Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’ This quote, and Thoreau’s subsequent discussion about visitors to his home in his book, Walden, serve as the premise for this group exhibition curated by Mari Spirito. Unfortunately the exhibition lacks the vanguard intellectual vigour and courage that one associates with the American maverick.
Thoreau’s ideas are perhaps more relevant today than at any previous point in history. Governments in the occident take progressively more liberties with the powers with which they have been entrusted, and the societies to which they belong behave benignly in response to injustices that they are all too aware of having been perpetrated. In July of 1845 Thoreau was incarcerated for refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the Mexican/American war, and slavery. In response to this experience he wrote ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ in 1849.
Walden is an account of his retreat from society in order to view that society more objectively. In the chapter entitled ‘Where I lived, and what I lived for’ he says: ‘The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast.’
Three for Society exhibits these same signs of decay and decadence. The best of the work is perhaps the most literal; Collier Schorr’s photograph of a make-do-and-mend chair in a ubiquitous shabby loft is satisfyingly austere, set up in contrast with the empty dissipation of Rebecca E Chamberlain’s four-panelled ink on paper drawing of a 1930s interior, ‘Interior Arrangement Screen’, 2007. Hans-Peter Feldmann’s slick photograph of a redder-than-red rose ‘Blumenbild #11/170’, 2006, and Florian Maier-Aichen’s photograph, ‘Mt Williamson’, 2005, depicting the unnatural grid of a contemporary city at night, illustrate how unnatural our nature has become. Anne Chu’s, ‘Castle/2’, 2006, a dense foam castle, and Agathe Snow’s sculptural amalgamations of natural and cultural detritus, ‘Salt Period’, 2007, and ‘S + M (Salt and Mulch)’, 2007, continue the thematic play of interiors and exteriors, the natural and the cultural. While Robert Boyd’s ‘Heaven’s little helper’, 2005, a video montage of violent cults and genocide accompanied by Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime’ is simply, and offensively, shallow.
Three for Society illustrates Thoreau but misses the point of the premise. It is a lazy 21st century reading of Thoreau: a googled paragraph rather than a considered understanding. Their undoing is not the absence of politics; political art is difficult, only Hans Haacke seems to blend the politic and aesthetic successfully. What’s missing is the elevation of purpose, the worthy aim, that Thoreau prescribes, without which art, political or not, fails.
Victoria Miguel is a writer based in New York