DETROIT — Object-oriented ontology suggests that inanimate objects have lives and wider spheres of experience than the ways in which they relate to humans. It’s a fun thought exercise to consider an object capable of experience, but perhaps a more complicated one to consider what experience looks and feels like from the perspective of a thing that does not look and feel — a highly objective exercise, one might say.
This process of examination is one of the starting points of Anthony Marcellini’s solo show at Simone DeSousa Gallery, City of Restless Objects, which seeks to interpret Detroit’s complicated experiences through one simple, dense object: a brick. In many ways, the brick is an ideal object-mascot for any number of struggling Rust Belt cities, as they represent a kind of basic currency for a city — they are its literal building blocks. “Bricks were a pretty visible object for me on moving to Detroit,” said Marcellini, who grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and moved here from Gothenburg, Sweden in 2013, via email. “A seemingly dumb or mundane object, yet also charged — an object as witness to the waves of history within this city. I saw bricks everywhere in various states of emergence, stasis, and neglect.”
The visibility of bricks as standalone objects is prominent in Detroit — they sit in piles of rubble next to fallen walls, or are revealed as toothy smiles behind fraying plaster exteriors — but in the context of the city’s history they hold additional significance. Says Marcellini: “When I researched the history of Detroit, looking at moments of unrest within the city, the brick emerged as a kind of catalyst to moments of instability or transformation. I found articles that said things like, ‘A brick was thrown and the riot was on.’ I was interested in those times when a brick becomes an event — a cause and the effect.”
Marcellini translates his findings in several ways throughout the installation, with seemingly disparate works tied together both thematically and by mashing up text with a second medium: dance, photography, painting, video, and relief carving. “When Bricks Become Verses” literally translates a text to a series of 26 custom-made bricks, commissioned from the last operating brick factory in the region, now owned by Forterra Brick. This factory has been making bricks for over 100 years, sending bricks all over southeast Michigan and into neighboring states. Marcellini went on a factory tour led by plant manager Robert Clements, and went home with 75 unfired bricks with which to work his text. He pounded letters into each brick, before returning to the factory for firing. Back in the studio, Marcellini worked with an apparatus of his own construction to launch the bricks through panes of glass, using a camera shooting 11 frames per second to capture the exact moment the two objects met. “I thought of the glass as a kind of limen, a threshold between the before and after,” said Marcellini.
When considering catalytic moments in Detroit’s history, it is tempting to focus on the major act of civil disobedience in 1967 — referred to alternately at the 1967 Riot or the 1967 Uprising, depending on your perspective — but Marcellini is quick to emphasize that City of Restless Objects is attempting to take a longer view. “In regards to 1967, it’s a moment that is so talked about and referenced in regards to Detroit, yet there are so many different perspectives,” he said. “Of course this event is not the main focus of the show, just one of those in Detroit’s history that is very prominent. As we well know, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the housing crisis of the ‘90s and 2000s had more of an effect on the city, and ultimately caused a lot more deaths. The show is about many moments, and the cycles within cities (Detroit as the litmus) throughout the last 100 years, and those objects and events that maintain and are resilient throughout the cities’ histories.” For a piece titled “Catalysts, Detroit Free Press 1900–2013,” Marcellini combed through a century of Detroit Free Press archives, selecting moments where the text described bricks meeting with other objects, and rendered these on a grid of canvases coated in shale mixed with matte medium. These pieces form a timeline of the project.
In many ways, the tone Marcellini strikes with Restless Objects is forensic — fitting, as he considers the role of objects as witness to events, and by nature, dispassionate ones. The artist has attempted similarly forensic studies in other installations, for example Even a Perfect Crime Leaves a Trace, a solo exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall that investigated the institution’s 100-year history. Experientially, there is some disconnect between Marcillini’s forensic-clinical approach to history and the spirit of Detroit, which, in the absence of other resources, has compensated with an abundance of heart. This is most evident in a collaborative video piece, which features Haleem “Stringz” Rasul — founder of break-dancing company Hardcore Detroit and one of the city’s premier practitioners of a Detroit-original dance form called Jit.
“I was really struck by Jit’s narrative quality,” said Marcellini. “I think it is an art form that really documents the struggles and perseverance of people in Detroit throughout the hard times, similar in some ways to what you hear in Detroit Techno. I asked [Rasul] if he would be interested in doing something with me, working between Jit and narrative text. He said yes, so I wrote the text, made the music, and recorded the song as something he could listen to while dancing, and I asked him to interpret the work through Jit.” The final piece, “The Story Begins With Movement,” is a two-channel video that intermittently strafes the gallery with blasting beats and juxtaposes Rasul’s movement-based interpretation on one screen with highlights from Marcellini’s text on the other. “Haleem was responsible for his movement – his interpretation of the text/music,” said Marcellini. “I was responsible for the text/music. The way the work was presented was to mirror both ends of that relationship. Stark white page with the language of text on the left and stark white background with the language of movement on the right.” The all-white background and gear seem a little too clean, perhaps; despite virtuosic dancing on Rasul’s part, it ends up feeling somewhat commercial, rather than conveying the negotiation of the urban environment that is inherent to live Jit practice.
Ultimately, this is a minor quibble considering Marcellini’s extremely ambitious undertaking — one that included curating Grammars of Place, a group show in Simone DeSousa Gallery’s second space that features a cadre of national and international artists and a similarly broad assortment of media. The show’s stated purpose is to “explore how language and intention can both build and unravel specific contexts,” and as such, it forms an ideal, more generalized, counterpoint to Marcellini’s solo musings in City of Restless Objects. It is heartening to see that he has taken such care and engaged so deeply with the city before attempting to interpret or reflect upon it — a courtesy that is rarely observed by relative newcomers. “When I told people who knew about my artistic practice (investigating moments of breakdown — our relationship to objects changes when they no longer function) that I was moving or living in Detroit, they thought it would be a perfect place for my research,” he said. “But it has taken me over two years to get to a place where I felt comfortable investigating the city’s history. It is such a vastly complex place to understand.”
Marcellini’s efforts to understand and process what he has developed, over years of occupancy and focused efforts, have not been in vain. City of Restless Objects adds well-formed bricks to the structure of Detroit’s self-image.
Anthony Marcellini’s City of Restless Objects and the group show he curated, Grammars of Place, continue at Simone DeSousa Gallery (444 West Willis Street, Units 111 and 112, Detroit, Michigan) through May 29.