ESSAYS Mousse 64
Passive Voice: Notes on the Found Object, Now
by Mitch Speed
Michael E. Smith, Untitled (detail), 2017, installation view at KOW, Berlin, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and KOW, Berlin. Photo: Ladislav Zajac / KOW
“I’d say you should make your artwork ambiguous. The less motherfuckers are able to understand your artwork, the more they can put it into it, you know? And motherfuckin’ white artists, critics… they love fuckin runnin’ they mouths. They love the challenge of an ambiguous work cause it allows them to enteeeeerrrrr the work.”
—Hennessy Youngman, How to Be a Successful Artist, 20091
“I put a spell on you.”
—Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Everyone knows to be wary of art’s power to transmute junk into treasure. But everyone also knows to be wary of being too wary of this power. To accept it uncritically is to become a slavish art world automaton. On the other hand, to vociferously critique it is to risk conservative philistinism. Who wants either?
The most recurring focal point of this conflict is the found object, previously known as the readymade. We no longer use the latter word, because it’s been welded to our memory of the historical avant-garde, in particular Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), the porcelain urinal that he famously entered into an art competition, and which, to much fanfare, recently celebrated its one hundredth birthday. For a few years I’ve been wondering about the persistent popularity of this sometimes baffling method of making art, wherein ordinary things—rescued from the gutter, the closet, or the junk shop—are magically converted into works of art, sometimes slightly altered, oftentimes not.
FORT, Untitled, 2017, Limbo installation view at Langen Foundation, Neuss, 2017. Courtesy: the artists and Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf. Photo: René Arnold
Like many people I know, I had assumed this method was no longer controversial—an assumption that met cold reality during a recent visit to Düsseldorf’s Langen Foundation. There, the duo FORT had presented (among other things) an enormous clenched zombie fist plucked from some derelict theme park or rooftop. Outside the museum, a local bureaucrat scoffed at the gesture’s lack of artistic effort. This reaction seemed like run-of-the-mill stodginess. Except that it opened a memory box of similar responses—responses to contemporary art that are easy to forget about, within the hermetic snow globe that we call the art world.
In the opening months of art school, years ago, a friend regularly referred to this kind of work as “scammer art.” Around the same time, a visitor to the university art gallery I worked at approached me with the chestnut condemnation: “I think the emperor has no clothes.” What’s interesting now is not that found objects accrue aura when placed in a white cube gallery. We’ve known that at least since 1976, when Brian O’Doherty wrote his canonical essay “Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space.”2 Rather, I want to unwind the psychological reaction—hardly dismissive, but deeply suspicious—that forms upon encountering artworks that are, arguably, barely artworks at all. Maybe it’s selfish, but I want to understand my own neuroses around this work—to understand if my commitment is true, or if I’ve just inhaled too much of the “illuminating gas,” or art world belief, to repurpose the title of Duchamp’s last work.3
It was power that offered the first route into this problem. I had begun to think of these artworks as expressions of anti-power: modest protests against hyper-production, principled acceptances of the world as it is, and by extension abdications of the imperative to assert one’s unique presence in the world by making something new. As often happens, this theory broke into pieces the moment it was voiced. A close friend pointed out its indefensible implication—that artists who continue to bring new objects into the world might equate to demigod narcissists and would-be alchemists. Add to this problem the subtle expression of power that precisely attends the artist’s privilege to confer the status of artwork on any object or gesture. For better or worse, this process still flies in the face of an expectation that art involves manual labor. The ability of artists to flout this expectation is precisely why they are accused of bourgeois dislocation, of enjoying a disproportionate and enigmatic social prestige. And so, a simple list began to form. It included the artists whose work had motivated this line of questioning: Michael E. Smith, Diamond Stingily, Jason Dodge, Ibrahim Mahama, Danny McDonald, Nina Canell… It was a certain quietness—an absence of overtly articulated artistic gestures in favor of subdued energy latent in the objects themselves—that had triggered the question of power and non-power, which resonates with the thoughts Susan Sontag put down in her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence.”
Sontag, whose preeminent examples were Duchamp’s readymades and John Cage’s 4’33”, knew that silence is impure. She thus worked hard to understand the dialectic that these works embody—between absences of artistic voice and evocations of material, experience, and setting. In her reading, these artists “ostentatiously” refused to “satisfy any established criteria of art.” Thinking back to that scoffing Düsseldorf bureaucrat, it’s interesting to read Sontag’s venerating description of aloof artistic behavior: “So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience.”4 Sontag wrote her essay on the eve of global protests against the nascent late capitalist order that would eventually turn into our neoliberal society, and the current atmosphere of discontent with this structure lends her argument new resonance. Within a neoliberal culture that converts every waking moment into an opportunity to work—whether in freelance economies or in the tacit marketing of oneself through social media—to present found objects as art is to resist the imperative of labor. But look further, and it’s also possible to understand the attraction to found objects—which resolutely index the real stuff of lived experience—as expressing a desire to evade the haze of spectacular experience produced by contemporary digital media, a spectacle culture that makes the 1960s and 1970s look quaint and docile. The question of power reenters the situation, as Sontag connects the drive toward artistic silence with the religious origins of art—for her, “one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project.”5 Then as now, the social problem attending found-object art is one of mysticism, whether real or perceived:
As the activity of the mystic must end in a negative, a theology of god’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of “the subject,” the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.6
We could fairly apply her description of “chance” to the serendipitous encounter with a particularly evocative object that seems for some reason known only to the artist, to warrant entrance into the gallery. Shortly, Sontag considers how it happened that the material tools for making art came to be understood by the avant-garde as an impediment to art’s central function:
The newer version [of art’s relationship to consciousness], in which art is part of a dialectical transaction with consciousness, poses a… frustrating conflict: the “spirit” seeking embodiment in art clashes with the “material” character of art itself. Art is unmasked as gratuitous, and the very concreteness of the artist’s tools appears as a trap.7
If today’s art still carries the responsibility to interact with consciousness, it follows that it also must interact with the means by which consciousness is produced and affected. If these means equate to the unassimilable glut of information that we encounter daily—produced by advertising agencies and politics, but also by consumers themselves on social media platforms—the interaction of found objects with the formation of consciousness is one of intervention and, in the most generous reading, healing. In this line of argument, Sontag’s artistic reluctance to communicate equates to a re-acquaintance with the realm of experience that persists underneath this nauseating field of information.
Of course, mysticism has become a joke in our culture. Even writing the word makes me bite my lip. But much as I empathize with the impulse to call out the pretentiousness of naming found objects as art, I’m at a loss to understand where else, in our current culture, this sort of inquiry into consciousness might be found. Affectively, art will never compare to music. In storytelling, it pales next to novels and movies and television series. But toward this probing of our structural relationship to self and world—which is no more or less important—I struggle to find a more useful cultural form. Which brings us back to that list.
Jason Dodge, What The Living Do installation view at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, 2017. Courtesy: Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin. Photo: Andrea Rossetti
For the last couple of years, Jason Dodge has spent a lot of time scattering trash on gallery floors. His work makes 1960s Arte Povera look cloyingly decorative. Flirting with an abject emptiness of form and metaphor, the work circles tightly around the ideal of artistic silence described by Sontag. I first walked through Dodge’s work in the exhibition he shared with Paul Thek at Berlin’s Schinkel Pavilion in 2017. It reminded me of how raccoons disembowel garbage bags in Vancouver, where I lived for many years, but also about a kind of proudly resigned material poetry, which has more to do with mimicking the contingent to-and-fro movement of material that has escaped our control. The color pink recurred often in this detritus, suggesting the painterly or musical deployment of a repeated tone in an otherwise ethereal composition. Dodge had also staggered several vacuum cleaners at intervals, their hoses looping and descending like charmed snakes. The hatch of each vacuum had been left open, revealing large precious stones where the waste bags should be, and, by implication, a magical transmutation of junk into jewels. A weird harmony played out, between the almost cocky scrappiness of this scene and Thek’s framed paintings (made from the 1960s until his death in 1988). The two shared a languidness, with Thek’s pictures—splotches and oceanic motifs in pink and blue laid over newspaper—echoing Dodge’s own unlikely poetry. Thek’s broader body of work often took the form of reliquaries, and even in the absence of such works here, their quasi-religious aura inflected Dodge’s scraps, emphasizing their mortal aura. Thus the work seemed to manifest a drive toward sculpture as ascetic silence. Or a capturing of the immense, churning quietness of all that used-up stuff that had lost its ability to speak to or enchant us.
There is an inescapable parallel here with the way in which the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) school of philosophy has dealt with objects: as entities whose qualities are inexhaustible, and therefore a perfect subject for artists, whose techniques defer and resist conclusive meaning. I’ve been reticent to make reference to these thinkers—most notably Graham Harman—because their work has already been deeply absorbed into the language of contemporary art, with understandable but often facile zeal. As a friend put it, “Object Oriented Ontology seems like a great way to justify absolutely anything you do in the studio.” The moth-to-a-flame attraction of artists to this kind of theory signaled a need to step outside the hermetic discourse of art. But what I’ve been digging for here is a way to think through these methods of making art that deals not only with the objects, but with the privilege to declare otherwise worthless objects as art. It’s for this reason that Sontag’s reference to the artist’s quasi-religious function seems so important.
Park McArthur, Contact H, 2016, Poly installation view at Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York
Park McArthur’s sculptures articulate the necessity to pursue this line of questioning. As with Dodge’s work, I first saw McArthur’s art spread across the floor, this time in 2014 at New York’s Essex Street gallery. In an unceremonious grid formation, McArthur had assembled several wheelchair ramps that were worn to various degrees, in brown, beige, white, and black, sometimes with yellow stripes. On one wall, the Wikipedia UTL for Marta Russell, the late disabilities rights activist, was written in nondescript vinyl lettering.
McArthur’s work is constituted mostly of re-presented products and objects that are used in the service of, or in the controlling of, human bodies. Thinking back to those ramps, I remember watching a conservative family friend react to a paramedic treating someone on a Vancouver street: “Health care costs…” he muttered. “Health care costs…”—the implication being that people in need should help themselves before costing us the rest of us money. This presumptive right to question the legitimacy of a person’s need would be shocking were it not so typically conservative. In larger part, it’s the relationship between the presumed privilege to speak, and a kind of expressive silence produced by objects and the histories and contexts they carry, that makes this artist’s work so powerful.
Put another way, McArthur’s work produces an uneasy counterpoint between the silence of artistic meaning characteristic of found objects, and realms of bodily and social life attended by deceptively evocative quietness or speechlessness—the relative nonrecognition of the voices of people who use objects such as these wheelchair ramps, in contrast with the bloated voices of the able and the privileged. This conflict hums implicitly in McArthur’s work, with or without the knowledge that she herself uses a wheelchair.
For her 2016 exhibition Poly at London’s Chisenhale Contemporary, McArthur piled single-use body products atop three white plinths. Other aspects of the show tensioned these objects—among other things, diapers and condoms—to physical manifestations of absorption. Sheets of paper coated with super-absorbent powder hung on a nearby wall, while three gray obelisk-like slabs of foam stood in the gallery’s corner. In a multidimensional resonance—like the interplay between layers of music or the layers of meaning in poetry—these absorptive materials rhymed with the utilitarian function of the products, but also with the disappearance of conservative artistic agency into the found object, and that of subjects often neglected their right to self-articulation in public space. These zigzagging resonances move more quickly and chaotically in the space of text than they do in the charged quiet of sculptural language. And it’s this charged latency that forms the magnetism of McArthur’s work.
Moreover, it emblematizes a common quality among the work discussed here, namely a dissonance between extreme literalism and the obliqueness these objects assume when encountered aesthetically. These forces of literalism and ambiguity have a way of pulling at one another, so that the objects seem to spin in the mind, producing a vortex pull—a dynamic that comes close to defining the powerful anti-power of found objects that I’m trying to understand.
Michael E. Smith, Untitled (detail), 2017, installation view at KOW, Berlin, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and KOW, Berlin. Photo: Ladislav Zajac / KOW
If artists working with found objects were a cargo cult, their leader could be Michael E. Smith. It’s his sculptures—found objects sometimes slightly altered or combined with others—that exude the most powerfully weird aura, like shipwrecked relics of our own time. Untitled (2013) is a red plastic mound that hangs on the wall like a badly scuffed, aberrant turtle shell. This work’s materials list reads “Altered Ronald McDonald Sculpture,” but it takes a moment to realize that the object is Ronald’s red plastic scalp. This kind of surreal darkness runs consistently through Smith’s work. In his 2017 show at KOW in Berlin, a stuffed parrot hung on the wall next to the illuminated green slash of a laser pointer and a single bull testicle, its bulbous black crown descending toward raggedy flaps of pale skin. Midway through sketching out a description of Smith’s work, I walked to the grocery store, where the resonance of his objects began to sink in. En route, I noticed the fiberglass characters that, like cousins to Ronald McDonald, stood outside forgettable restaurants and shops, coaxing passersby. It would be going too far to say that Smith’s sculptures changed the way I saw those synthetic figures. What they did was open the possibility of a space wherein worldly objects could be momentarily jostled loose from their dead banality, which is the result of a radically disenchanted and functionalized worldview—namely, that of capitalism.
Nina Canell’s Brief Syllable series (2014-2016) operates similarly, though in a less grisly way. These pieces are chunks of fiber-optic cable mounted atop plinths by way of very thin metal posts. Simple in appearance and execution, the pieces furnish resonances of the constant stream of electronic information that seems like the bloodstream of contemporary life. The cable’s guillotined ends reveal copper entrails and the encasements that protect them. To look at these works is to observe the veins of technology, but also those of a self that is living through that technology—through the shift into the cyborg existence that Donna Haraway predicted in her 1984 essay “The Cyborg Manifesto.”8
Nina Canell, Brief Syllable (Quiet), 2016. Courtesy: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin. Photo: JJY Studio, Shanghai
Both Smith’s and Canell’s work expresses a behavior of art that Sontag describes as a cause and effect of “the mind’s need for self-estrangement”—which is to say a distancing from its naturalized perceptions of a lived material world (Bertolt Brecht’s stark dramaturgy, comes to mind). It’s precisely the artist’s relative silence in the act of selecting and presenting these objects that sparks this capacity. The found object’s resolute literalness crashes into the implication—which is felt through the object’s existence as sculpture—that things are not as they seem. The point is, I suppose, that things are never as they seem. Each of our perspectives engages in a relationship of consonance and dissonance, agreement and difference, with another. In 2016 Diamond Stingily enunciated this fact movingly and hauntingly when she installed six wooden doors in New York’s Ramiken Crucible gallery for her exhibition Elephant Memory. With scuffs and stains marring their soft painted surfaces, five of the six doors stood several feet from the gallery wall, to which they were—with one exception—connected with steel bars. Like an omen or a memory of violence, a baseball bat was propped against each door. With this mis-en-scène repeated six times over, the show manifested an anxiously nagging image of fear and protection. As the story goes, Stingily made the work in recollection of her grandmother, who employed this type of ad-hoc security system in her home. There are many precedents for Stingily’s setting of this scene using found objects. The doors resonated particularly with George Segal’s 2010 sculpture The Commuters, which I used to pass by regularly at the New York Port Authority bus terminal. As with Stingily’s doors, Segal’s sculpture has a sadness about it. But its violence—the daily existential toll taken on nine-to-fivers—is conjoined with a distinctly imaginative fantasy dimension, because he combined three sculptured figures with an actual metal door. In contrast, Stingily’s forsaking of the traditional injunction for artists to bring new facsimiles into the world resulted in an unforgiving economy of impact. It’s an effect shared by David Hammons’s iconic Hood (1993), a dark green hood cut from a hooded sweatshirt and hung on the wall. In both works, the emptiness of fussy artistic techniques underscores the emptiness of a world where the violence implied by such motifs is a material fact of life.
Diamond Stingily, Entryways, 2016, Elephant Memory installation view at Ramiken, New York, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken. Photo: Dario Lasagni
If art satisfies our “need for estrangement,” and if these works employing found objects perform this need with uncanny directness and impact, there is an unexpected relationship between this work and photography. Maybe these objects are filling the void of affect created by the photograph’s fading power—the increasing numbness that we feel while processing innumerable photographic images of the world. In her essay “Notes on Photography and Accident” (2008), Moyra Davey considers photography’s relationship to the contingent and ephemeral—the medium’s uncanny ability to focus our attention on the way life passes through and around us ad nauseam. For Davey, it is the accidents and chance occurrences inherent in snapshot photography that enable this function. Many of the art objects discussed here perform the same estranging action that Davey finds in the quickly captured photograph. In her essay, connections between photography and the found object appear repeatedly, often in the form of quotation—a favored method of Davey’s, which in evoking Walter Benjamin’s bricolage writing method also recalls the use of found objects. Davey transcribes Janet Malcolm’s observation that “the dullest, most inept and inconsequential snapshot, when isolated, framed… and paid attention to, takes on all the uncanny significance, fascination, and beauty of R. Mutt’s fountain.” A couple pages on, she brings us Susan Sontag, who asks of the photographic snapshot: “What could be more surreal than an object which virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort?”9
The found object and the photograph share a conflicted relationship to nostalgia. It’s not without complication that the haunted, antique energy of Smith’s battered objects seems so powerful, or that Stingily’s doors searingly recall a childhood memory shadowed by the possibility of violence—a reading bolstered by the recent publication of the artist’s diaries in book form by the artist Martine Syms’s imprint Dominica. And then there are the repurposed jute sacks and World War II medical stretchers repurposed by Ibrahim Mahama, currently showing at Berlin’s daadgalerie. Crucially, this is not the stuff of “restorative nostalgia”—Svetlana Boym’s term—that fuels right-wing fantasy, but a “reflective nostalgia” that Boym describes as provoking active engagements with the memories that haunt a lived world, that characterize our recollective relationship to objects. Danny McDonald’s assemblages, which showed at Berlin’s Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi this spring, cut into memory with almost comic directness. McDonald’s work is literally made from the stuff of childhood: action figures and Halloween bric-à-brac combined into larger meta dolls that sit on plinths, and scenes that often hang on the wall. Included in the Bortolozzi show, among many other things, was a small figurine of the Star Wars character C-3PO, standing stock still on a black plinth and wearing a massively oversize faux Venetian theater mask—the creepy kind, with that long, drooping beak. C-3PO’s mute gold body made a receding undertone to the gaudy gold mask, with its hollow staring eyes, and a kind of metallic tentacle of the same color that replaced the character’s left arm and coiled menacingly around its legs.
Danny McDonald, Searching For A Place To Dump Files, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photo: Thomas Bruns
A few days after seeing McDonald’s show, I visited a friend and her five-year-old son. The drift of toys and in-progress art projects in their apartment recalled the studio of some young artist apprentice. But there’s more to these sculptures than a simple recovery of the lost childish energy bound up in toys. When my friend’s son started running circles around us in his Star Wars T-shirt, I remembered how the same characters and their synthetic world used to engulf my imagination. Although it’s the subtlety and specificity of McDonald’s combinatory decisions that separate his work from child’s play, it’s the absolute eschewal of physical transformation over his materials that produces the peculiar silence through which memories and histories resonate. What’s ultimately most interesting in all of this is that the found object’s ability to behave in this way now feels so relevant. As opposed to other genres of art that have suppressed or disavowed the artist’s agency to morph matter, here, this disavowal does not produce an endgame of creative possibility. In contrast, it produces a kind of beautiful black hole into the strange cadences and weights of lives lived through and with material.
Throughout this text, my mind has kept cycling back to Douglas Huebler’s famous 1970 declamation: “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Similarly, Moyra Davey asks why we can’t just “claim ‘found’ photographs from among her own archival boxes? And have this gesture signify ‘resistance to further production/consumption’?”10 There is a soulfulness in Huebler’s and Davey’s photo-based work that stands apart from so much dry conceptualism—work that, in reducing the artwork to a barely materialized idea, tends to leave me grinding my teeth in frustration. And so their work serves as one way to view the wider ethos of which the artists discussed here are a part. These are artists for whom extant things are portals to twisting and turning routes of melancholy, imagination, narrative, and trauma. Although I wanted to interpret these artworks as producing a kind of anti-power, the truth is more complicated. Foucault scholar Colin Koopman was right when he summed up the French philosopher’s continued relevance by saying that “power, which easily frightens us, turns out to be all the more cunning because its basic forms of operation can change in response to our ongoing efforts to free ourselves from its grip.”11 For us and for these artworks, the meaning is that art itself doesn’t seek to mystify us any more than it seeks to save us from our power-hungry selves, or reacquaint us with disappearing material relationships. Art doesn’t do anything by itself, and neither do these repurposed tailings of the lived world. But what they can do, in concert with particular stories contexts and presentations, is partake in a destabilizing dialectic between the material stuff of life, and the theatrical processes that stir it all into cultural and social existence. This is the often forgotten dynamic of living—as much as materials and histories themselves—that we brush up against, when looking at this work. This is why I keep on caring about this strange form of magic, shady though it sometimes seems.
Ibrahim Mahama, A Grain of Wheat. 1918-1945. 2015-2018, a straight line through the carcass of history. 1918–1945. 2015–2018 installation view at daadgalerie, Berlin 2018. Photo: Jens Ziehe
 Brian O’Doherty, “Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,” Artforum, 1976
 The reference is to Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, 1946-1966).
 Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” in Styles of Radical Will, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 1969.
 Donna Haraway “The Cyborg Manifesto,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Routledge), 1985.
 Moyra Davey, “Notes on Photography and Accident,” in Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey, ed. Helen Molesworth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008). The Sontag quote comes from Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1977.
 Colin Koopman, “The Power Thinker,” Aeon.co, March 15, 2017, https://aeon.co/essays/why-foucaults-work-on-power-is-more-important-than-ever.
Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. He contributes to several publications, and is currently working on a book about Mark Leckey’s 1999 work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore for Afterall Books’ One Work series.
Originally published on Mousse 64