Modern Ruin

Intended Washington Mutual Bank building, Dallas

February 20 - 21, 2010
by Alison Hearst

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      Modern Ruin
      Installation view
      Photo: Kevin Todora

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      Noah Simblist, Double Trouble, 2010
      For complete caption see image gallery

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      Our broken economy reached a visual crescendo in Modern Ruin last weekend in Dallas. Curated by Christina Rees and Thomas Feulmer, the show was as ambitious as the never-used one-million-dollar bank building it occupied; but, paradoxically, the exhibition succeeded through the building’s failure. Comprised of the work of 15 artists such as Michael Corris, Annette Lawrence, Margaret Meehan, Richard Patterson and Jeff Zilm, the exhibition spanned the subtle, the political and the hostile; the work was mostly ephemeral, site-specific and intended to go down with the building (thus circumventing the commodity circuit). Adding to the irony, the checklist appropriated a copy of a seemingly original blueprint of the bank—a blueprint that once might have been used to push the sale of the building—to map out the location of the works and remind visitors of the site’s history.

      As the show’s press release notes, the government seized Washington Mutual and sold it to JP Morgan Chase in September 2008; only a year earlier, and at the height of their game, WaMu had begun the construction of this Dallas branch. The building’s footprint followed WaMu’s cookie-cutter, corporate specifications, thus Chase found it unfit for their corporation’s image and the building was never occupied. Sitting empty throughout the recession, and slated for destruction during the last week of February, the million-dollar building’s only use was to house Modern Ruin. Work similar to that in this show may have worked fine in a gallery, but the ironies evidenced within this framework are, well, priceless.

      At the bank’s entrance, Noah Simblist’s Double Trouble, a black wall painting with the white-stenciled words, “In 2008 we gave them $2,423,800,000, in 2009 they destroyed 4,290 homes,” confronted the viewer. Simblist’s piece referenced our US tax dollars sent to Israel and, in turn, the number of Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel, although, with the statement’s ambiguity, bailouts and US foreclosures also quickly come to mind. Bank entrance doors once labeled with “push,” were modified with “when push comes to shove,” through Terri Thornton’s subtle, but poignant, interventions. Also in the foyer, haphazard gaps in the wall (where ATMs had been torn out when Chase decided not to use the building) allowed visitors to voyeuristically peak into a former off-limits area that housed a piece of rotting durian fruit and Kevin Todora’s get bent, a large inkjet print of Ben Bernake’s face with disfiguring circular cut-outs in place.

      Many of the works in Modern Ruin played on extant architectural elements and further reduced the bank to rubble, both physically and metaphorically. Tom Orr disrupted the imposed symmetry of the existing pre-fab architecture; he disassembled the identical readymade cabinets that once faced each other in the lobby and reassembled them into a disorderly mess on one side of the bank. The artist “M.” also used existing building materials—here, some of the ceiling tiles—into a mass of broken rubble crowned with a neon “M.” like a territorial marker. Margaret Meehan formed a three-dimensional bear from the venetian blinds, transforming a presumably harmless and humdrum object into a something lively and violent. Physically rendering this building a ruin, Cam Schoepp’s Fountain employed an irrigation system throughout the ceiling; water pooled in plastic bagging where ceiling tiles once were found, dripping audibly in buckets throughout the bank and further amplified through audio emitted from the building’s speakers.

      Some of the works in the exhibition touched on questions of ownership and the quest for ultimately unattainable material objects. These works highlighted our consumer culture’s incessant demands and served as a reminder of how such desires pulled us into our current financial situation. Richard Patterson’s Things you Can’t Own #2 – A pair of vintage competition motorcycles on long term loan from the United Kingdom and the American tax payer and the permanent collection from the Nasher Sculpture Center situated two hulking, aggressive motorcycles atop a floor tiled with object labels just like those that identify pieces in the Nasher’s collection. Here, in this small, empty workroom (as labeled on the blueprint) the motorcycles (collectors’ items) and object labels (indicating the value of other collectors’ items) resembled a coveted cache of status-indicating goods.

      More subtle interventions proliferated in the space as well. Annette Lawrence’s Legacy Line: Modern Ruin, a hand-scrawled graphite drawing circumnavigating the perimeter of the walls, serially listed the dates of her menstrual cycle, forcing the intimate into the public. The horizontal, linear drawing, set about six feet from the floor, resembled a flood line, merging man-made and natural disasters and their resultant ruins. In a similarly subtle gesture, Thornton’s words of encouragement, barely visible wax tracings of words like “education” and “possible,” appeared on a back wall of the bank. The wall, which originally bore text stating these exact words, was white-washed as soon as WaMu was turned over to JP Morgan Chase. Thorton resurrects these words as ghosts of their former selves, drawing attention to their futility: since the bank never opened, they never encouraged visitors with their motivational tone. Thornton also inverted the peepholes on the interior doors of the building turning the normally off-limit, private spaces inside out.

      Art and money have always been inextricably linked. With the current financial crisis, many recent exhibitions, such as Kim Beck’s pseudo rental signs at Chelsea’s Mixed Greens Gallery and Art of the Crash at the Lower East Side’s FusionArts Museum, have culled together artworks touching on the economic collapse. Yet most of these shows have been inside the pristine walls of the gallery, never fully engaging the pitfalls of the economy or reaching beyond the financial troubles within the art world. By invading a building whose history has been defined by the arc of the financial markets over the past three years, the artists in Modern Ruin were able to respond to that history in ways impossible within a typical gallery setting.

      Significantly, on the opening night of the exhibition, visitors felt compelled to steal works and virtually trash the place. On Sunday, the aftermath of the opening reception (over 600 visitors were in attendance) looked like the morning after a drunken house party. It’s as if the building’s impending destruction and the lack of sellable artworks in the show—in other words, the commercial inviability of the space and the exhibition it contained—commanded this behavior, which, again, is another invaluable irony contained within this show.

      Alison Hearst is the Curatorial Research Assistant at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and a co-founder of Subtext Projects.

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