MIAMI — Initially, the title of Bryan Zanisnik’s exhibition at Locust Projects, Philip Roth Presidential Library, feels appropriate: there is a soft couch and a reading lamp; nearby, a shelf with a Philip Roth bust — which is a very strange object to mention casually — alongside a neat stack of books. Beyond the entranceway, though, the show feels less like a library and more like a landscape of totemic ruins: a series of tall, white, stucco-finished columns dot the space and connect from ceiling to floor. The faces of the columns are ripped in places, revealing torn flowered wallpaper and stacks of Philip Roth books stored within, as if they were treasures inside the walls of some imaginary institution. The columns make the room labyrinthine — a spiral of books obscured, exposed, and obscured again. Barring all decorum, it is tempting to reach inside and take one, if only because the books’ display, like a hidden secret, makes them feel very important.
It’s not clear whether Zanisnik was ever a fan of Roth’s, though the structure of the Presidential Library lends the books a particularly majestic quality (you must tilt your head way back to see them all). And while Zanisnik is certainly slightly obsessed with Roth, that might be the writer’s fault. In 2012, as part of his performance, “Every Inch a Man,” at the Abrons Art Center in New York City, Zanisnik stood (in swim trunks) in a wind tunnel, silently reading Roth’s The Great American Novel as currency and baseball cards from his childhood flew around him. He was met with a cease-and-desist letter from a law firm representing Roth, which claimed the artist was violating copyright laws by “interpreting” the work. The case was eventually dropped, but not without piquing plenty of media attention — all of which is cataloged and chronicled into a book, available for thumbing through at Locust. It is the only book on display that isn’t by Roth.
At the show’s opening, the artist explained he was always interested in Roth’s depictions of suburban boyhood in New Jersey, an experience the two shared — a fair explanation for his use of The Great American Novel alongside childhood paraphernalia and his own shirtless body. But it’s difficult to imagine that the Presidential Library is not poking some sort of acerbic, antagonistic fun at Roth, giddily provoking further agitation while paying him grand tribute. One barely notices Zanisnik’s hand — the structural details of the installation are actually impressive and overwhelming, with or without books poking out — before becoming consumed by Roth, in multiple colors, fonts, and titles.
Yet, perhaps, it’s hardly about Roth at all. Ephemera from Zanisnik’s life (X-rays, photographs, the detritus of New Jersey landscapes) often make their way into his pieces; these site-specific structures tend to envelope an entire space. Meadowlands Picaresque, another culminating project that began with a kind of obsession, was installed at Smack Mellon in 2013, and used photographs, plants, and fabricated objects to reference Zanisnik’s childhood — his parents made weekly appearances in the space as “performers” by staying mostly motionless — as well as the Meadowlands, a polluted swamp in New Jersey. Zanisnik has explored and documented the Meadowlands for years, describing them as “the unconscious of New York City,” containing its trash and other unattractive wastes. In another installation, A Woman Waits For Me, Zanisnik trapped himself in a display case, a contrarian response to his own adolescent shyness (as part of the show, his father would visit and stare inside); in still another, Five Weeks in a Balloon (an earlier allusion to a writer, Jules Verne), Zanisnik was again bound, this time by newspaper clippings, scraps, and bric-a-brac. For him, the object, whether discarded, found, or made to look that way, is a powerful container, divulging so much about a place and, more importantly, the interior landscape of a person, should they choose to be open. They can bind and hide as easily as they can share.
At the Presidential Library’s opening, Zanisnik referred to the ripped columns as references to “the myth of a space” — the mysterious and concealed parts of a place and its history. He drew a comparison between the books and medieval reliquaries: “They take on a very symbolic meaning, but are they really something representative of who this person was? In a strange way, this might be empowering Roth or elevating him to sainthood.” Viewed like this, there’s an animistic reverence to the books; in a gallery setting, or in an installation as monumental as this one, they may indeed equate Roth with something holy. But if Roth’s novels are so profoundly hylozoic, was the writer in his right mind when he felt violated by “Every Inch a Man”? In this instance, the blur between veneration and mocking is massive, but it matters little. What is clear is that objects, as Zanisnik would have it, are almost human.
Bryan Zanisnik: Philip Roth Presidential Library continues at Locust Projects (3852 North Miami Avenue, Miami) through March 19.