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Intervention is a term we hear a lot, one that often doesn’t mean much. We’re asked to look upon a work of art and see it as somehow disruptive to a narrative or a market that are, in fact, rather acquiescent. Still, I’m tempted to use the term here, to describe the work on view at Honeydew, Bill Jenkins and Chadwick Rantanen’s two-man show at Michael Thibault, if only because of how absurd it sounds. (An urgent intervention into the distribution of light at a particular address in West Adams and the electrical currents in a collection of off-brand consumer commodities.) While the modifications that comprised the artists’ respective contributions perhaps suggest something a bit closer to a hack (as in a life hack or an Ikea hack)—refashioning the crap of contemporary material culture—they did so with a definite sense of the absurd, staging a pageant of shoddiness that seemed to deride the artistically precious and the discursively pompous.
The sleekest thing in the show—a long wooden construction like a sharp-angled trough—stood in the center of the front room. The interior walls sloped down to a plane, along the middle of which ran a slender gap designed to swallow dead AAA batteries, produced by a collection of chintzy electronic goods procured by Rantanen. Motion-activated chirping birds, spinning globes, and a filigreed LED sconce, were haphazardly displayed in the trough, their packaging strewn about, like a rejoinder to fastidious modes of display.
And all those tchotchkes, as it happens, take AA batteries. Rantanen cast plastic casings that give AAAs a little extra length and girth, allowing them to fit AA holders. The casings are strangely emphatic objects, an impression no doubt heightened by the discarded bubble wrap, cardboard, and whining electronics. Though it probably has more to do with a curious, extraneous feature: each casing possesses a couple of flat, round protuberances, like a pair of wings that—whatever their ornamental function—prevent the battery compartment from closing. In fact, those wings made it hard for these items to even sit up straight or assume whatever their proper deportment. The birds were forced to lie on their sides. The globes were disassembled, their Southern Hemispheres steadily whirling, top halves inert. It turns out that doing the work of their big brothers puts quite a strain on the little AAAs. They were expiring at an alarming rate, plunking down into the belly of the trough.
Descent was the defining movement of the installation: the sloping walls of the trough, the abyss of spent batteries, and—from above—Jenkins’s elaborately ramshackle ductwork of plastic sheeting, Mylar, and wood, completely covering the gallery’s skylight and fixtures, slouching down from the ceiling and funneling illumination toward the buffet of whining birds. As objects, the ducts are both imposing and flimsy, their effect theatrical and sardonic. While disorienting the visitor and reorienting the space, Jenkins’s redirections of light—that element essential for (among so many other things) photographing art—seemed concerned as much with the would-be online viewer as the gallery visitor. Reallocating light into dim puddles, Jenkins manufactured a kind of resource scarcity—not so much an imagining of the possibility of the unphotographable, as a prickly concession to the inevitability of install shots: might as well make it tricky.
In the second room, light again filtered through a plastic tarp, and again consumer crap ran on AAAs in AA drag (with protruding wings). Only here the light source was an eye-level window and the gizmos consisted of motion-sensitive outdoor cameras, a row of sconces, and a couple of inflatable fat suits. The latter hung from the wall, while down on the floor, the cameras and lights sat atop the boxes they’d been sold in, like pedestals.
Rantanen and Jenkins’s projects work rather well together—perhaps an odd choice of words for a show built on things not working well. The press release consisted of a list of instructions for dealing with inevitable problems: replacing batteries, taping up light leaks in the ducting. Still, Jenkins’s conduits of light and Rantanen’s readymades and winged casings each enlivened the other, teasing out drama from works that on their own might skew deadpan. The artists also, of course, share a sense of materiality, an engagement with the physical dregs and artifacts of our historical moment, both the ubiquitous and the overlooked. These are the surpluses of an advanced capitalist society, glossed for us always in a technophiliac hymn. But if the future is here, why is it so shitty?
Honeydew at Michael Thibault was on view from September 26–November 8, 2015 at Mier Gallery (1107 Greenacre Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046).
Originally published in Carla Issue 3.