It takes 29 shopping carts to hold up a house. Or that's how many it takes to hold up the timber-stud frame of a small, single-family house that artist Hector Zamora built in REDCAT's downtown gallery. Twenty-nine yellow-handled, slightly outdated, slightly rusty carts have had just enough of their thin metal sidebars sawed off to allow the I-joists that make up the frame's floor to slide through their skeletons and rest on their beds.
This sounds precarious: a house held up by carts with wheels. But Zamora's house comes across as a stable, pragmatically constructed thing. It fits snugly in the gallery, leaving just a few inches between it and the ceiling. The last time I saw it, at intermission for the NOW (New Original Works) Festival held in REDCAT's theater, people leaned in close in order to examine the joints or read the how-to symbols on some carts' faded red infant seat belts. If any of them feared that the house might roll, they were remarkably blasé about it.
Zamora's installation, called Panglossian Paradigm after a term coined by scientists Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin when criticizing the too-tidy worldview of adaptationist biologists, is certainly well executed. The familiarity of the objects adds to the installation's sense of soundness, despite the obvious absurdity of the arrangement.
Shopping carts don't typically hoist house frames, but they do carry almost anything else you could use to fill a house. "You can put whatever you want in there," says Ruth Estevez, who has been REDCAT's gallery director and curator since November, of both carts and frames, in general. Of Zamora's Paradigm in particular, she says, "It can be emptiness and fullness. It can be a symbol of optimism and decadence."
Because the gallery had an open slot in its summer schedule, Estevez invited Zamora, who has worked as an architect and is based in São Paulo, to visit the space in late May, which left him just over a month to devise a project. Estevez has known Zamora for years, and their paths crossed when she became chief curator at Mexico City's Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil after he had done an exhibition there. She knew that he was good at responding to specific locales in short order.
In 2012, Zamora completed the abstracted mesh of house frames called Muegano, which grew up out of an artificial lake in a Christchurch, New Zealand, botanical garden; the same year, in Peru, he put a fishing boat on a Lima street called Naval Heroes Passage and then enlisted workers to dismember it over 10 days.
"The idea started to get shape in my mind during and after the short site visit I did," Zamora explains, via email, of Paradigm. "But since a long time ago, I was interested in working with the timber stud–frame construction system." The timber stud system, ubiquitous in North America especially, involves using many vertical 2x4-inch wood studs, which are joined together by horizontal beams called noggings. It's the kind of frame you would see going up a lot in a subdivision these days.
Zamora is interested in "the evolution of these standard elements of daily life," like shopping carts and stud frames, which he describes as perfect in design and function. "But ... those simple standard objects became one of the more fully charged symbols of the American culture."
In suburbs still paralyzed by the housing crisis' lingering effects, houses sit unfinished, and shopping carts filled with people's weather-worn belongings wait under urban awnings and overpasses or are rolled around city streets. "Fifteen years ago nobody would relate the house-home building industry as an economic crisis symbol, or I am almost sure that Orla E. Watson, the inventor of the shopping cart, never thought that his invention could become the strong symbol for American culture, consumerism and also homelessness, paradoxically, that it is now," Zamora says.
That's sort of what Gould and Lewontin were arguing in the 1979 paper that introduced their Panglossian Paradigm: Evolution could take unexpected twists, and not everything could be explained by saying we evolve to fit our circumstances. They referred to Voltaire's 1759 satire Candide, and the character Dr. Pangloss, who constantly says things like "All is for the best" and "Each trait must be as it is," even after he goes from being a professor to a beggar with syphilis, loses an eye and an ear and is condemned by the Portuguese Inquisition. At one point, a character dies trying to save a drowning sailor in Lisbon, and Pangloss asserts that the harbor was specifically built to facilitate that character's death. This is a silly way of looking at things, Gould and Lewontin maintained.
"Symbols are not permanent, they modify, mutate and change, reacting to the changes of society," says Zamora, who had been thinking not just about Pangloss as he developed this project but also about the recent work of other artists — the tower of cinder blocks Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade built into the bed of a shopping cart in 2007, the leaning house frame Matthew Moore built for his 2010 Phoenix show "And the Land Grew Quiet" or Kosovo artist Petrit Halilaj's frame of his parents' new home made of ruined material and titled The places I'm looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don't know how to make them real. And there are more examples: the house frame William Cordova built for the 2008 Whitney Biennial or Detroit-to-L.A. transplant Christian Tedeschi's obsession with altered shopping carts.
The urge to figure out what these forms mean or find something new to do with them is pervasive.
When he returned from his L.A. visit to his studio in São Paulo, Zamora and his assistants, Gustavo Delonero and Henrique Te Winkel, first sought out the right materials. "We researched to find the more standard shopping cart and the more standard plans for a typical building made with the timber stud–frame technique," Zamora says. Then they determined how the frame's base beams would have to intersect with the carts and developed blueprints, "following American standards," Zamora emphasizes, which they then sent to REDCAT.
There, Ian Page, the project's contracted construction manager and an artist himself, worked with two assistants first to find the right carts, all of which had to be relatively uniform in shape and color. "We got the shopping carts from a used shopping–cart dealer," Page says. "I suppose that is a niche market that must have an application beyond art installations."
The base had to be built into the carts, so they removed the necessary number of thin metal bars from the carts' profiles and slid the beams through, then joined them. "Then we had a floor, although it was 2 feet off the ground; we built up from there," Page explains. It took two weeks to finish.
Zamora returned to L.A. during the last week of Paradigm's construction, at which point it would have begun to look like what it was: the empty frame of a structure meant to live on top of many smaller frames meant to shop with, inside a white-walled gallery.
The illogic of this feels slightly hopeful, as if rearranging these things in such an ambitious new way could presage a switch-up in the status quo. Does Zamora see it that way? "Maybe it could be the possibility to redefine the limits of reality," he says. "Maybe the hopefulness is based on the freedom to play with this kind of symbol in a very experimental way. Art is just for that."
PANGLOSSIAN PARADIGM | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Through Sept. 1 | redcat.org