In The Holocene

UC Press/Afterimage Link


The MIT List Visual Arts Center
Cambridge, Massachusetts
October 19, 2012–January 6, 2013

“Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.” —Max Frisch

In the Holocene, on view at The MIT List Visual Arts Center, breathes like a perforated time capsule. With a curatorial strategy that manages to be at once achronic and archeological, the show presents a cross section of historical and contemporary artifacts that display a common quest for universal knowledge. Gathering the work in this way is paradoxical, as it seems to both affirm and contest the importance of historicity. With key insights originating in Futurism, Dada, pataphysics, and conceptual art, displayed alongside more contemporary works, the net effect is to suggest that temporal distinctions are less consequential than tactics.

The exhibition title is borrowed from a 1980 novella by the late Swiss author Max Frisch entitled Man in the Holocene, which centers on one Mr. Geiser and his futile attempts to retain order in an increasingly entropic world. The inner tumult Geiser experiences mirrors the declining conditions of the valley in which he lives, and is further aggravated by reports of a coming deluge. As inward and outward dissolution accelerates, Geiser fends off desolation by covering his walls with fragments extracted from encyclopedias. Walking through In the Holocene, one is invited to commune with many artistic visions that, if not precisely commensurate with that of Frisch’s Geiser, tinker with the raw materials of everyday life in a quest for imaginary solutions.

The word “Holocene” refers to the present geological epoch, which began twelve thousand years ago, and derives from a Greek expression meaning “entirely new.” Perhaps following the exhibition strategy, the title exposes a paradox at the heart of human existence. For while humans are barely legible in the yawning expanse of time, humanity’s imprint on the planet is disproportionately indelible. And though “Holocene” references the present epoch, it also suggests a kind of temporality that humans can barely comprehend, least of all experience.

The irony of these temporal realities—call them constraints—lies in their effect on the human mind. Humans compensate for the infinite evidence and scant experience of time available to them with a profligate imagination. And when facing down the many forms of devastation wrought by humans, or the gap between what is known and what is possible, rational discursive methods fall short. Thus each artwork included in the show arguably offers a symbolic corrective for what the artists perceive to be the limits of positivist solutions. To wit, the exhibition proposes that “art acts as an investigative and experimental form of inquiry, addressing or amending what is explained through traditional scientific or mathematical means.”

The quest for knowledge uncovered by In the Holocene radiates from the works, which evince a collective suspicion of rationality, and employ the constraints of paradox and absurdity as compensatory devices. What results, however, is not a comedic tone or atmosphere. Instead, an almost meditative force emanates through the exhibition, lending the gallery space a rather sacred quality. This was clearly intentional since, for the artists themselves, the wry humor often underlying their work is a serious matter. If taking the world lightly is a joke, it is also an existential paradox. And making art is not a simple recreational activity or professional endeavor, but a mode of survival.

What the viewer encounters in the show is a full spectrum of media artifacts made in the service of this inquiry, including sculptures, drawings, photographs, paintings, music, books, films, and videos. But the breadth of execution seems secondary to the artistic mission itself, which carries the artists, and thus the viewer, along a variegated and intensely contemplative path. There is a recurring sensation of being seized by the magnetism of artworks whose inspiration glows like dark matter issuing from an event horizon. What is precious here is less the objects themselves than the immense, invisible weight of conviction driving their creation. Often equally formal and conceptual, the beauty of the art is undeniable.

The show lays deep roots of historical precedent by including a range of pieces made by deceased and towering precursors like Berenice Abbott, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Caillois, Friedrich Fröbel, Alfred Jarry, Sol Lewitt, Man Ray, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Robert Smithson, and Iannis Xenakis. In addition, works by still extant precursors like John Baldessari, Joan Jonas, and Lawrence Weiner are also included. The effect of placing the work of these artists alongside that of many subsequent and contemporary ones, whose inspiration ignited under their formative influence, is a special kind of homage. As previously noted, the way in which the show is organized is avowedly non-chronological, an approach that could all too easily lead to formlessness. The aesthetic yet quotidian smorgasbord that is In the Holocene is instead a shining example of making an exceedingly difficult feat look easy.

Before entering the gallery, the viewer encounters three works so distinct in material and execution that they establish outlines for the terrain covered overall. First, outside the building itself, is Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Sequence (2002), a series of ten neon numbers installed along the roofline. Inside the lobby, displayed along the wall, lies a large text-based work by Weiner. Two lines of text, in black capital letters on a bright red field, ruminates: “a cairn dispersed to avoid the perils of the tide at the level of the sea.” As the door to the main gallery is approached, one encounters an installed dwelling assembled from salvaged materials, which serves as an enclosure for viewing Ben Rivers’s film Origin of the Species (2008). In a clear thematic parallel with Frisch’s Geiser, Rivers’s film features, according to the gallery text, “an elderly man who devises his own technologies for day-to-day subsistence while pondering the workings of the universe and the scope of human knowledge.”

Before even entering the gallery, one already senses the broad array of aesthetic qualities that In the Holocene contains. The works included range from Marinetti’s book The Futurist Words-in-Freedom (1919) to prints of three blackboard lectures by Beuys, and his sculpture Capri-Batterie (1985), a yellow light bulb adapted to a plug and inserted into a lemon. As one of the emblematic works in the show, Capri-Batterie reflects Beuys’s abiding fascination with energy, transformation, and alchemical processes, while retaining an essential whimsy and childlike inventiveness. The sculpture’s chromatic unity is beautifully arresting, likewise the almost Duchampian juxtaposition of elements. But the magic is in the evidence—an incongruous unity of instrumentality and fancy. It seems one man’s nutrients really are another man’s battery acid. One can almost hear Beuys wryly whisper, “I’m not here to speak about the particular problems of artists, but about the whole question of potential…”.1 Another emblematic work in the show is Germaine Kruip’s film Aesthetics as a Way of Survival (2009), which documents what is termed a “proto-aesthetic faculty” on the part of a bowerbird conducting its courtship display. Whether an analogous faculty can be attributed to humans seems of less consequence, to filmmaker and curator alike, than leading viewers to simply ruminate on the subject.

Other key themes touched on by additional works include Roger Caillois’s explorations of biological mimicry, Smithson’s fascination with crystallography and entropy, Alfred Jarry’s “pataphysics,” João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s “Abyssology,” and John Latham’s “Time-Base Theory,” all of which endeavor to address, and contemplate, flaws in the body of human knowledge. The fact that the artworks are organized into a flow dislodged from the constraints of linear time lends the exhibition a seamless, almost hypnotic quality redolent of the mythical slipstream. We are beckoned to enter the deeply speculative places trod by the thinkers behind the objects, films, and ideas that populate the spaces, and so gain a more direct appreciation for what it means to approach, as the gallery text indicates, “art as a speculative science.”

In the Holocene is not just a collection of stunning and masterful works of art, nor simply a master class in creative problem solving, but also a much needed tonic for all self-proclaimed, or unreflective, champions of rationalism. Jarry’s eloquence, in explication of pataphysics, is applicable here with respect to the work, and, more importantly, the thinking behind the work included in the show. It is a discipline of marshaling speculation, investigation, and perception into modes of living action that unveil “a universe which can be—and perhaps should be—envisaged in the place of the traditional one . . . ”2

james cunning holland, a visual artist and writer, teaches digital and performance art at Eastern Connecticut State University.

NOTES 1. Joseph Beuys, Energy Plan for The Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America, (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990) 8. 2. Andrew Hugill, Pataphysics: A Useless Guide (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012) 3.

Publication: Afterimage
January/February 2013 (Volume 40, no. 4)