“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” — Italo Calvino
ACCORDING TO ARTIST Michael Ashkin, the manmade landscape always contains an element of longing: ‘Everyplace implies its elsewhere, with some trajectory, latent or not, toward another place, time, or condition.’ Within that longing is the melancholy sense of enigma, of an imagined horizon that can never be permeated, much less known, by the individual. As writer Italo Calvino suggested, you must leave the city to even be able to “see” it; inside its walls, its form is hidden and mysterious.
On view through July, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art presents Michael Ashkin, an exhibition which marks the artist’s first solo show at a museum. Curated by Andrea Inselmann, the three-room show includes sculpture, photography, video and poetry, representing the sphere of practices which encompass Ashkin’s artistic career.
The logic of urban spatial organization, utopian ideas, and the desert are recurring themes for Ashkin, who uses them to explore the post-industrial landscape as a site for utopian promise. His installation, Untitled (where each new sunrise promises only the continuation of yesterday) (2008-10) consists of a large-scaled miniature model of a desert settlement that fills the entire floor of the gallery. Based on abstractions from aerial photos and reminiscent of surveillance, video games, and warfare, the miniatures, heightened by the monochrome recycled cardboard, lack a specific identity in space or time.
Limited access into the work means the viewer is left to gaze from the outside edge toward a distant settlement located at the opposite end of the piece, suggesting a psychologically charged landscape infused with a feeling of history and of time, though it is a time that will never be fully grasped.
Accompanying two miniature scale models from the 1990s depicting marginalized landscapes such as mines, oil fields, and industrial wastelands, is his most recent project, Wall (Western Sahara) (2010), a wall-mounted frieze-like structure based off of aerial abstractions of images taken from Google Earth of the Moroccan Wall. Looking down at the scene from above, as if viewing from a helicopter, the viewer experiences a heightened feeling of alienation and distance from the reality at hand, a quality which is reinforced through the presence of a fragment of the original 865-foot wall. In the video Here (2009), a gallery installation, the grainy, flickering image of an empty darkened room is juxtaposed with a voiceover by the artist who recites a poem about the desert. Filmed at a decommissioned military depot in upstate New York, Here invokes the intense mental space wrought by life in the desert while alluding to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
An assistant professor and director of graduate studies in Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning’s Department of Art, Ashkin’s work has been widely exhibited, including in Documenta 11 in 2002 and the Whitney Biennial in 1997, as well as a recent solo show at Secession in Vienna and the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina. In 2009, Ashkin received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. This year, his work will be included in shows in Stuttgart, Valencia, and Bludenz.
In the exhibition catalogue for the Secession show, Ashkin writes of his fascination with the New Jersey Meadowlands—the lowlands which occupy either side of the Hackensack River, and the site for extensive landfills and decades of environmental abuse. Or, as Ashkin phrases it: ‘all the dirty laundry of our way of life is there, a complete overhaul of the natural ecology’ —creating an unmistakable reference to the late Robert Smithson, who found inspiration in the quarries and dumps peppering the landscape around his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, which borders the Meadowlands. In his 1967 essay, ‘The Monuments of Passaic,’ Smithson envisions the factories, bridges, dredging derricks and drainpipes as contemporary monuments in an entropic narrative of a self-destroying world, which he viewed in opposition to the great pyramids and other architectural wonders which were constructed to honor the progress of civilization.
Ashkin’s work often takes a more point-blank approach to social, political or environmental concerns. He confronts issues of urban decay and social neglect in the photographic series (Long Branch) (2002-10) with ten digital prints that offer glimpses of a New Jersey beach neighborhood. Once a flourishing seaside resort that fell into decline in the 1920s, the area has subsequently become entangled in eminent-domain issues for more than a decade. The multiple points of view and layers of information surrounding the conflict are further represented in a printed piece which contains the photographs along with quotes from real estate brochures and newspaper clippings. The series does not offer any singular or stable viewing position, and writings by the artist present yet another perspective. Likewise, the video Centralia (2009), which is projected onto the façade of the Museum, centers around a Pennsylvania mining town where coal deposits have been burning since 1962. This enviornmental catastrophe could remind the viewer of the current BP oil spew, a major enviornmental catastrophe that roils on with no end in sight.
Collectively, the clearly conceptualized spatial articulations suggest a multi-dimensional contemplative environment surfacing general themes such as human environments, art and perception, history, and mythology. Ashkin extends his vision to subjects that are ancient and contemporary, natural and manmade, crafting a powerful metaphor for what it means to live in our globalized era.
The artist texts in the show are available on www.michaelashkin.com.