David Brooks’ recent exhibition “Notes on Structure (imbroglios, heaps, and myopias)” at American Contemporary filled the gallery’s space with architectural components and industrial packing materials in playful conflict with approximations of diagrams and specimens. We had the chance to ask David a few questions about this ambitious exhibition.
Paddle8: The floor installation requires viewers to carefully navigate in between the sculptures, leaving them little space to move. Can you speak about this decision?
David Brooks: I should say that any description of the works in the “Notes On Structure” exhibition would, by necessity, have the tone of didacticism and determinacy. This itself could almost be seen as an enactment of the very spirit behind the sculptural workings of the show – one that posits a structure in order to perforate the structure; or one who’s structure is mere contrivance, therefore porous, permeable and adaptable, like an articulated dementia; or one where specters become indistinguishable from material fact.
The sculpture that sprawls across the floor of the gallery’s first room, “Imbroglios (a phylogenetic tree, from Homo sapiens to Megalops atlanticus)” is a three-dimensional representation of a phylogenetic tree, which is an ordering system for diagramming evolutionary relationships between species. This particular phylogenetic tree traces the evolutionary ancestral relations between Homo sapiens, humans of course, and the Megalops atlanticus, the Atlantic Tarpon fish. Though it does organize species according to evolutionary and morphological similarities, it is important to understand that this system of ordering was invented to aid scientific research. You will not find this ordering principle replicated in the natural world – it is a cultural contrivance to help scientists generate an approximated picture of how natural systems function. However, by default of its very definition, it can only ever be an approximation – a metaphor; not a true semblance of the essence of the thing being considered. That said, it is also conceivable that our misunderstandings of the natural world, our misuse of it, our conflicted relationship with it and our place within it would not be conceivable without such systems of ordering to help formulate a picture of how they work and how we work within it – even if that system of ordering is inherently flawed and ultimately merely an approximation or a metaphor.
This is a very circuitous way of saying that the Imbroglios sculpture sprawls across the floor, wall to wall, requiring visitors to navigate carefully through the diagram so as to put the notion of the diagram and its ordering system (existing in a hypothetical platonic realm) in playful confrontation with physical bodies, the viewers (that of a realm of palpability).
There are four different sites of site-specificity enacted simultaneously here:
1. the site where the relations between species are considered (the diagram as a concept of order)
2. the site where these hypothesis are made physical and 3 dimensional through sculptural form (the diagram constructed in MDF panels)
3. the site of the gallery and its framing of the sculpture – along with all connotations that accompany an artwork being framed by such rarified viewing spaces. The diagram, having now become a reified 3dimensional representation of a hypothetical organization, also must adapt to the anatomy of the gallery space itself – presupposing that any exhibition space this piece is installed in, in the future, must also go through the same procedures of adaptation.
4. the confrontation between viewer and reified diagram – the viewer’s careful navigation around such signifiers of evolutionary approximations (the unfinished casts of the fish writhing through the diagram) – and thus, the spatial adaptability that will ensue from such navigations.
P8: Why is the Atlantic Tarpon such a highly desirable fish for gaming?
DB: The Atlantic Tarpon is sort of a leviathan for inshore fisherman. It can reach weights exceeding 200 lbs, but is most commonly sought after in water depths of just a few feet. So to engage such a behemoth of a creature in such intimate settings as shallow water depths or laid up in the calms of mangrove estuaries is humbling to say the least. Despite sport-fishermen’s long history of pursuing this quarry, its exact migration routes remain elusive. To no surprise, tarpon populations in recent decades have declined dramatically due to human impact. It is said that as recent as the 1950’s these fish would migrate in schools so large that it would take four days for a whole school of fish to pass under a single bridge. If you can imagine such a biomass as that many fish, each nearing the size of a human, blanketing such a large underwater landscape, almost as a moving landmass itself, you can imagine how this spectacle of nature could not fail to bring awe and wonder to any onlooker. Even the recounting of such a story is equally wondrous.
The tarpon is a close relative of the very first predatory fish that evolved in the sea, making them a living fossil of sorts. They also have the unique characteristic of having evolved a swim bladder for breathing actual air. This is both for buoyancy and for traversing oxygen-depleted waters common in mangrove estuaries and calm freshwater systems. This is how most anglers locate the tarpon – spotting the fish rolling on the surface of the water to breath air. They also have distinctly large scales, compared to other saltwater species, with a very silvery reflection to them. That in relation to their large size has granted them the common nickname of the “Silver King”. Due to its size and acrobatic leaps out of the water when hooked, the tarpon can often break the angler’s rod, or snap the line when making one of their 6-foot high leaps out of the water.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau described the metaphysical connections of the angler, which only resonate deeper today: “It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense.” But for tarpon, the “jerk” isn’t so faint. In the end, why the tarpon is such a desirable game fish is because it is simply a powerful and humbling animal, and anglers hope to witness this cosmogony through a physical proximity to the fish.
P8: Can you tell us about some of the inorganic and organic materials used in this exhibition? Do these materials carry a social significance for you?
• The fish are cast in a fiberglass resin with a gelcoat. This is the same material most modern fishing vessels are made of – the very vessels employed for catching said fish. In their cast form, the fish are left in an unfinished state between an approximation of the form of the real fish and the apparatus designed for their capture.
• The diagram is made of medium density fiberboard (MDF), which is a cast panel material often used for displays and cabinetry. This is a rather ubiquitous material in mass-produced furniture, store displays and theatrical sets. Again, it’s just never the real thing – it’s just a plane of MDF.
• The shrink wrap forms, titled Heaps, are…well…shrink wrap, as well as containing taxidermy armature forms, trees, boxes, milk crates, boots, 2×4’s and I-beams – an eclectic mix of wilderness, infrastructural components and urban litter. Somehow together they make an accurate, albeit transitional, portrait of today’s trodden landscape.
• The walls in the back room of the gallery, titled Myopic Wall Composition’s all have various elements, or specimens, that are set inside the walls’ frontal planes: chainsaw cut wood, wood from a tree felled by a thunderstorm (a gnarled piece of wood whose shape only a thunderstorm could have rendered, not me), a log containing yellow-bellied sapsucker holes (whose speckled composition only a woodpecker could have rendered, not me), and numerous Pennsylvanian Bluestones – a 360 million year old stone formation found in Pennsylvania and parts of New York, and commonly used throughout the streets of New York to make sidewalks and roads in the 19th Century. *There is actually a bluestone slab set in the sidewalk right outside the gallery where this piece was installed – thematically making a bridge between infrastructure and resources, or more basely put: between nature and culture and their indivisibility. The Myopic Wall Composition’s hold these specimens in place with a metal scaffolding system made of black plumbing pipe and speed railing – a joinery system used predominately for temporary stage sets. Again, together they make an accurate, albeit transitional, portrait of today’s trodden landscape.
P8: Can you speak about the organizing principles behind the wall sculptures in the back room?
DB: In 1998 I took a year off of college to work for the exhibitions department at the American Museum of Natural History to install the permanent exhibition “The Hall of Biodiversity”. I mostly mounted specimens on custom brass and steel armatures and installed them within the wall of life exhibit, or “Spectrum of Life”, which represents the full 3 billion years of cellular life on earth. I also installed various fauna throughout the entire exhibit hall including schools of fish on the ceiling, as well as insects, birds, branches and leaves in the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest diorama – still to this day considered to the be world’s largest diorama. I’d be hard pressed to say that this hiatus from college for a year hasn’t now spawned an entire spectrum of sculptural life for me. I think one of the many examples would be these wall sculptures in the back room. They embody a very distinct way of contextualizing material culture, which I undoubtedly learned from constructing this museum hall.
The wall constructions behave like conventional interior walls, and replicate the contours of the back gallery space, like a room within a room. Behind each of them is a scaffolding system; analogous to those used for museum artifacts and temporary stage sets, which, here, tenuously hold their specimens in positions that can only partially be seen from the front. The frontal planes of the walls mimic the planes of the interior walls of the gallery but each one has a specific composition of unique shapes delicately cut from the wall planes. The cutouts correspond to the traced contours of the specimen that is held perfectly flush with the frontal plane of the wall inside the cutout. In this way, the positioned specimen is reduced to a two-dimensional graphic form; much like the evolutionary trajectory of the Atlantic Tarpon being reduced to the line drawing of a phylogenetic tree. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. And its simplicity is what grants it its name of Myopic Wall Composition, a construction that only reveals the specimen from a single vantage point, while obscuring the dynamism of its life, gravity and material logistics visible only behind the plane of the wall. I think of this myopia as a cultural construction, and one whose proliferation clearly points to the Enlightenment project. I’m sure that historians of science would recognize its precedents well before the modern era. But I think most would agree that the schismatic understanding of the natural world around us is continually exacerbated by the failure of the Enlightenment project. Our ability to schizophrenically devour natural resources as surplus consumables, while simultaneously attaching nostalgic sentiments to its finitude and our inevitable downfall with it, is…anything but rational.