In my ongoing struggle to get rid of clutter, I recently came across a pretty ridiculous monument to pack-ratism (not to mention alcoholism) in one of the dozen or so boxes of “potential art materials” I keep lying around the estate — a slightly smaller box containing several hundred corks pulled from wine bottles over the course of the last several years. Because, I mean, you never know. I’m not sure if there’s any genetic link between artmaking and this near-pathological accumulation of cast-off cultural detritus, but there might as well be. Artists like Kurt Schwitters and George Herms have made entire careers out of trash picking, and whole theories about modern art revolve around the scavenging impulse.
In America it also appears to be a particularly West Coast strain, with Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Herms and the other Beat assemblagistes prefiguring such contemporary dumpster divers as Nancy Rubins and Tim Hawkinson (and even Jason Rhoades, though most of his material hadn’t quite made it into the gutter). Maybe since Californians had only a token involvement in the New York art-historical juggernaut of Greenbergian reductive formalism, they were more comfortable with the layers of narrative, nostalgia and sociopolitical critique embedded in the symbolic patina of collectible consumer debris.
Or maybe we’re just less ensconced in isolationist denial of our continuity with the rest of the planet — particularly our exploited comrades in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1999, the UCLA Fowler supplemented the traveling exhibit “Recycled, Reseen: Folk Art From the Global Scrap Heap” with “The Cast-Off Recast: Recycling and Creative Transformation of Mass Produced Objects” — a trio of small shows considering muffler men, homeless encampments and reconfigured Tanzanian scrap metal as artistic phenomena. Taken together, these shows painted a convincing portrait of recycled industrial bric-a-brac as the predominant artistic medium of contemporary global culture, though not in the way The Art World prefers to think of it. “The heartfelt and often romanticized portrayals of artistic recycling that have helped to establish recyclia as a widely recognized genre of art,” warned the Fowler’s accompanying catalog, “also, unfortunately, encourage the collapse of the critical aesthetic and functional distinctions that often separate the points of view of those who create the artifacts and those who collect them.”
Eight years later, Ghanaian/Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui seems to be poised on the brink of international art stardom, with his enormous shimmering skeins of sewn-together aluminum liquor-bottle lids emerging as one of the hits of the 52nd Venice Biennale. While this celebrity may seem to have materialized suddenly out of left field, El Anatsui has in fact been exhibiting internationally since the ’60s. His work also caused a stir at the 44th Venice Biennale in 1990, after which London’s October Gallery began representing and promoting him as a master of the emerging global “transavangarde,” resulting in stuff like the artist’s two-person show with Sol LeWitt in New York in 1996, and the Welsh-organized (!) traveling survey “Gawu” — which happens to be currently on view at the Fowler.
“Gawu” is an optically and emotionally stunning show drawing from the recyclia oeuvre produced by El Anatsui over the last decade (and distinct from the also gorgeous chain-sawed wood sculptures for which he first drew Art World attention). Substantially reconfigured from the version mounted throughout the U.K. in 2004, the “Fowler Gawu” (a Ghanaian Ewe-language neologism meaning “metal cloak”) adds work dated as recently as 2007. In addition to the five enormous and intricate signature bottle-cap-mosaic textiles, the show includes a monolithic architectural intervention assembled out of already once-recycled sheets of rusty scrap metal laced with perforations that allow them to function as root graters (Crumbling Wall, 2000), a giant Oldenburgian Wastepaper Bag (2003) patched together from crumpled single-use aluminum printing plates bearing ghostly imprints of obituaries, hospital bills and other funerary ephemera, and an installation of soft geometric cones made from discarded evaporated-milk-tin lids (Peak Project, 1999).
Peak Project— like all of El Anatsui’s work — is remarkable for its sensitivity to the play of light, the mottled reflectiveness of the corroded tin discs simultaneously evoking an entropy-curdled Minimalist idealism and a bittersweet postapocalyptic disco-ball exuberance. In El Anatsui’s case the collapse of the critical aesthetic and functional distinctions is intentional; the works’ elegiac grandeur and material critique of postcolonial globalism undeniable. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that such formally captivating work could emerge from such an anguished environment as contemporary Africa. But I also remember another artist from Nigeria who told me that when he was in prison back home, he would make drawings in his own blood on the floor of his cell just to maintain his creative connection. I’d like to see Tracey Emin do that. Really.
Probably the single most beautiful work in the show is 2006’s radiant Skin of Earth. Like all the textile pieces, Skin of Earth has layers of connotations deriving from the role of liquor in colonialist history and the significance of Ghanaian kente cloth (after which it’s modeled) in El Anatsui’s personal history and as a symbol of African identity throughout the world. But these subtexts recede in the warm and muted honey glow reflecting off the frozen cascade of golden particles. I’m reminded first of the story of Zeus’ impregnation of Danae via a shower of gold coins — the quirky alchemical subject of major artworks by Titian, Klimt and many others. But another parable comes to mind.
Rumi tells of a young man, strangely unalarmed by a dying cry at midnight near the mosque. “He hears beyond his death-fear, to the Union,” translates Coleman Barks. “He jumps up and shouts to God, If you can be human, come inside me now! The signal of a death-yell splits him open. Gold pours down, many kinds, from all directions, gold coins, liquid gold, gold cloth, gold bars.”
I’m not really sure that El Anatsui’s recent embrace by the international Art World isn’t some form of propaganda — window dressing to hide the grim human statistics of industrial consumer globalism. I’m not really sure that the assignment of a token slot in the Art World’s star system to a solitary representative of a diverse global folk creative strategy is the right way to go with this thing. (Personally, I’d rather see a world where Tracey Emin has to punch holes in scavenged sheet metal and grate cassava tubers to make her daily bread.) There is one thing I am sure of: Whatever Machiavellian intrigues and hidden agendas may come into play, when an artist hears beyond his death-fear — for himself, his art, his continent or his species — there is a rupture in the order of things, and treasures spill into the world. El Anatsui’s there. And if you could bottle that shit, it’d for sure put an end to my cork collection.
EL ANATSUI: Gawu | Fowler Museum at UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Wstwd. | Through August 26