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The Artifact Labyrinth
— Dawn Chan, editor for Art Forum, The Atlantic, New York Times and New Yorker.
—Jacob Hashimoto, NY based artist drawing on his Japanese heritage to create three-dimensional environments.

(2019)

Philosophers have long grappled with traditional assumptions that an object qualifies as an “artifact” only if it was made by a human creator with purposeful intentions. This intuitive definition, descended as it has from Aristotelian frameworks, helps explain why a staircase, or a watch, or a tapestry qualifies as an artifact—but a rabbit, a stream, and a leaf do not. However, as French cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber noted in a 2007 essay, the definition of an artifact quickly grows complicated. He wrote:

“Consider an old path leading, say, from the village to the river. It […} was maintained by villagers going from the village to the river and back, treading where others have trodden before, thereby marking the path in the landscape and making it easier for others to follow. Individual villagers may never have had any intention other than that of going to, and returning from, the river, but they nevertheless created a path. Is such path an artifact?”

Analytic philosophers may be the sort who find unique satisfaction in laying down bright-line definitions and then adjusting them millimeter by millimeter; meanwhile, for anthropologists and scholars of material culture, the questions raised by Sperber’s scenario might highlight their own priorities. For them, the artifact’s definition is perhaps less important than the story it tells about people and history. Whether or not this village path is an artifact to the anthropologist, it is worthwhile of attention: as a record, a narrative.

As artists and curators, we naturally seek out the broadest, most omnivorous usage of the term “artifact,” avoiding both the philosopher’s tendency to consider an artifact in relation to its purpose-driven creator, and the anthropologist’s tendency to tie artifacts to the stories they whisper in fading voice. Those of us grappling with art-historical legacies—with the found object and the readymade—by now will be deeply unperturbed by contemporary art’s established abyss between the art object, on the one hand, and the act of intentional creation, on the other. After Dada, and the Surrealists, after Fluxus and trash art, anything exhibited, labeled, even just looked at in a white cube (or a public square, perhaps)—anything auctioned off, dusted off, pedestalized—is worthy of attention. Everything and nothing is an artifact: the purposeful creator of the object, has been supplanted by the artist as a professional gleaner, bricoleur, gadfly, wordsmith, and so on.

The title of Studio La Citta’s show, The Artifact Labyrinth, takes a view of the artifact that breathes life into the contemporary practices we know. We are entreated to consider the most expansive definition of the term, to see the “artifact” as a tangled case of conditions and materials, signs and stories—as the passages that, to Borges (in his poem titled Labyrinth), “curve furtively, forming secret circles at the terminus of years.”

The exhibition’s four featured artists—Dave Hardy, Dave Kennedy, Elizabeth Moran and Abbey Williams—all position their source material in relation to its changing surroundings. The narrative contents or material presence of their sculptures, photography, and video on display are simultaneously unfettered to and interconnected with the worlds in which these works originate, and the changing worlds in which they now persist.

Speaking about his work, Kennedy has said, “I remember growing up in spaces other people did not want to be. Returning to these memories … means attempting to reveal the marvelous that is often hidden in the less regarded aspects of life and extending the availability of alternate roles to the subjects, places and objects.”

Kennedy works with weird found objects, these artifacts of human effort, small fragments of purpose, determination, hope, or necessity—artifacts whose place in the world could nearly be reverse engineered through their idiosyncrasies. Kennedy documents these modest objects with a particularly low fidelity tool: the photocopy machine. Then, through taping and folding, he creates lo-fi clones freighted with new purpose. They are objects of celebrated importance, of fragile beauty; Kennedy’s methodical, quiet, practice persuades us these otherwise simple objects are worth consideration. Their existence is the focused language of our existence and we can see our own lives reflected in the essence of their lost meaning.

We may project our own existence into these artifacts, but they also commingle the lives and goals of multiple creators with multiple purposes. Some have messages, and some of them evoke past lives in a much less romantic setting than Studio La Citta: in the hands of a carpenter standing on a construction site, say.

Like Kennedy, Dave Hardy also finds objects in the world that are imbued with simple meaning. You’ll see part of a Chase Bank vestibule, an office chair from the 80’s, a swimming pool ladder, a component from an HVAC system.

Unlike Kennedy though, we can pretty easily trace these objects back to their origin; their utility is so pedestrian that they don’t call upon us to ruminate on their narratives. These are simple junky things from everyday life…no big deal. However, as this detritus is woven into sculpture, a tapestry of potential emerges from the subversion our assumptions: giant masses slumping against the wall… sliding down to rest their entire gravity on a brittle pane of glass. Impossible physics and casual compositions, the works themselves disarm us with their illogic, creating other possible, parallel universes of meaning and logic outside our lived experience.

In his work, there are the everyday materials, such as foam, cement, and glass, and like various Minimalist forebears, he says we cannot separate the works from their materials.

He uses materials in surprising ways that cause us to quietly question the nature of each sculpture’s construction. How do we approach sculptures like these, which act as the banal doorway into a parallel, and equally banal, universe?

Meanwhile, Abbey Williams’s videos seem to suggest that our banal universe does not just start and end in a landscape with objects: it can also lead to the footage of complicated and deeply personal lived experience.

Williams’s work is a collage of images and narratives all weaving and dodging around each other, building meaning upon meaning as the viewer absorbs the works. Here, previous works, shot over a number of years, come together to create a diary of past lives and purposes, a Venn diagram of her beliefs and intentions. Moments and experiences in life are smashed together and stacked upon each other, creating a whole that changes each of the individual videos’ meanings. She uses images, music, text messages, and video clips—untethering this media from the context of its creation to craft new narratives. But these images and sounds never quite escape the shadows of their histories. We still wonder about their origins; we try to unearth her hidden intentions as we see their meanings change and expand into traces of nostalgia, narrative, memory and politics. The artifacts that arrive with us are inexorably changed upon our departure from her work.

You could say that like Williams, Elizabeth Moran merges nostalgia, narrative, memory and politics. Both artists’ works obliquely relate to their own identities, but Moran wades through the labyrinth of written documentation to question the nature of written documentation itself. Her series looks at the job of fact-checking has declined and fake news propagates across the internet. Moran’s work becomes complicated by the fact that Time sought specifically to hire women for the work—a form of labor, that at the time was new and groundbreaking. Women were somehow seen as best-suited to be caretakers of historical record.

I think it makes sense that these images, taken from microfilm, are documentation of print artifacts that help to understand how our relationship with truth, editorializing, and even ‘fake news’ has changed since the early 20th century—and how it will continue to change as we move deeper into the 21st century and beyond. How has time created the artifact? Clearly, these pieces of writing began as tools of persuasion in service to a corporate mission. But over time, their curated, manipulative language has become an illustration of a different cultural landscape, a portrait of a seemingly simpler culture, divorced from our present experience of history. Are there answers to be found here, or just change? Are these texts artifacts from a constantly changing landscape of our historical narrative, only seen through the lens of our ever distorted revision of history?

In the end, there are probably no good answers to these kinds of questions. But asking questions whose answers are inevitably more questions is part of the labyrinth of human experience—a labyrinth at whose heart is the ineffable.

Installation shot

Dave Kennedy, installing his paper sculptures at Studio la Citta, Italy