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On first seeing the stark simplicity of KC Tidemand’s “Emergence” (2015) at elmuseo@SVA — a collaboration between the SVA MFA Fine Art Program and El Museo Del Barrio — the feeling that came over me was simultaneous wonder and desolation.
Tidemand has assembled a colony of miniature metropolises by shaping small pieces of wood, painting them white, and affixing them to the gallery walls with glue. The wood bits have been whittled into very small blocks, rectangles, cylinders, and thin planes of varying height and width — all huddled together so that what seem like office towers abut residential buildings that are adjacent to grain silos and power substations. They’re arranged in discrete clusters that look like cities of a fantastical future in which gravity has been circumvented, biological material has been scrubbed from public space, and all signs of human habitation have been sequestered within austere white structures.
The cities are not still — they migrate, crawling across the gallery walls, winnowing to only a handful of buildings in some places, clustering in corners before continuing onto the ceiling. The movement seems haphazard but relentless. It’s as if Tidemand translated the coolly clinical malevolence of 2001’s HAL 9000 into an architectural scheme that anticipates the colonization of another planet. For all its silent austerity, “Emergence” insinuates a devastating backstory that we know is plausible: We poisoned our own planet, rendered it uninhabitable, and then moved on to the next world.
The arrangement of small objects into configurations that suggest cities is a strategy that has been used by other artists. Cordy Ryman has made reminiscent pieces, but his work, on the whole, seems much more concerned with the materiality of his objects and the tension between organization by color and by architectural form. Elias Sime has used recycled electronic materials to create vast installations that resemble the view of an urban landscape from thousands of feet above ground; however, his work is more focused on examining our relationship to technological progress and the waste we generate.
Tidemand, on the other hand, lashes together two massive and massively discordant themes: our arrogance in believing we can set the terms of our own fate, and our ultimate vulnerability. I knew I could easily knock all the little structures off the wall with a sweep of my hand. In a similar way, every so often a tsunami is generated by the universe’s whim, wiping away entire cities in a stroke, as if they were mere matchsticks in a game a child had grown tired of playing.
I found this work deeply poignant because it begins with awe of the sanitized world that we may likely build in the future, and it ends with the guarantee of nothing. There’s an empty white hopelessness as the coda to this story — a planet we are denuding of plant and animal life in order to build the cities and supporting industries that seem emblematic of human progress. “Emergence” makes one feel that the effort of constructing civilization is completely futile.
After I left the gallery, I walked out into the world and gazed at New York’s tall and imposing buildings, and the ones now being constructed. They appeared less impressive to me. In fact, they seemed temporary and ephemeral, as if the claim they made was only smoke and mirrors.
elmuseo@SVA continues at School of Visual Arts Gallery (601 West 26th Street, 15th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) continues through February 20.
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