* * *In what many believe is his most important work, the posthumously published Aesthetic Theory, the Marxist philosopher and critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno takes note of what he terms "Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social [social fact]." Art—that is, human expression worthy of being so designated—is autonomous, Adorno holds, in that it stands apart from the system of means-end rationality characteristic of modernity, especially under capitalism. And yet, he goes on to say in a brain pretzel that is typical of his thought, art is marked by the "sedimentation" of the sociohistorical conditions from which it arises. It is "the melancholy of art," Adorno concludes, to bear witness to truth it is powerless to do anything about. I can't help thinking about Adorno and his dialectical approach to art as I ponder Shannon Goff's recent work.
|Shannon Goff, Miles to Empty, 2015, cut cardboard (all photos: PD Rearick; courtesy of the artist).|
Dualities permeate Goff's exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. At the most elemental level is the gallery space itself, which is bisected through the center by a wall creating two separate rooms housing two seemingly different bodies of work. The southern gallery is empty save for a full-size, highly detailed construction of a 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V fabricated entirely out of white cardboard. The northern gallery is filled with three simple unpainted wooden tables upon which are set 19 abstract ceramic sculptures, most of which are glazed in a riot of color.
|Shannon Goff, ceramic sculptures at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, installation view.|
In another apparent twist of logic, Adorno asserts that although art is completely embedded within the sociohistorical, the way in which that is disclosed is not so simple (alas, with Adorno nothing ever is) as to be conveyed denotatively, that is, in the form of illustration. Instead, Adorno asserts, the mimetic in art "wants to make facts eloquent by letting them speak for themselves." This is the dialectic of form and content, or as Adorno has it, "semblance" and "expression."
The flimsy cardboard structure of Miles to Empty reflects the ephemeral nature of technology in the creation of value under capitalism. As Marx writes in Volume I of Capital, value creation is connected to the amount of human labor involved in production. What he terms "absolute" surplus value is a result of labor directly applied to the transformation of matter into use. "Relative" surplus value is derived from technological innovation that multiplies labor power exponentially. Craft production is primarily absolute whereas mechanical production (and more importantly, reproduction) is in essence relative.
The moving assembly line pioneered under auto baron, and owner of the Lincoln Motor Company, Henry Ford is a prime example of relative surplus value. The technological innovation of bringing work to the worker via a system of conveyors enabled Ford to increase productivity by a factor of ten. As a result, he could cut car prices in half and at the same time double the wages of his workers, and still become one of the richest men in world history. The unprecedented largesse of the production process bearing his name, Fordism, also laid the foundation for the social and political system that drove mass consumption and the welfare state for most of the twentieth century, allowing, among other things, Detroit workers to enjoy a standard of living that was the envy of the world.
One of those workers was Goff's grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant who in 1979 purchased the Lincoln Continental Mark V upon which Miles to Empty is based as a reward for a lifetime of work under the Fordist regime. Ironically, at the very moment Goff's grandfather was enjoying the fruits of his labor from that regime, it was collapsing, taking the city of Detroit and its residents, down along with it. As Marx further notes with respect to the value of labor, relative surplus value provides only temporary productivity gains until competitors catch up. Capitalism must then revert to absolute surplus value in order to continue the ever-more accumulation of capital. In the 1970s in response to diminishing returns and the pressures of foreign competition, the Detroit auto industry reclaimed absolute surplus value in part by outsourcing production to the lower-cost labor pools of the southern United States and the maquiladoras of Mexico. The bone-white cardboard hulk of Miles to Empty is a manifestation of all that was once solid which has now melted into air with the failure of the Fordist utopia; it is a specter, a ghost of what was, haunting the social imaginary of the erstwhile Motor City.
|Miles to Empty, detail.|
|Treasure Island, ceramic.|
The notion of tour-de-force connects Goff's ceramic sculptures on view in the other gallery with Miles to Empty. In their prodigious exploration of the other of mechanical reproduction, the dialectical obverse of relative surplus value, the ceramic sculptures are equally virtuosic. Where the Mark V renders the universal stamping process of mechanical reproduction particular, the ceramic sculptures extend their particulars to a universal, in this case a narrative of assembly made palpable by the accretion of elements used in their manufacture. (The dialectic of universal and particular is another key element of Adorno's aesthetic theory.) Each ceramic sculpture conjures up associations in the signifying play between their form and their title, the denotation of the object and connotation of its referent. Treasure Island contains an orange "X" marking the spot on a green ceramic latticework that from a distance resembles a mountainscape, the whole in turn supported by an irregularly cut pedestal that when viewed from above is shaped like an island. Majesty is a web of purple pyramidal structures, which resolve at the top in another mountainscape, in this case "majestic mountains" from "America the Beautiful."
|Doyenne, ceramic, installation view.|