Published October 7, 2020 in the October 2020 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.
A large-scale, wooden sculpture stands in the spotlight between the dim gray walls of FiveMyles in Brooklyn. New York City-based artist Grayson Cox’s Market Graph II (2020) is in the middle of the exhibition Apparatus, an installation curated by the artist and writer A.V. Ryan gathers together Cox and Joan Waltemath’s work in a contemporary yet timeless setting, as it takes its main inspiration from the current global crisis surrounding COVID-19 and a Giorgio Agamben essay, “What Is an Apparatus?”.
Market Graph II is a nearly 12-foot long, three-dimensional line chart that looks like a heart rate, its timber material silky and finished like high-end furniture. The sculpture slopes from the very bottom just as a value line moves across two axes, climbs vertically with sudden rises towards the middle part of this long structure. The trend drops and rises again, and finally plateaus midway, leaving the linear sculpture standing on its two lowest points. This is a symbolic, yet tangible reflection of a global pandemic filled with similar graphs, market crashes, and depressing statistics. The graphs that disclose these are a new, inescapable part of our lives reduced to mere data points in a grim and accurately scaled world map; checking case counts and number of deaths over morning coffee is part of it.
Giorgio Agamben’s writings on the Foucauldian term apparatus seek to understand similar structures to our current condition that help provide and manage the use of power. Agamben defines the apparatus (or dispositif) as “a set of practices and mechanisms… that aim to face an urgent need and to obtain an effect that is more or less immediate.”1 These devices or mechanisms and their relations to each other in our current day are visible in Cox’s Market Graph II, as much as his other works. Surrounding the sculpture are smaller works on canvas, not hung but on the ground, depicting familiar contemporary images: blue-on-white bubble wrap from Amazon Prime thrown on concrete with Prime Stepping Stone (2020); the hardcover copy of The Power Broker (1974), Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-winner (The Power Broker (Stepping Stone), 2020); and a copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path (2020). These symbolical replicas exemplify the casual yet devious ways of the agents of power in daily life. Similarly, Cognitive Dissidents (2020), a set of seemingly half-empty, meticulously organized plastic cups of iced coffee, demonstrates how certain accessibility very easily turns into excess.
The gallery walls are devoted to Joan Waltemath’s early works on mylar from the series “White Skins” (2003) and “Aria” (2003–06). Brightly lit in a dramatic effect, these works glisten translucently under the lights. Exhibited in the United States for the first time, these colored-pencil drawings utilize reverse perspective, a technique “used by icon painters to open a window to the divine,” according to the gallery text. The “Aria” drawings are about seven feet long and as narrow as 17 inches, which enhances the effect generated by the simply drawn lines of Waltemath’s signature grid matrices that depict the details closest to us as the smallest images. As rigid and constrained as these shapes seem, the soft whiteness of the material and the use of murky tones take them out of the architectural concept and offer room for contemplation. The relationality of “White Skins” and “Aria” has traces of Foucault’s apparatus, which he believed was structured through the links between elements of power such as knowledge and institutions.
While viewing Apparatus, the viewer also takes in sounds of nature. Nocturnal birds singing and wind whistling through leaves is a peaceful soundtrack to open up the space created by Waltemath’s drawings. These are recordings of a Nebraska soundscape by the artist, created in tune with the rest of her musically inspired artworks. At the opening of Apparatus on September 12, 2020, Waltemath performed on accordion, or as she calls it, a “squeeze box,” with Walter Steding improvising on the violin. FiveMyles will host more live performances by guests that include Simone Kearney, Hollis Witherspoon, and curator A. V. Ryan.
“At the root of each apparatus,” writes Agamben, “lies an all-too-human desire for happiness.”2 Apparatus urges its viewers to compel and question these mechanisms, what they support or command, and realize the social and political devices at play. Apparatus reminds the viewer that not much is what it seems—an Amazon Prime order isn’t a simple shopping interaction, Cox’s works aren’t real books, and our initial desire to be happy has been manipulated by our own devices. Only after remembering that people are not just numbers on a graph that one can challenge the system.
- Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays (California: Stanford University Press, 2009) pg. 8.
- Ibid, 17.