I approached Ben Bunch’s new show, Twenty-First Century Freemasonry, a riotous amalgamation of computer part entrails, circuit boards and wires in overclocked colors, having just lost myself at Sperone Westwater Gallery’s latest exhibition devoted to marble’s cool, white transcendence through space and time. In my liminal state, Bunch’s work felt like a jolt of the here and now, more-than-ever-never-before and yet beyond the present moment, as each piece could be mistaken for a prop in a futuristic anthropology showcase at the natural history museum as they appeared freshly unearthed from the sarcophagus of just yesterday.
Bunch’s work sanctifies the vestigial remnants of today’s technology converging into obsolescence with unusual materials (EVA foam) and vibrant color (chemical dyes, fluorescent spray paint). Bunch’s foam crafted effigies of the digital age, ranging from the literal to conceptual, are exalted on pedestals made of plywood, almost memorializing a once modern world still firmly rooted in nature.
His facsimiles of a copy machine, “Sarcophagus” (2010), and a record player, “Extended Conjuration” (2010), objects on the primitive cusp, also appeal to a nostalgia for the not-yet past. While meticulously produced, their near carbon-copy resemblance to the real bears the mark of imperfection. In replicating a machine, humanity’s affable fallibility is made apparent.
Bunch’s more abstract works, sculptural mounds and wall hangings, use a slew of bits and pieces to construct a more readily digestible whole, nominally imagined in Bunch’s triptych called “Nom, Nom, Nom” (2011). At first glance, compositional discord is the only cohesive element of the work, however upon closer inspection, every object looks deliberately placed within the system, elegantly organized like the vertiginous pathways etched for efficiency on a silicon wafer. Although they appear salvaged from the desk drawer of a mindless tinkerer, each heap of stuff bears the mark of carefully streamlined calculations by some higher intelligence.
The impulse to impose structure upon disorder is best exemplified by Bunch’s “Prog Zodiac” (2011), a pile of disemboweled gadgets that coalesces with molecular rigidity into a perfect pyramid — the most ubiquitous icon of the masonic order. The reference is made clear by its pointed cap in black, bearing the mark of the all-seeing-eye with a single red dot. It immediately conjures the ominous presence of both HAL and the monolith from the classic sci-fi film, 2001: Space Odyssey, its playful colors and materials surreptitiously inviting us not to be afraid, but as the title of Bunch’s show suggests, there is something sinister afoot.
Conspiracy theories aside, ancient symbols like the pyramid and all-seeing-eye are emblematic of a narrative as old as civilization itself, our willingness to imagine a higher order within the universe to which we can give deference. We would rather believe God or some evil secret society is ultimately in charge, otherwise we would have to consider a much more frightening thought, that nature remains utterly indifferent to our existence. The illusion of mastery is necessary for us to cope with chaos. Bunch’s arts-and-crafts reproductions of state-of-the-art relics celebrate and mock our ultimate powerlessness.
Technology is becoming as essential to our survival as the building block elements, our fragility almost heightened by our dependence on a fabricated reality. Using foam, hot glue and paper to replicate computer parts made of silicon, epoxy and plastic, Bunch imagines these objects with a life-like accuracy and then subverts them with a home-spun whimsy, highlighting the handmade as absurd in the digital age. The days of DIY are dead, an individual with the right knowledge and materials could once create a modern marvel in their garage: a clock, a car or even a machine gun can be fashioned from scratch, but no matter how skilled or resourceful, almost all humans are incapable of building their own Android or iPad®.
Ben Bunch’s work venerates technology at the dawn of the 21st century with a childlike sense of wonder only to cast the haze before us with primal trepidation for the unknown. He interrogates contemporary culture’s inviolable devotion to technology in a post-Y2K world: with our fears of the apocalypse allayed, a utopian vision of the future pervades. Bunch’s imitations of technological wizardry seem like an ironic plea to remain vigilante as we relinquish our humanity to inanimate things.
If we remain in awe of modernity, only seeing the bright future and forgetting the immediate past, we forgo our control of the present and invite artificial constructs to progress with impunity upon us. Walking away from the Proposition Gallery, I could not help but feel as though my smartphone directing me via GPS to the nearest subway stop was also leading me by a leash I had not thought twice about.
Twenty-First Century Freemasonry continues at The Proposition Gallery (2 Extra Place, East Village, Manhattan) until February 26.