Golden Dust

I have a miserly disposition. This is not an easy thing nowadays. The general climate considers miserliness a sin; great voices tell me to spend, to continue as usual, to keep liquid. We are meant to despair at the people of Japan, who have retreated from spending, from production, and keep to their beds to hold down the money under their mattresses. The smaller voices who congregate around me agree; they say to spend your time in association, keep joining, keep connecting. The small must get bigger, must put out its elbows. 

a duck swimming in money
A diving duck.

No one talks about misers lately, since it has become axiomatic that wealth should be diversified, autonomous, and difficult to track, an immense fungus spreading in filaments under the surface and sprouting up fine mushrooms here, there, and everywhere. Misers do not spread, but condense – they collapse material together. They are not hoarders, quite, because they are mindful enough to select and transform as they go. Most typically, they prioritize exchange into money and then the concentration of that money into one place. A container full of liquid money, become light, uniform, and material, a new kind of water to swim in. 

Miserliness has the effect, then, of gathering into a place – a hovel, or a vault. But if we remove the secretive aspect of the miser, and not coincidentally remove at the same time the specific drive to accumulate money, we may instead have an outward-facing miserliness, that in gathering and arranging material increases its value – it makes them worth being experienced. This could variously come in the form of pointing out what the material resembles, aggregating the material into the forms the material seems to suggest, or only throwing the material into unfamiliar arrangements to re-enchant it.

Nicodemus Boffin
The Golden Dustman, rendered by James Mahoney.

This is another way of seeing artistic production. Characteristically, it uses labor skill to convert inconsequential materials into aesthetic value. But we can also see artistic production as a means to avert waste – in a miserly spirit, to avoid discarding any worth on hand. Once its intended use has passed, its last resort is in the creative realm. This is the Japanese mottainai, the shame in wasting, the habit of reusing or repairing to the furthest degree.

Once accumulated and pointed outward at the world, recycled material can interact with the qualities of the place it inhabits, setting up a two-way exchange. As the site of accumulation becomes a site of value by artfully amassing the loose material that surrounds it, depending on the means of amassing, it may also simultaneously confer value on the larger area in which it rests. In the process of converting a village into a tourist destination, Lu Wenyu and Wang Shu’s Ningbo Museum does not only put the locale on the map; it gestures at the character and worth of what surrounds it.

Sze's The Uncountables
Sze's The Uncountables (Encyclopedia) (2010)

What I am interested in, from the precincts of landscape, the country cousin of the visual arts, is how to process raw physical material as directly as possible into environments. Here, we preserve the connection to the source, keeping the capacity of this perceptible two-way exchange. The tradition here in landscape is present but not entirely benign, and most often takes the form of simply treating what is found in the local catchment as though artistic material (clumsily) or social material (illegibly). Given the site of a rail depot, we stack railroad ties into a facsimile of a bench, and shine spotlights on them to tell a story about the dignity of labor. What we can do instead is to start from the capacities of the material itself, using their base tectonic and semiotic qualities to build entirely new arrangements and places. In doing so, we avoid wasting or sequestering the considerable powers of the material.

The test with such work comes in the ability to navigate the narrow strait between kitsch and impassivity. I start here with the artists Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze as examples of such a mean in artistic practices. Both work with assemblages of everyday objects and material, and both clearly have one foot in a tradition of artistic collage. Where they differ is in extending the planes and juxtapositions of past work – say, Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram – further out into environments. Stockholder and Sze both recognize storehouses, closets, sheds, attics – places where material finds new ecologies, new settings, new positions of repose.

Stockholder's Sweet...
Stockholder's Sweet for Three Oranges (1995)

They do not much relate these object-spaces to human affect and sentiment – you retain the sense of a place where objects are chiefly relating to one another. They also stands distinct from the cargo cultism of a Haim Steinbach or Jeff Koons – goods are not treated as self-evident or internally luminous. Their objects – oranges, desk lamps, fans, books – reveal powers to associate that are at once related to and distinct from their everyday function.

Beyond my own miserliness, my unwillingness to pay more at Utrecht, or for a new edition of Creative Suite, I see two great sources of strength in this genre. One, it shows a way to model through a designed environment the relationship of humans with the manufactured environment they inhabit on an everyday basis, in a way analogous to how how the typical garden models a relationship to the world of nature. Stockholder’s and Sze’s work is most clearly mirrored in the world of landscape through folk production, from the tradition of yard shows to the visionary Christian gardens of Howard Finster or Leonard Knight. This shades further into the work of half-credentialed artists like Noah Purifoy and Harvey Fite, whose proclivities led them out of the gallery space and its associated social habits. If such environments withdraw from their surroundings, they do not abduct their visitors into rarefied space – they do not elevate. They show our usual habits of use, enchanted.

Second, this genre embodies work, and makes it visible. Every ounce of work done has a visible and material equivalent. The work cannot be reduced to great spirit, to ingenuity, to genius molding matter. It does not hide behind painted drywall, or any other skin of finish. Kept visible, this work becomes an argument. It argues for its own maintenance, because it would be a shame if all this work would be for naught. It advertises how materials nearly without value can be translated up – upcycled, really – through manual and conceptual ingenuity. And it suggests a consicous choice of materials that is neither indiscriminate nor curated, neither found in the back alley nor ordered from the distributor with grant money. Again, the work falls in the mean of watchful experience, which ranges and selects as it goes. 

The miser, the Golden Dustman, reels before what has been produced, and how to convert it – how is some liquor to be made from it. Golden dust is two things. It is gathering shavings, things rendered beside the point, to be reamassed because of their inherent worth. It is also the property of dust, when kicked up in a certain quantity in a certain quality of light, to be glorious, to fly perpetually in Brownian motion, to shine. For most, it is not reasonable to expect to see this quality at all times in dust; it will only come out in the proper situation. So we should stage and prolong this situation as much as we can.

giant dustheap
View of a dust heap by E.H. Dixon, King's Cross, London (1837)

(April 2017)