Recently, it’s been easy to walk right past this Lower East Side gallery: since early September, Louis B. James’s normally glass-fronted facade has been darkened, its entrance covered with black strip curtains. Those are the first indications of the two-level space’s transformation, and they barely prepare one for what lies within: piles upon piles of rubble that reach all corners of the main room. In the basement, there’s a literal swamp bathed eerily in red light. And that’s not all — amid the wreckage of rocks and concrete freely flit two dozen parakeets, and lurking in the subterranean marsh is a colony of bullfrogs, crouched on lily pads or breaking the surface of the six-inch-deep muddy water with their heads.
This drastic renovation is the work of the Austrian-born, New York–based Martin Roth and forms untitled (debris), the artist’s third solo show with the gallery. Roth frequently works with living organisms to alter the white cube: he has previously filled a Donald Judd with snails and flooded an Austrian gallery with water, transforming it into a fishpond. This latest project, an equally extravagant gesture, is more political: some of the debris originates from a destroyed building that once stood near the border of Turkey and Syria, while the rest come from a construction site in the neighboring East Village. Removed from these places, the detritus serves as an open setting for domesticated birds usually kept as darling pets in cages, creating a new ecosystem that contemplates destruction, displacement, and desecration.
On his website, Roth summarizes his work, writing, “In July 2015 I shipped debris from the syrian border to use as bird litter.” The resulting simplicity of the environment and the ease of that statement is startling but communicates the impermanence of place — here, specifically, as a consequence of war. It’s troubling to think that such impressions of conflict can so freely shed their histories and be recycled into a recreational site for, of all things, the common parakeet. Destruction becomes a preciously poetic scene, especially when one learns that the room’s brightly feathered inhabitants were rescued from a shelter — in a sense, themselves displaced but now free in their new home.
The surprise of the atypical setting and the undeniable allure of seeing live birds in a gallery make it easy to forget Roth’s efforts to migrate the rubble, a task documented in newsprint booklets of color photographs visitors may obtain. They include barren images of the landscape Roth visited, an image of a military tank, and even a local caged bird, but also feature pictures of suitcases filled with large rocks. Roth actually packed up these architectural fragments, brought them to a local shipper where he weighed each one individually, and found a service to transport them to the United States. It’s an epic endeavor made ridiculous because the rocks now serve the same purpose as yesterday’s newspaper — especially since they are pretty much indistinguishable from the leftovers of New York construction. Roth brings the aftermath of war right to us, but he buries it in its own language of destruction, nodding to the endless news cycle that delivers such reports through mass media we consume but may not digest.
Still, untitled (debris) diminishes distance, forcing us to confront and interact with Roth’s new world. There is no other way to navigate the space but to carefully walk on the rubble, whereupon slight hints of the fragments’ origins — like a brightly painted piece — emerge. The room is also immersed in a persistent whirring sound, a looped recording of a harmonica played by a young refugee named Muhammed from a village near Aleppo whom Roth met. It’s hard not to think of drones in this context, although the reminder of bullfrogs in the basement also reduces the noise to the irritating buzz of flies.
This is also an experience that is unstable (unlike Olafur Eliasson’s recent Riverbed, which presented nature’s wilderness still under control). These creatures, encountering for the first time life beyond a cage, introduce unpredictability, but the threats of this disaster zone are blatantly trivial. Entering the space, we’re not only concerned about placing our feet on wobbly areas, but there’s a nagging fear of being the target of avian droppings, and some bullfrogs (themselves ferried over from Chinatown, rescued from their fate as food) have even occasionally bounded up the basement steps. There is a constant possibility of instantaneous chaos — incredibly trivial in the grand scheme of things, yet one the gallery, under its established role, must take seriously. In this surreal coalescence of environments, we face the devastation of clashes, and while the physical distance of their aftermath is reduced, the disparity of the attached experiences is staggeringly magnified.
When the installation closes, the parakeets will live in a sanctuary upstate and the frogs will be released into a pond. Roth will have to remove the architectural ruins once more — it’s uncertain to where, but there are few places one may dump what is just debris.
untitled (debris) continues at Louis B. James (143b Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 18th.