Art That Forces Us to Face the Cruelty of the Human Animal

Pig roast at ‘Andrew Mehall: New Ideas (Reinforcing Shitty Old Ideas)’ opening, attended by YW co-founder, Ben Hall (third from left) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — The disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” is something films like to let you know when it appears that some animals may have been harmed in the movie’s making. My suspicion is that artist Andrew Mehall is not in the position to offer us any such assurances. Two of the pieces in his solo show New Ideas (Reinforcing Shitty Old Ideas) feature large, live fish in uncomfortable spaces, and it bodes not well for the fish.

Did this bother me? Yes, and I was not the only one. The show opened in the midst of the 5th annual Hamtramck Neighborhood Arts Festival, which encourages residents of Hamtramck to engage with their local art spaces, including Ben Thompson Gallery’s temporary outpost on St. Aubin (it will be moving to a permanent space on Sobieski following Mehall’s show). Inside the space — an unfinished house stripped down to the studs — Mehall’s installations (curated by Young World colleague and self-described “primary interlocutor” Ben Hall) were at times indistinguishable from the demolished interior. “Having that ability to entirely control power, sound, and light are the real benefits of tackling a raw, gutted space,” said Mehall, about working in the gallery’s temporary location. “In that way vacant houses are no more empty than the basements and garages of the suburbs.”

In the room that housed the show’s most dramatic work, “It Depends On How Much Time We Have” — a Plexiglass tube that held four live tilapia in a space so tight they could not turn around — one of St. Aubin’s residents, an older gentleman, spoke my mind aloud. “That’s too much, man,” he said.

Details from "It Depends On How Much Time We Have" which materials include a Wall-E movie poster and live tilapia.
Andrew Mehall “It Depends On How Much Time We Have” (detail) (2015)

And yet. One of Young World’s signature accoutrement are the free-associative texts, collectively penned by YW and edited by Rhoads Stevens, that supplement the exhibitions. An early draft of the accompanying text to Mehall’s show included a fictionalized conversation about witnessing the September salmon run in Haines, Alaska. I happen to have witnessed this salmon run in real life, and I can tell you that fish are packed wherever water is flowing — rivers, streams, and even ditch gutters by the roadways — and there is certainly no room to turn around. Mehall, whose work centers on the tension between nature and society, didn’t invent cruelty, and neither did society. Nature is cruel, and it doesn’t particularly care when a handful of fish are the price of progress. “There’s no specific goal to identify something as being natural and something as being simulated,” says Mehall. “It’s more about hoping we don’t all end up with brain tumors from using cell phones. And if we do, which phone call to Jimmy Johns was the one that was malignant?”

This inherent hypocrisy, or at least our oblivious distancing from the cruelty in our own nature was echoed in the show’s opening festivities, which, for the benefit of the HNAF crowd, included another of Young World’s signature elements: exhibition openings catered with homemade pulled pork sandwiches. For Mehall’s show, the celebration was expanded to a full-blown pig roast. Already reeling from the fish in the tube, I was not prepared to metabolize — literally or emotionally — the pig in the box. And yet. I have happily eaten a similar pig in the more abstracted form of sandwich at previous YW openings (and it was delicious).

Andrew Mehall, “Untitled” (2015)

Mehall’s work keeps all objects and materials on the table, as far as getting the point across. His works in this installation range from a charcoal barbeque grill — elevated on exaggerated legs and painted to resemble a panda bear head — to plastic disposable ice bags filled with white stuffing and imprinted with “Andrew Mehall: 10/10/15: New Ideas,” all clustered on the floor under the skeleton stairway. There’s a bag of cola concentrate in some kind of moonshine rig, culminating in a big, glass fermentation jug that’s connected by bungee cord to a laptop coated in soda pop residue running a badly-pixelated infinite loop of the Coca-Cola polar bears commercial. Toward the back of the gallery, an idling jet ski penetrates the wall through a custom cut-out, half inside and half outside, its back end facing the guests, gathered near a big-top striped tent set with tables for the impending feast. A giant empty water tank on its side houses a plastic bin, with another unhappy tilapia hanging out in just barely enough water to cover it. Nearby, a large fish tank houses a pile of unopened Lebatt’s Blue cans.

Andrew Mehall, “Tip” (2015), featuring cola in a fermentation rig and a laptop running a Coca-Cola ad with polar bears (click to enlarge)

As is often the case when I leave a YW event, I felt marginally displaced from reality, at odd angles from familiar surroundings. The question of how much of what happened in and around Ben Thompson Gallery was art and how much was not-art perfectly mirrors the blurred lines Mehall draws between nature and not-nature. We see a tree growing in a hole in the sidewalk and think we have tamed something, but our cities are just islands of concrete and glass within the churning biomass — and in Detroit of all places, it becomes clear how quickly nature reclaims the spaces we eke out. We are the ones surrounded, because ultimately nature is an inside job. A bear doesn’t need the abstraction of a sandwich — it can look its meal in the face, then rip that face off with its teeth. There is a kind of courage in that, and art that demands courage is always worth the effort.

As for the fish, I am told that they were made into stew, following the opening.

New Ideas (Reinforcing Shitty Old Ideas) continues at Ben Thompson Gallery (12056 St Aubin, Hamtramck, Mich.) through November 10. 

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