written by David Rohn
Three recent exhibitions in Miami reference elements of military-industrial detritus and in literal or figurative ways evoke issues related to aggression and the natural environment. Recent shows by Miamians Nick Lobo at Gallery Diet, Christy Gast at Locust Projects, and the Nigeria-based El Anatusui’s current exhibition at the Bass museum use materials like napalm, liquor packaging or reconstructed Cold-War missiles in ways that transform this detritus into art objects meant to evoke the logic behind their creation in the first place.
Lobo’s recent show at Gallery Diet featured further exploration of mid-century modernist style ‘sculptures’ made of polystyrene treated with napalm, and a stepped up (gallery) floor made of a discontinued feminine Viagra-like bottled beverage from Scandinavia. Napalm was created to de-foliate the jungles of Vietnam so the Vietcong would t be able to hide from US helicopter gunships in the 1960’s & ’70’s-It s a jelly-like substance that burns whatever it touches, including human skin, animals, etc, as well as plant life. It’s made with Naphtha which is a toxic chemical that is probably still all over Vietnam. The napalm gives the polystyrene surface a deeply pitted mid’-century blob’ sculptures look that seems mock full of the trendiness of that era, which is reinforced by bases of (more ‘important ‘) marble bases. The sculptures all retain a small area almost hidden in the nether parts of the polystyrene armature exposing the irreverent and toxic/non-biodegradable substrate.
Walking on top of the packages of women s Viagra beverage to look at sculptural blobs made of napalm-treated polystyrene was a strangely artificial and ironically bombastic experience, that evoked questions about what is a ‘real’ material. What is it’s real purpose? What are the implications of manufacturing massive quantities of these over the long term? It all seemed to evoke our era of faux food, pumped up financial markets and trumped-up wars, not least the way these are so seductively packaged.
The Anatsui’s exhibition “Gravity and Grace” at the Bass Museum of exquisitely regal ’Hangings’ woven mostly from liquor bottle labels, pop tops, and other packaging garbage represent another example of the way the waste from mass-produced products can be redeemed into art. If Lobo’s installation suggested the triumph of form over content then El Anatsui Pieces testify to art’s miraculous transformative power. The pieces are created slowly, by hand, and employing dozens of assistants.
They exude a weighty reverential commonality while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re made from stuff that might not make it into a recycling bin in most places.
The Ghana-born artist considers trade in European alcohol to have been closely tied to the economic and social dynamic of the Slave industry of the 16th-19th century; so once again, we see not just recycled industrial garbage, but a direct connection to unfortunate exercises of intertwined economic and strategic power and their residual damage.
Christy Gast’s flowery missile sculptures at Locust Projects refer to the nuclear missiles that were installed in the Everglades at the time of the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. Turns out that a former ‘donut-hole’ of arable land they were set on, now part of the Everglades National Park, was a US Cold War Defense site and the missiles have been replaced by full scale models- Gast’s 20’ foot long versions are also full scale but are covered in a riotous ’60’s looking floral design made by the artist using three specific plant types that took over the abandoned farmland-turned missile site. This gives her exploration into strategic degradation a kind of ‘triumph-of-nature’ happy ending. In Gast’s installation these nuclear missiles are effectively neutralized: turned into harmless flower-power replica’s, suggesting that nature (and even human nature) can neutralize aggression, defensiveness, and fear. Lobo’s vision of a contrived , artificial and toxic universe looks a lot darker and more plausible right now; but El Anatsui’s transformative practice, which suggests that careful collective action can create something sublime from waste. This has to be the most redeeming/solutional response to our environmental dilemma.