The still life photographs of Lakshmi Luthra, currently showing in Poly at Sushi Bar Gallery in Brooklyn with the work of Jonathan Bruce Williams, could have been shot on the floor of an abandoned department store, somewhere on the border between the Intimates and Electronics departments. On swathes of black fabric dotted with various particulate matter, chance encounters between a lint roller and a jewelry box, a glove and a USB key, unfold. (Actually the fabric is Duvetine, typically used as a light-absorbing backdrop for studio photography, but here lit such that it becomes a presence in its own right.) A black cable snakes across tangles of black pantyhose and other, less recognizable synthetic meshes. A metal clothes hanger is reflected in the glass of an Android phone. The color palette is made up almost entirely of different shades of black, broken up by an occasional metallic glint: in one photograph, a knife has snuck in from the Kitchenware department. And are those bars of soap tucked into the nylons?
Luthra took inspiration from vintage Agatha Christie book covers for this series, but don’t expect to solve any crimes, as there is no straightforward symbolism to be found. Instead, the objects seem to speak their own language, in the spot of gold on the knife and the golden pattern of an ink cartridge, or a miniature toy gun that almost passes for a black plastic hangtag. The cumulative effect of these resonances — and I won’t mention all of them, as their discovery is part of the pleasure of looking — is a visual echo chamber in which objects mimic each other rather than remaining tied to their intended meanings. Instead of “our products [being] so many mirrors in which we [see] reflected our essential nature,” as Marx wrote, they reflect only each other, endlessly.
As with any work that deals exclusively with objects sans humans lately, these photographs risk being associated with some current schools of thought in contemporary theory, namely such “new materialisms” as speculative realism, post-humanism, and accelerationism. One might say that the images are “object oriented,” but ultimately they seem more pre- than post-human. Or perhaps more honestly post-human than the ironic appropriation of corporate aesthetics that tends to accompany such ideas. Instead of a fetishization of gleaming, high-tech surfaces fit for a future race of soylent-drinking cyborgs, Luthra presents us with a dusky storage room where the blacks are matte, the technology outdated, and all that remains of humanity aside from its discarded products is a smattering of dust and cat hair.
Further, the themes of mimicry and repetition she employs have traditionally been linked to a desire, not for acceleration, but for regression to an earlier state, from the organic to the inorganic. The French thinker Roger Caillois posited that mimicry, the assimilation to one’s surroundings, resulted from an “instinct of renunciation that orients […] toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feeling – the inertia of the élan vital.” Taking insects as his starting point, he notes that mimicry almost always results in “a step backwards” to lower forms of life such as plants or stones (in stick insects, for example). Slightly less esoteric is Freud’s theory of the death drive. As he wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle,, “If we may reasonably suppose […] that every living thing dies — reverts to the inorganic — for intrinsic reasons, then we can only say that the goal of all life is death, or to express it retrospectively: the inanimate existed before the animate.”
One gets the sense that Luthra’s still lives have this same drive, that these objects mirroring each other, often made from the same material (plastic), long to merge, and would return with relief to their original state. Are these visions from a near future? Perhaps, but it is to the artist’s credit that this dystopia remains resolutely uncomfortable.
Lakshmi Luthra and Jonathan Bruce Williams: Poly continues at Sushi Bar Gallery (62 18th Street, Brooklyn) through June 17.