vases, is cobbled together in a frenzied attempt
to resurrect the past glory of classical civilizations. The bloated and fractured vase
seems a ludicrous interpretation of the patina of ancient beauty. Occupying the same
room as the oversized jug is its physical opposite: standing at average human height,
a sculpted tree branch reaches upward, its withering branches sheathed in evening
gloves. The skinny delicacy of the rising form suggests innocent delight or careless
abandon, but the hand-stitched felt gloves appear like squashed, severed cartoon
arms. Stiler’s works exude grace but feel startlingly schizophrenic, as if the
objects got lost on their way to perfection.
Jan Bünnig’s clay works hover somewhere between performance and static sculpture.
After creating a lumpy conglomeration of clay on an armature made of fishing wire
hung from the ceiling, Bünnig cuts the hanging wire at the beginning of the opening of
the exhibition so that the clay monstrosity flops, contorts and eventually splats to
the ground making a final “fallen” sculpture blob. Bünnig combines the material spirit
of Arte Povera with the performative aspects of the underground club scene is his
native Berlin. The result is something that is both static and shifting, wholly natural
while artificially coerced.
Daniel Gordon cleverly indicts the photographic tradition of the 20th Century
by photographing intricate but awkward three-dimensional sculptures. He sifts through
endless Internet imagery to create a still life, a portrait or a ‘historical’ scene in a
three-dimensional collage. They could be described as photographs of dioramas. The
jarring scenes of humans and everyday objects confound the viewer as to how the
photographs were made -- yet somehow by reclaiming the digital imagery through the
physical process of construction, Gordon’s photographic practice usurps the
practitioners of big-budget fictional photography in favor of a collaged subjective fiction.
In Pregnant and Red Headed Woman the tight focus of the lens on its ‘subjects’
removes key parts of the narrative. Gordon’s female characters seem to be peeling
back, falling apart, lugubriously drooping, vulnerable, threatened.
Rachel Foullon’s wood structure emerges from the floor and barrels upward, its
gray slats unfurl like a swooping, upended deck. The monochrome surface is
interrupted on its protruding curve by a large nail. Dangling from the nail are three
twisted and tied loops of fabric. The subtle colors and tied ends of the fabric loops
suggest they might be bandanas or handkerchiefs hung up to dry. The sculpture’s
austere presence of enveloping gray is undercut by the offerings tied to it. What
seems monumentally static is softened by delicately placed manifestations of memory.
Sara Greenberger Rafferty is the star and only character of her looped video
projection. She idles the time perched on an awkwardly high shelf while watching
something on a portable DVD player that sits on her lap. The footage of a mundane
occurrence is made uncanny by her decision to project her image life-size at a
curious height against the gallery wall. What seems like an exercise in absurdity
is a multi-layered inversion of expectations: the footage is projected onto the actual
shelf where it was filmed, the same shelf on which the projector normally sits.
Rafferty is both the audience and subject, her image above heightening the real-world
viewer’s passivity. She remains focused on her hermetic video experience and nullifies
the requisite artistic offering to the viewer. Whatever she watches is distilled through
her reactions to become nothing but a awkward joke that hovers in the air -- the
whole thing a performance within a performance that has been ‘shelved’, has fallen on
its face, has been strung up for its transgressions.
Hannes Schmidt’s installations often present objects of utility in precarious ways:
frames, mat-boards, drawings, trash bags and suit jackets that are propped against
the wall using thin wood strips; glass picture frames are cut so they appear to be
sinking under the floor; found structural materials are arranged carefully but look
destitute; print media and office supplies are stacked, marked, eroded, cut. He
contrasts sculpture arrangements with photography and print imagery of persons
and man-made structures that are enigmatic: the black and gray imagery is deadpan,
yet is filled with macabre associations. The compiled effect is a perfect aesthetic
arrangement that is haunted by lingering structural collapse. Perhaps the artist
describes it best: “things falling apart into place.”
Dan Colen’s works methodically recreate the unwanted, un-gentrified canvases
of urban expression: appropriated graffiti, bubblegum, and birdshit are rendered
three-dimensional with oil paint, painstakingly taking street “expressionism”
to the level of “high” art. The average New York shit-sprayed brick shaftway
is transposed through thick impastos of oil paint onto Colen’s canvases.
Originating from a humorous scatological impulse, the paintings reclaim
“Impressionism“ as a method to deliver painting to solemn and beautiful ends.
© David Kennedy Cutler, 2008
Fresh Kills is the first exhibition to be realized at the Dumbo Arts Center, which
was selected via an Open Call process initiated in 2007.
David Kennedy Cutler is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
He has had recent solo exhibitions at Nice & Fit, Berlin, Germany and D'amelio
Terras, New York. His projects and writing have been featured in North Drive Press
and Lovely Daze, and reviewed in Flash Art, The New York Times, artnet.com,
artnet.de, Ka thimerini, Arton Paper, The Village Voice, and ExBerliner.
Kennedy-Cutler made his curatorial debut with The Summer Show Proposal Show
at Capsule, New York, in 2005. Fresh Kills is the second exhibition he has curated.
This exhibition has been funded, in part, by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.