Museums

Glimpses of a Pastoral Dystopia

Postcommodity, "Pollination" (2015) (all images courtesy the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art unless otherwise noted)
Postcommodity, “Pollination” (2015) (all images courtesy the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art unless otherwise noted)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Comprised of Kade Twist, Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Nathan Young, the artist collective Postcommodity is an interdisciplinary group. Working in a variety of media, Postcommodity (who, full disclosure, I am curating in an upcoming exhibition) engages with contemporary culture, notions of postcolonialism, what it means to be an indigenous person, and more specifically, what it means to be an indigenous artist working today. Their work is unflinching, often involving uncomfortable and challenging pieces that can set the viewer on edge. In their current exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), they dive headfirst into the idea of a dystopic future, the fragility of the human experience, and the ramifications of global capitalism.

Curated by Sara Cochran, the exhibition features two pieces. The first, titled “Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution,” premiered at Contour 2011 in Belgium and is making its United States debut in Scottsdale. The piece is comprised, in this iteration, of a five-channel video and sound installation. The video imagery volleys back and forth between footage of pastoral, utopian scenes and jarring, dystopic visuals inspired by the 1973 film Soylent Green. The juxtaposition of beautiful, bucolic imagery with the horror of an apocalyptic future filled with pollution, overpopulation, and the decay of the natural world creates a powerful tension, between what is inevitable and what we cling to in denial.

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Postcommodity, “Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution” (2011) (click to enlarge)

The sound component of the installation depends on the viewer for activation: while walking through the gallery space, you detonate an audio land mine hidden beneath the floorboards. The experience is quite jolting, even when you’re expecting it. This aspect of the piece references the IEDs (improvised explosive device) that were employed to horrific effect in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Postcommodity’s sonic IED is a loud compilation of pop music. It seems to comment on the role that Western popular music plays in shaping the global world and the violent and disorienting effects of war and capitalism.

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Postcommodity, “Pollination” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The second piece on view, “Pollination” (2015), was developed for the SMoCA show. Upon entering the museum, you are given a token. Upon entering the exhibition gallery, you confront a smaller constructed space that looks something like a bathroom, made up of gray walls and eight doors, each numbered. You select a door, although one is intentionally out of order and another permanently occupied. Inside your quiet, compact room are a stool or chair, a window with a closed shade, a box of tissues, and a slot in which to place the token. Once you do so, the shade slides up to reveal a garden contained by mirrored walls and illuminated by clinical, artificial light. Music begins to play as a series of floral and woody scents wafts by.

The effect is at once intriguing and unsettling. Playing on the idea of the peep show and the fetishized female form — which throughout art history and literature has been implicitly and explicitly linked to the garden — Postcommodity comments on fantasy, objectification, and the male gaze. Yet by presenting an actual garden, the piece also speaks to the powerlessness of nature in the face of mankind’s domination and abuses. The incorporation of the “pay-to-play” model, meanwhile, brings in capitalism’s role in the devastation of the natural world, global market systems, land development, and the exploitation of natural resources, all of which suggest Western colonial endeavors in what is thought to be a postcolonial world. Though the piece only requires the viewer to insert her token to participate — a small gesture — it implicates her as she sees her reflection in the garden room’s mirrors.

The exhibition is strong, with installations that are intriguing but beguiling, appealing but deeply troubling. It builds on the collective’s history of works that involve the viewer. In “Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution,” we are the victim who has detonated the IED; in “Pollination,” we are the perpetrator, objectifying and fetishizing the landscaped nature before us. We engage with and participate in a mosaic of tensions, between beauty and destruction, power and powerlessness, the ideal of a prosperous future and one drenched in destruction.

Postcommodity, "Pollination" (2015)
Postcommodity, “Pollination” (2015)

southwestNET: Postcommodity continues at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E 2nd Street, Scottsdale, Arizona) through April 26.

Correction: This review originally stated that the artwork “Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution” uses footage from the film Soylent Green. It is, in fact, footage inspired by the film. The error has been fixed.

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