Andrew Yang discusses his Chicago Works exhibition with Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Joey Orr.
Andrew Yang: When Joey approached me about the Chicago Works opportunity, one thing that sort of struck me and one thing that I’ve been grappling with in a range of different projects is the question of these things that are accessible in different sorts of ways. And what kinds of ironies, certain kinds of experiences we’ve built for ourselves set up in terms of what we sort of include and exclude. So for example, my own experience living in Chicago, which is supposedly one of the most light-polluted cities in the country, or the most light-polluted city in North America, means that I have no visual access and no one has any visual access to the Milky Way. And so, in attempting to really be able to see exactly where we are in terms of urban light, we set up the situation where we actually can’t see exactly where we are in regards to our place in the Milky Way or the solar system or the universe more generally.
So this really strange question, I mean, I – in the last week, I know there’s been a lot of discussion about this question of different kinds of people living in different kinds of bubbles. And, in that regard, I suppose we live in what’s becoming a planetary bubble of our own making, in which we really actually can’t literally see our location or relationship to other things around us. And I think that that has a really profound effect—at least I feel like it does have a very profound effect on me in terms of existentially and relationally and personally and psychologically grounding myself. In the session of sort of living this kind of life on this sort of magnitude and scale, these larger questions about one’s location and one’s magnitude get lost, and so that was the motivation to really riff off Carl Sagan’s claim that there are more stars in the universe – there’s more grains of sand and the planet Earth – no, there’s more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on planet Earth. And that’s true, by the way. It turns out to be probably far underestimate – there’s probably far, far – maybe 10 times more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on the planet. And so, thinking about this question of my location in Chicago, I’m a resident of Chicago but also a resident in this much more expansive astronomical sense, I wanted to sort of create a scale model of the Milky Way that you can’t see otherwise, and make it accessible visually here in the museum. And so that’s where we have 100 billion grains of sand in the gallery, and that’s the low estimate for the number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. So, that’s why the piece is called A Beach for Carl Sagan, because, I took away a lot of inspiration as a child, watching and reading Carl Sagan’s books, and it’s supposed to be both like a literal – it’s supposed to be sort of a representational model, but a scale model of that experience, while also hopefully evoking the locality of here.
So, there’s something about that sand that I think for me evokes maybe a Japanese garden, but more so it evokes the dunes of – on Lake Michigan. So, it’s very much about the Milky Way but it’s still very much about this particular location. And, the sound of the – sort of white noise and the radios is noise, but by the same token, it’s this kind of pure signal. One to three percent of the sound that you actually are hearing out of those radios right now is the cosmic microwave background. You can – even though microwave and radio are different frequencies, you can bleed over and hear the, basically first sound of the universe’s origination in that noise whenever you turn the dial on any kind of analog TV or radio.
And so, I think that’s also important to me in that piece, in considering this relationship to what’s signal and what is noise. What’s a mediated or representational experience, which might be this scale model, but what’s also what we consider this holy, authentic experience. And to that extent, even though in many ways this is a picture, by the same token, it’s an authentic part of the Milky Way. It’s just as authentic as any Milky Way that you could see above you if there were less light pollution. It’s just as authentic a part of the Milky Way than Proxima B, our closest star besides our own sun.
And so, there’s kind of this strange – there’s another kind of strange paradox or contradiction that does come up though, in our desire to see things at a distance. And so, what does it mean to see something at a distance when you’re inside it like the Milky Way? We might crave the ability to have that authentic recognition and view of the stars and of the galaxy, but in fact, the galaxy is all completely right here. I mean, there’s nothing – every single person here, every single object on this table is an authentic part of the Milky Way and it’s no less or no more authentic than any other astronomical object in our galaxy. And so, I wanted to sort of also relate the sensibility of the eminence and the everydayness and the proximity, because as someone who’s trained in the sciences but also in art, I think that question does come up about how do you make something that seems really abstract and universal personal.
And so, to that room, this room tries to sort of generate that kind of question on another level. That’s why this table includes all these objects that are both found and made. And that’s another question that I’ll address, that are personal. My hand’s touched every single one of these things, either on my walks collecting random objects that I do all the time, or in fabricating these objects out of paper, out of soapstone, out of clay, out of metal. And by that same token, they’re also completely authentic objects. Some things are clearly rocks, some things seem like they’re clearly rocks but are actually made out of tracing paper and watercolor paint. This blurring of what you consider an authentic specimen and some inauthentic replica, I hope becomes somewhat blurred through the continuum of these objects formally, in terms of color and shape and their position in relation to each other on the table. And, in that way, I suppose, they’re almost like a constellation.
The layout of the tables isn’t incidental to the idea that you might imagine the galaxy itself rotating like a disc. And, the idea that just like a constellation of stars that are a collection of these objects so distant, here is a collection of objects very proximate that you can kind of get close to and scrutinize as you see fit. And I mean, the collection and the logic of the collection as a – you know, as somebody who considers themself a natural historian, is very important to me as well. Because there are things that only happen when you have a certain number of objects, a certain accumulation. There are things where there’s an emergence, and it forces your attention to another kind of edge, just like the sound of the white noise might push your attention to this place where you zone in and you zone out.
I feel like I zone in and zone out in looking at this table. There are moments where I feel like I – even I still sometimes think like I understand these objects perfectly well, ’cause maybe I collected them or made them, but at the same time I get lost in their associations. And the strength of the validity or the compellingness, my attention to an object really vacillates in the space as I have to move through it. And I feel like that’s something that I feel even when I do have those rare opportunities to look at the stars in the Milky Way. So, getting to that idea, the universal and the personal, there’s an importance to me of – there’s an importance to me of closing that gap. Like, I feel like that’s basically my main agenda. And this project is making sense of what’s otherwise that categorical difference. While that’s quantitatively the Milky Way in one sense, the model of the dunes in the room, this is qualitatively and authentically the Milky Way as well, in this sort of imminent and very personal sense. And so there’s a sense, not just of everyday object relations, but also of – I would argue kinship. And that’s where the two works on the parallel walls come in as well. So, this is a portrait of my daughter at her birth weight of six pounds and 13 ounces.
And, I – actually you can find what the composition of the human body is, the six major elements of your body: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium. And, I used a lot of arithmetic to basically recalculate what those elements might be in other everyday objects that I could find, and get, atom to atom, the right composition of those elements—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus—that are representative of her body at her birth. So by that logic, these materials represent exactly what you would need to produce her as a person. They’re just in a different configuration. So, materially, it’s all there, it’s just a matter of how these materials are composed. And so, again, I – for me, there’s certainly of course this tension of the question of the materiality, the representation of her as a sort of very authentic and yet abstracted portrait.
But getting to that question of material kinship, and how my kinship to my daughter, who I’m invested so deeply in, has a relation to the kinship of these objects on the table. Just as this rock candy and this sandy-like material resonates with these rocks and crystals and sand on the table, and the sand in the other room, and as this portrait of her then faces this other form of this portrait, which is a pair of photographs I took. One being of the placenta that my spouse and my daughter Stella made together, and a lava rock in Hawaii that my spouse is holding on the day, actually, that we realized that she was pregnant. We were traveling in Hawaii when we discovered that she was pregnant with our daughter Stella. So, both of these things share some visual analogies and formal resonances with each other, but I think they also represent that question of the matter and materiality as well, as well as time.
The placenta is this kind of amazing, ridiculous object that’s sort of formed by two people in utmost intimate collaboration. And then, it just goes away when the person is born. So it’s the most remarkable and ephemeral vessel of creation that I think that exists, at least for us mammals. And by the same token though, the rock is itself transitioning in its own temporality. As lava rock, it pours out of this volcano and freezes, and it’s on its own way. It’s – the logic of the materiality and the cycling, and the ephemerality of the placenta, and of the lava rock, are, in one sense I think, one and the same. They’re just – one’s in the sort of human time and one’s in the deep time of geology. And so, there’s also something for me that’s being drawn there. And that also relates to the videos in the corner of the room.
So, I couldn’t see a way to make sense of the personal and the universal and that question of the galactic or of the Milky Way without also talking about the lactic in the galactic. The Milky Way is named as such because it’s supposed to be evocative of milk, and perhaps mother’s milk. And so, that mother’s milk is the lactic in galactic. They share the same root. The word galaxy comes from the root for lactation. Galaxy and galactose.
The mother’s milk is sort of mythically the origin of human. And that’s – so, in that regard, the mother is the namesake of the galaxy. And so, there would be no way for me to address the question of our own galaxy without also talking to the person who brought me into it most intimately, which is my own mother. So, the interviews on the wall, the interviews with the Milky Way, are with my mother and then also with a professional astrophysicist, and tries to unpack sort of, these different ways in which they’re both honest, living participants in the galaxy, but then have different levels of expertise and participation and how they create knowledge; how they create bodies; and how they create things in the galaxy. And so, I asked my mother about stargazing, but I also asked her about breastfeeding me as a child because of this connection to the Milky Way. And so I hope that the interview with Jeff and my mother also provides a means to make sense of this question of kinship. My mother is present, my spouse is present, my daughter is present, and in these ways I’m also present. And, I will say that in finishing the exhibition that actually struck me with something I hadn’t considered before, in terms of what this might all be about. I mean, clearly it’s about the Milky Way, it’s about scale, it’s about the universal and personal, it’s about kinship.
But, I also wonder to what extent maybe subconsciously this exhibition is also about my limitations as a creative agent. I’ve been kind of really having to think through the fact that my mother has this ability to bring me into the world and nurture me from her own body. My spouse and my daughter have the ability to cocreate a whole ’nother person through the placenta and through these raw materials into this living breathing entity. And, as a male, in some sense perhaps I’m kind of limited, and this is what ends up being a very interesting, hopefully, but also, not pathetic, but limited gesture in my ability as a male to be a participant in creating the galaxy.
I can’t create my daughter except in this kind of format, in a sense. Of course, I cocreate her and she creates me in her actions as I raise her and as my spouse and I raise her together, but by the same token, there’s something about the question of materiality that hits – makes you hit a certain hard wall around this question of exactly how you can physically participate. Not just based on what kind of creature you are, but maybe even, you know, what gender you are, depending. So, that’s another thing that I’m kind of processing in the installation.
And then finally, is this wall drawing that is a collaboration between me and a number of friends and family, that plays of this – the dual idea of what matters and what is matter. What’s material and what is value.
There’s a very classic distinction in Western thinking that goes, of course, back to the Greeks, of substance and form. And then gets developed further into the, you know, physical and the spiritual or the mind and body duality. But that – and that duality I think has brought us to a place where we see this notion of what matters to us as value, matters to us in a moral or ethical or intimate sense, as being very separate. The only way we make sense of the value of matter seems to be economic. And so, what kinds of ways can you think about the intimacy of matter as something that isn’t just disposable. And, so that’s where “you sacred, anti-matter. What’s the matter. They matter, a matter, we matter. One matter. Lost matter, found matter. No simple matter. Bio matter, plant matter, sole matter, soul matter. Love matter, dense matter, we matter, you matter, another matter. Vibrant matter, sweet matter, deep matter, seep matter, printed matter. Dead matter, I matter, ghost matter, thick matter, they matter, first matter, solid matter. Dark matter, quark matter, secret matter, no matter, glow matter, go matter, slow matter. Family matter, scatter matter, dense matter, tense matter, matter, matter, matter. You matter, weep matter, sleep matter, gray matter, ray matter, play matter. Hot matter, taught matter, small matter, tall matter, single matter, tingle matter, matter, matter, matter. Life matter, strife matter, splatter matter, flatter matter, shatter matter, madder matter, sugar oil carbon matter. They matter, you matter, me matter, see matter, flee matter, tree matter, light matter, sight matter, right matter, bite matter. Darker matter, darkest matter, I matter, try matter, true matter, you matter, back matter. Thing matter, sing matter. Matter, matter, matter. Black lives matter. Hope matter, cope matter, first matter, last matter. Will matter, won’t matter, free matter, be matter, trouble matter, double matter, hubble bubble subtle matter. Why matter, die matter, try matter, pop matter, drop matter, stuff matter, tough matter, trace matter, face matter, they matter, say matter, clay matter, hey matter. Something’s matter, nothing’s matter, weak matter, freak matter, dull matter, null matter, mother matter, other matter, smother matter, hello matter, fellow matter, yellow jello mellow matter. Star matter, far matter, lush matter, flush matter, long matter, wrong matter, no matter, yes matter, be matter, we matter, plea matter, re:matter. Dream matter, seem matter. What’s the matter. All is matter. Matter. Matter.” And so, I’ve never actually read that all the way out loud before.
In that sense, there’s this intense repetition that I think, for me, plays with the idea of the complete sort of redundancy or, you know, ways one can get lost. Matter seems completely repetitive in one sense. It’s all just different forms, but then there’s that question of almost a mantra of matter, where you start saying that word long enough, you kind of break down that duality between thinking about the matter of the physicality and the matter of those things that you care about, which we always tend to think are so immaterial. By the same token, I wonder whether or not, maybe certain senses of what matters the most stands out or falls back, becomes less meaningful in that whole combination of matter.
I don’t know; I really don’t have an answer for that one. I’m still thinking through it. But, it was important for me to have one piece in the exhibition that had a contribution from all of these different friends and family, and really put words to the materials as well. To think about how every linguistic gesture is also a material one that’s part of the Milky Way as well, so – so I’m interested in what you all think or if you have other kinds of questions and thoughts but that’s some things.
Audience Member 1: When I came through the exhibition earlier, there was this one security guard who was really concerned about Stella’s Stoichiometry cause we explained that this was your daughter at birth and all the parts and he was very concerned that the water might evaporate a little bit and would need to keep replenishing it to keep it at the same weight?
AY: Right, so the evaporation of the water – that’s a great question. No, I’m not replenishing it. But I can tell you that when my daughter was just born, she also sweat and cried like crazy so she was also losing a lot of water. I feel like it’s probably still okay, you know, in that sense. This thing isn’t static, it’s got its own dynamic. One thing that’s really interesting, I’ve never – I’ve shown this piece before in other circumstances, but not – never for this long. It’s been sitting here almost five months, and actually, this container of arginine powder – or, sorry, baking powder, has actually taken in water. And expanded over time.
Audience Member 1: Oh, okay.
AY: So, the level of that started here and now it’s literally falling out of its container. So, I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that these materials in themselves aren’t neutral or – they’re in a constant exchange with their own environment. Yeah, it’s a good question, it’s funny.
Audience Member 2: I feel very stupid but does the actual shape of that sand –
Audience Member 2: – does that replicate sort of shapes within the galaxy? The Milky Way?
AY: Oh, right. That’s a great question. Not necessarily. I mean, of course now it is a shape in the Milky Way, so in that regard, I’ve asserted a certain kind of aesthetic to the Milky Way, even in making it. But no, I mean, my hope was in sitting on that bench or walking in that space you get different kinds of vantage points that again also play with scale. I mean, on one level it’s a dune, but from a certain perspective and especially with the video projection that I haven’t really talked about, I’m hoping that there’s also an idea that maybe those are large and distance objects. Or maybe they’re just very close.
So, it’s supposed to be evocative also of a landscape. Maybe you’re on the Michigan dunes. Maybe you’re in the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto looking at a sand garden. Or maybe you’re on Europa, moon of Jupiter and looking out at some other distant star. But it has no particular reference, no, to a pattern of the Milky Way. Yeah.
Audience Member 3: I guess I’ve been curious, did you include vibrant matter as a nod to Jane Bennett?
AY: Yeah, and so the mention here – that’s a really great question. Vibrant Matter is the title of a book by philosopher and political scientist named Jane Bennett, that she published in maybe 2010-ish, that explores actually that whole question about materiality and whether – what – how the world might look differently if we considered that material things had their own form of agency and participated in the world in ways that we often ascribe to living objects. What kind of ontology if you will, philosophically, could you generate? How would you see the world very differently if you considered that power plants and rocks and peanut butter jelly sandwiches had some kind of vibrancy or activity that isn’t vitalistic?
She’s very, actually, materialistic in the way she considers those interactions. But once those – all those interactions of all those different kinds of materials, again, kind of emerge and collaborate complexly, the question becomes: Is it reasonable to think about how other forms of life in a non-living world might be acting upon you in a way – in what would almost seem a willful way as much as you are to them? So, it’s trying to flatten sort of the perspective of also always privileging the human perspective on things. So yeah, so it’s a definite nod to Jane Bennett. So yeah, I’m glad you noticed it.
Audience Member 4: The video –
Audience Member 4: In The beach for –
AY: Carl Sagan.
Audience Member 4: Yeah, Carl Sagan. What –
AY: What is that?
Audience Member 4: Yeah.
I’m really curious to know.
Audience Member 4: Andy, what is that?
AY: Yeah, what is it?
I’d love to – I’ve heard a lot of different things, so some of my favorites are – I’m trying to remember what I’ve heard, actually. I mean, what – any guesses? I’m just curious what it evokes, ’cause it’s supposed to be a pretty ambiguous visual reference. And again, that might play with scale, but anyone wanna speculate?
Audience Member 5: You mentioned something before about a flower, anus, breast [unintelligible]?
AY: Yeah. Right. Some people think it kind of evokes the glands of the breast actually, if you look at anatomical drawings of the ducts of the breast. It also kind of looks like a blooming flower, a Chrysanthemum, or perhaps a colony of yeast growing in a petri dish. Another artist I really like came by and said he thought it definitely looked like an asshole.
But, it turns out, I haven’t told many people this, but it turns out it’s a tiny crystal of dry ice sublimating in a little pool of water. So, CO2 dry ice is just frozen carbon dioxide that once it hits water, starts to sublimate. And sublimation’s a process where something goes directly from a solid to a gas without going through the liquid state. And for me, that was just actually a personal little pun on the sublime, because – in part, because this question of what it is to quantify and take grasp of something that’s otherwise completely beyond one’s conception. And here you have a piece of ice sublimating. And it seems like it could be astronomical and really large, but in fact, it’s extremely tiny.
Audience Member 6: Is it found or did you make it?
AY: I – Found. I found it in the Exploratorium in San Francisco and took out my iPhone and recorded it. They have a nice tray of water and a little conveyor belt that spits out chunks of dry ice that fall. And so some of that footage you’ll also find in the videos. The videos, except for one – except for a couple of astronomical images and one short image of frogs and frog eggs, all of the footage from the videos I also just took myself. So, all of that footage is footage I took and then sort of used as a form of almost natural history illustration of the interview.
So, there’s some question about what role, you know, in art, illustration has. ’Cause it’s just depicting and representing very flat. And so I wanted to sort of push that to its limit to think about how would a natural historian illustrate an interview about the galaxy with someone that might visually evoke, but also at times, like, directly touch upon what would the stream of – what would it look like to look into my brain as I listen to the interview, you know. So that’s kind of how I composed the visuals. In a sense, as illustrations of the conversations I were having with my mom and with the astrophysicist.
Audience Member 7: I think when I look around this table, there are a lot of forms that – some of them come from nature and some of them are manmade.
Audience Member 7: And, I – I mean, I see that you’ve put them with color and so on.
Audience Member 7: Depending – and I feel like, initially, like they seem to merge into being organic forms and it almost takes like, a fourth or a fifth look to suddenly be like, hey, no wait, there’s like teeth in there. Or –
AY: Mm-hmm. Right.
Audience Member 7: How important is that for you, for – to, like, that merge or like, that idea – the Anthropocene as well.
AY: Yeah, no, I’m so heartened to hear you had that experience, ’cause that’s very much what I hoped to evoke for somebody encouraging it. That, you have to sort of look and then look again, and then different things happen when you look at different times or at different places. And it’s almost like, again, to reference the idea of looking at the Milky Way or the stars. It’s like, when you go outside to look up at the sky, it takes some time for your eyes to adjust, and your ability to have perception and attention of what’s there as a pattern, or what’s there as like – is that a star? Is that a satellite, or is that an airplane? It starts playing with your sense of attention and what makes sense here too. Yeah, so I’m glad that you had that experience.
I mean, I placed the – everything is placed quite intentionally in terms of certain formal relationships, but also I think, play, there’s an idea of – in natural history in the 15- and 1600s, there was this idea of what they called lucis, which was jokes of nature. And there was a theory, that, you know, the creator might make things, say an eggplant that looks like a celebrity or a rock that looks like something manmade, to – as a purposeful joke so that natural historians and humans would have to fine tune their sensibilities about what was real and what wasn’t. But that, fundamentally, God was playing this kind of visual prank on you. And I think that that’s a really kind of valuable and interesting thing to think about in terms of also just engaging with objects with some level of just openness and humor, you know. Kind of hoping that you might be psyched out by things that you notice, and then you don’t notice at different times. ’Cause that’s my own experience with collecting things, is, you know, it’s kind of – it’s a form of play. And so, I think there’s something, hopefully, to be celebrated in the play of looking around objects like that. And wanting to touch them but then the security guard says you can’t.
Yeah, thanks. Any insights you have, Joey?
Joey Orr: No, I’m –
JO: Actually, I’m – I have lots of insights, but I’m happy to leave this as an artist talk actually, instead of intervening as a curator.
AY: Yeah. Yes.
Audience Member 8: I guess on the same line as you’re talking about, like, the individual objects and your relationship to them: Are there certain qualities as you look at this table, with individual objects, that like, you know, or the reasons that you were drawn to them, or I guess I’m wondering what your relationship is to each individual object, and you know, how that – how you meditate on that or process that?
AY: Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to possibly say about that. If we went through the – each object on the table, if we did a different kind of transect. You know, I will say that some of them, again, like, maybe play with a sense of a pun at times. Like the starfish is – that’s there, that’s a starfish specimen is kind of about, also this – or sorry, sea star, you know, is kind of this connection to the nautical and the astronomical. And the fact that we think of, again, these stars far away but then here, in fact, in one fact of the matter, is another kind of star. You know, and we use the same word to talk about it as a star, but it’s a living creature.
And so – but some of the objects – a lot – this project, in part, started actually when I was doing a residency in Spain. And in this part of Spain, there’s a lot of what’s called conglomerate rock, which is rock that’s sort of like mashed in from different kinds of metamorphic or igneous. And, I would take a walk and I would try to pick up a couple of rocks, but over the days, I would find that I was coming home with like 30 or 50 pounds of rocks, because I just became so interested in each one. And I was wondering, like, you know, of course this is like, ridiculous. Like, if I went on like this I’d just be collecting hundreds of pounds of rocks each day, but as I looked at just one individually, they just captivated me. And so then, I started to think about, my gosh, I’m on this artist residency and but this rock I’m holding is – took 300 million years to create and there’s no other rock like this in the whole universe. And all of my artistic aspirations are dwarfed by what this rock is as an object in terms of this unique creation.
So, I then started to make the rock – make replicas of specific rocks that I collected out of tracing paper that someone had left in the studio and some watercolors that I had. Figuring like, the best I could do was maybe mimic the rock. And again, that led me into this idea of the play, so I then extended that into also going the other direction. Well, you’ll notice too, that some things look like rocks, but like, the juice box that I picked up as litter, I think, is kind of on its way to rock. All of these things on – in the deep time scenario are sort of transitioning and cycling through the bio-geo chemistry of the earth. And so that’s where, again, that question of metamorphosis and what’s – and the continuum versus the category are raised.
Like, what is – you know, we’re very concerned always about the authentic and the artificial and the natural. But that’s like a very peculiar distinction that people like us with our sized bodies, and we live in our timeframes, like a really, you know – and who are desperate for sort of free will authorship as artists, like really get preoccupied with. And so, I then started taking rocks and making them look like other things. Like, so there’s one that kind of looks – hopefully is modelled after acoustic tile. Like, the patterning is that of Styrofoam egg crating.
And so the Styrofoam egg creating is playing off of this other egg crating that’s there, and so if rock can look like something artificial, or an artificial thing can look natural, then you know, of course natural things can look artificial. And playing with that continuum. Some of these objects were also built from – are like, kind of fake meteorites, and some are modelled after specific meteorites. This is modelled after the Murchison meteorite that fell in Australia and is very famous for the fact that it was the first meteorite discovered that had amino acids on it from outer space, which are the building blocks of creatures. You know, of living creatures. They’re just made up of amino acids and proteins. And they found amino acids on the Murchison meteorite and came to this idea, oh, well maybe so much of the building blocks of life aren’t just terrestrial, they’re extraterrestrial. They came – and so, I think of meteorites almost as these kind of like, interstellar eggs. And so that’s where the existence of the egg to another sort of – and the shell, and these other things that sort of represent that enclosure but also that mobility kind of coming to play with objects on the table. The puzzle in relationship to hopefully the whole kind of table being a puzzle in its own sort of right. So yeah, a lot of things potentially to say about …
Audience Member 9: I like the configuration of the tables, the way that they’re arranged in the space, there’s a way for me to move around them.
Audience Member 9: I’m wondering if there’s something else that like – it seems like it makes this really distinct shape.
Audience Member 9: And I wonder if you wanted – like, that shape is important.
AY: Yeah, I mean the shape is significant, and hopefully if you have more of a birds-eye view, and – you know, for me it’s evocative of the piralling arms of the galaxy itself. Of the Milky Way. So the Milky Way has four major arms, and in this sense, the tables, I hope, are kind of evocative of this idea of an asteroid belt, or planets, or stars that are also rotating galactically. But, that – it’s kind of a snapshot of that.
Audience Member 10: Talking about the time continuum, in some ways it seems rather comforting to think about things going on the whole time. I’m just wondering about how you relate this to our own concerns about the planet now?
AY: Yeah, I mean, wow. That’s, yeah. I have a lot to say about that. You know, a lot of my other work, I do a lot of writing in the history of – I do some work in the history of science, and also like writing about what’s called like, media ecology and my teaching is actually very much about this idea, at the Anthropocene. The idea that we’ve entered a new geologic epic—or epoch or era—that is defined by the human relationship and the human mark in the geological strata of the planet. That isn’t just evident because we’re here, but will be evident hundreds of millions of years from now. You know, when geologists are digging through the rock 100 million years from now, there probably, you know, reptilian geologists, I don’t know what they’ll be, we’ll be an indexical trace, you know.
The – they’re still trying to figure out, ’cause there’s so many possible designators that are going to do that in the strata of geology in the future. There’s radioactive fallout from the atomic atmospheric testing through the 1950s of hydrogen bombs. There’s plastic, there’s corn pollen, there’s the bones of the domesticated chicken. There’s so many things that have – we’ve now literally covered the Earth with that are becoming part of the geology that are going to be traceable.
And so, I think for me, what’s interesting and important and maybe this gets back to the question of natural history, because as much as I do have an art and science background, I think those are the disciplines that we configure now. But I’m more interested in the question of natural history, which kind of hopefully defies that category and looks for something more synthetic. But, the Anthropocene and this idea of the state of the planet now, we are 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. You know, we’re irrevocably – at least in the short, deep time change in the planet and we’ve folded ourselves, therefore we think of human cultural history as something distinct from natural history, and here we folded ourselves into it quite literally. And so I think there’s a lot of powerful things to think about, existentially, when you fold our human timeframe, which is really always concerned about tomorrow, or 10 years, to tens of years and tens of thousands of years, and tens of millions of years, as being part of the narrative of deep time through the Anthropocene.
Rather than just thinking about sustainability or environmentalism which is just so present, and so much of a now moment. Putting yourself in a deep time narrative is part of the Earth’s whole history, for better or for worse, I think at least for me, provides a whole ’nother vantage point on how profound our impacts are, what place we have, what role we have in trying to not just innovate in the future, not just move matter around, but care for matter and make matter matter to us, right. This question again of the way in which we commodify the material world and commodify those things that we think we can just basically motivate and circulate economically. I think that attitude that’s so dismissive of the material has led us to this place where we’ve been so careless about the way we take care of the planet more broadly.
And so that’s another thing that I’m trying to process through this kind of work and through this kind of exhibition, is like: how do you recognize and take ethical stake in, you know, objects and their transformation and where they are coming from, but also where they go. Yeah.
Audience Member 11: Speaking about transforming objects, I guess, like most of the table are – is like, naturally, organically occurring.
Audience Member 11: And then there’s some manmade things. But then, the things that stick out to me are the things made by non-human animals.
Audience Member 11: Specifically the hornets’ nest and the egg. I’m just wondering why they’re underrepresented?
AY: Underrepresented, yeah.
Audience Member 11: And why?
AY: Yeah. That’s a really good question. You know, maybe they are underrepresented. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I mean, I think subconsciously I was hoping that would be fairly representative. There’s also the sponge, there’s the squash, there’s the coral, there’s the shell fungus, there’s the sunflower center. There’s this wood and the leaf. I’m wondering if some of the things might have passed your attention, which would be wonderful too, in its own way. This is a piece of petrified wood, but again, it’s kind of putting into place this question of like, form and materiality over time. So, but I’ll have to think about that actually. Maybe it is true that those objects are underrepresented.
Although, maybe I – it’s just a matter of thinking about that question differently, too. Here’s another squash, here’s a seashell, but yeah. I don’t know. That’s a really good question, yeah. There is a essay I wrote recently for a show called Organism at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, and it’s called – it’s about basically why the honey – it’s called – it’s titled “Why The Honeycomb Cannot be Art,” actually because this is an assertion that the philosopher Immanuel Kant made in the critique of judgment. There’s a part where he talks about not only the sublime, but he talks about how the honeycomb is this beautiful, designed object. And you might be tempted to think about it as art, but in fact, it’s not because honeybees have no intentionality. And so because they have no intention and therefore creative will, whatever they make can never be art. And I take issue with that in the essay, about again what it means for something to be so privileged in terms of the human agency, versus another kind of animal, or even geologic agency. And so, that was part of my intention in purposely putting in objects that were made by creatures, like the conch shells, or the starfish, or the wasp nest. Yeah. Wasps are very social, yep. And hornets are a kind of wasp. Yeah, so. But yeah, I collected that one at my father’s farm in Massachusetts. It was kind of interesting to try to bring this stuff on carry-on luggage.
A lot of the stuff I’ve collected many different places, and so it’s always a matter of like, what I might get away with. So, yeah.
Audience Member 12: Is there a meticulous list?
AY: There isn’t. There should be. There is actually a different project called – that I have right now. It’s a project called the Finding of Floating and Falling, that has objects not unlike this, but they’re more specific. There’s some things that are fake meteorites, ambergris, different kinds of fossils and eggs. And that installation actually does have a very specific list, but it doesn’t tell you what anything is. So everything has a number, and there’s a list of every single thing, but the numbers and the objects don’t match, so you have to actually – the booklet lets you try to connect the dots, actually, between what one particular object is and what the number is with the specimen pin.
So, yeah. Yeah, I mean, some – I don’t think I have any actual meteorites in this particular installation. But these are porcelain casts of a meteorite that I own that was from the Campo del Cielo meteorite impact in Argentina. That’s one of the most common meteorites you can find on the commercial market. But now they’ve stopped – now there’s a law against exporting them. But I have one of the Campo del Cielo chunks and so, you’ll see this particular chunk repeated in many different places. But it’s actually a porcelain replica of, again, a very specific meteorite. Yeah, and some things, that was really nice to do. Another component of it is spontaneity. So, a lot of these things weren’t added til the day of the installation. I picked up – the Registrar’s not here, so – I picked up these woodchips from when I dropped my daughter off at preschool the day I came down to install. I mean, someone had new woodchips on the front of their, you know, house. So I picked up some woodchips and that’s part of the installation. And so, it’s important to kind of keep it moving. The table configuration and this whole configuration actually wasn’t mapped out in advance. It happened during the day of installation, and that’s also true of the sand. You know, we didn’t know what seven tons of sand were gonna look like in that space ’cause none of us had ever done that before.
And the sand turned out to be different sand than I even had ordered, and so I was afraid the grain size would be completely different. You know, a grain that’s small and a grain that’s twice as small, looks equally small in your hand, but when you get a hundred billion grains, it will take up 24 square feet, or it will take up 48 square feet. It makes a difference when you accumulate. And so, that was installed in the shape of those dunes and everything was actually done sort of at the time and onsite. There wasn’t a lot of things that we could preplan at all. It just kind of had to happen, sort of, there.
JO: I will make one curatorial note here, and that is that most of my curatorial experience has been in installation and public intervention. So, dealing with seven tons of sand and having no idea what it was gonna look like, no problem. When we had to hang the framed works on the wall, I totally freaked out.
AY: Yeah, I know, that was interesting, how much time you were all spending on that, and I was just like, the sand.
Yeah, and we didn’t know what this would look like either. I mean, this was actually decided – and some of that’s purposeful, that’s just sort of a game of chicken I play with myself because, some things – the videos took so much time and were almost kind of overthought, but then other things have to keep a spontaneous moment, I feel like, for them to be interesting or vital, vibrant. So, the text for this was decided like, three days before the installation; even the pattern. It turns out, actually, this – I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but that’s a spectrographic – you know, it’s a sonographic – the pattern of it is actually the – what a spectrogram will read out of me saying the words, what’s the matter. Which is the name of the piece, What’s (The Matter).
What’s matter, what’s the matter. And, you know, my conceit is that what’s matter and what’s the matter is the same thing. In some fundamental way.
Audience Member 13: Which way? Top to bottom?
AY: Yeah, top to bottom. So, you would read it out, like, side to side, but it’s like starting out, what’s the matter.
Audience Member 14: Thank you, yeah.
AY: Yeah, so …
JO: Okay, if there’s no further questions, thanks so much, Andy. And of course, if you wanna talk to him afterwards, you’re welcome to.
AY: Yeah, thank you very much.