PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), with its Greek Revival architecture, is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the art establishment in the city. Completed in 1928, the museum sits at the end of Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where a majority of the city’s prestigious museums are located.
Philli, Ana Peñalba’s current exhibition in The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design, presents photographs that re-create a number of iconic buildings in Philadelphia, including the PMA and Robert Venturi’s Guild House, with detritus found at Revolution Recovery, a recycling yard in the city’s Northeast.
In 2010, Billy Dufala, who is also an artist, and Fern Gookin founded the Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR), in cooperation with Revolution. Since that time they have hosted over forty artists from around the world, providing access to roughly 350 tons of goods that the rest of us throw away. As I mentioned in a piece about an exhibition of Billy and Steven Dufala’s artwork, it’s possible to find anything at the Revolution site, from old magazines to records, beds, and knickknacks. One day, in 2015, Billy encountered a Donald Trump doll from the eighties and moved it into his office. (I wonder if it’s still there.) Dufala’s experiences at Revolution, I wrote, “[force] him to confront the tendency to become sentimental about the objects in our lives.”
Likewise, Peñalba’s photos ask viewers to reconsider the buildings that define the establishment. “(Re)Production 06” (2016) re-creates the PMA’s Greek columns with stacks of plastic trash cans and 55-gallon drums. The corrugated metal structure behind the columns represents the building. For each re-creation, there is a small accompanying photo of the real thing. The interplay of the two photos offers a contrast between makeshift and enduring materials, creating a humorous tension that upends the hierarchy of the establishment.
Accompanying Peñalba’s photos is a series of sped-up videos, reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, in which Billy Dufala and the artist fuss over how to build the museum’s columns. The depiction of the labor involved in re-creating the iconic buildings implies that an institution’s cultural significance is never a prohibition on reimagining it.
But Peñalba’s photos aren’t only about the art world. She also turns her eye towards city government in “(Re)Production 04” (2016), which renders City Hall with an excavator and a cheap wall clock. Tellingly, no one sits at the excavator’s controls. I am of two minds about this work. In part, the photo knocks the grandeur of this building down a few pegs, suggesting, perhaps, the notion of small (or weak) government. However, it also seems to indicate the promise in a government that is willing to dig in, to literally excavate, for the sake of its citizens.
RAIR: Filthy Rich – Projects Made Possible by the Waste Stream, which runs in conjunction with Peñalba’s show, takes up that task of excavation, with projects that explore obsolete technology and lifestyles. Mary Ellen Carroll, in her collaboration with Dufala on “Waste Music: A Festival of Metal” (2014), sculpted an amphitheatre using 1,400-pound bales of compressed metal, the most valuable material at Revolution. With the amphitheatre as a backdrop and a few guest musicians, Carroll and Dufala performed an audience-free heavy metal concert. Included in the Moore exhibit is a 5-minute and 32-second digital video of the event.
As I watched the video and listened to the performance with the accompanying headphones, I was happily amused by the absurdity of staging a live event with no one but the performers in attendance. It reminded me of being a child, when my friends and I would use our parents’ camcorders to record our own versions of The People’s Court. The difference is that we were doing it without a sense of irony. It’s clear that Carroll and Dufala, who MC the event in deadpan voices, have a distinct sense of irony. Perhaps it’s this element that turns their performance into art, while the kiddie version of The People’s Court was simply an attempt for my friends and me to pretend we understood the world more than we did.
More than a few works in the show brought to mind William Faulkner’s famous lines, from his novel Requiem for a Nun (1951), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Christina P. Day’s sculpture “Frequencies” (2015), which consists of a stacked arrangement of old radios and cassette recorders, reminded me of the day, sometime in the early ’80s, when my older sister bought a boombox at Kmart on the way to the Jersey shore. I inherited it, eventually, and would pretend I knew how to breakdance on my friend’s porch.
During her 2014 RAIR residency, Day was drawn to the “fractured patterns” and “coincidental duplicates” found in the piles of discarded goods at Revolution. The radios in “Frequencies,” tuned to stations that may not even exist, are like ghosts of old technology. As the artist puts it, the artwork makes this “broken material, dormant in its state, wake back up and blink.” A glance at the radios’ brands — Sony, General Electric, Precor, Royal – also reminds us that corporate power is never consistent. Trends, like brand names, come and go.
Memories are similar. Sometimes they fade out, other times they stick around and mutate, or they are preserved in photographs. In “Songs of Memory and Forgetting Quilt #2” (2016), Martha McDonald constructed a quilt made with fabrics and photographs found at Revolution. McDonald spent six months sorting through personal items that were part of house cleanouts after someone died or moved into a home for the elderly. She and Dufala also developed a song tour of the site, using instruments found at the dump.
I found the quilt captivating. The photos, circa the late 1950s, depicted participants in Philadelphia’s Mummer’s Parade, which has taken place every New Year’s Day since 1901. The subjects include high school graduations, dads on couches, and people standing on a tarmac with an Israel Airlines plane in the background. Before seeing this quilt, I hadn’t realized that “dads on couches” could be its own genre. I had thought only my family took pictures of such things. But what really caught my attention was the overwhelming number of white faces on this quilt. As far as I could tell there was only one non-white face— the graduation photo of a young African American woman. McDonald’s subtle gesture seems to criticize white dominance rather than endorse it.
These days most of us are less likely to make prints of our photographs. Instead, our photos live in our phones or on hard drives. It’s these chunks of plastic and metal that will end up at the dump. More sculptures like Day’s will be made, but very few quilts like McDonald’s. What does that mean for our future? I’m not certain it means something wicked. But it absolutely changes the ways our memories will work. Imagine if the only photos preserved as prints in the future are Peñalba’s. Our ancestors may wonder what on earth was happening.
What RAIR’s entire project makes clear is how profoundly significant context is, and will always be. As Charles Baudelaire wrote in his poem, “Correspondences,”
Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else
Into one deep and shadowy unison
As limitless as darkness and as day,
The sounds, the scents, the colors correspond.
These artists who have worked at RAIR have captured these “long-held echoes” and directed them back at us. They remind us at this late stage of human civilization that we can’t ignore our memories any more than we can ignore the junk we might think we’re rid of.
Ana Peñalba: Philli and RAIR: Filthy Rich – Projects Made Possible by the Waste Stream continue at the Galleries at Moore (1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through today.