Five years ago I sculpted an ashtray. Sounds rather daft, doesn’t it? We all recall that every burnout or hippie in high school wanted to make one (and a bong) for their ceramics class, only to be foiled by the instructor who clearly couldn’t fathom the importance of functional sculpture to the American teenager.
But, I thought, what if I could construct a really good-looking ashtray? A simple one, that almost disappeared into its surroundings. What if I made cigarettes too, and ash. What about the ash?
My work in the exhibition Lifelike consists of 20 ashtrays (with trompe l’oeil cigarettes and cremation ashes) installed throughout the museum. I fashioned them as a way of connecting to my ancestors. Employing burnt incense to echo the rituals of religious Taoism without literally interpreting the form, the construction of the work was itself a ceremony. The ashtrays (made of acrylic, oil, tea, and walnut ink on wax and resin, with incense and ashes) represent the remnants of the rite.
Most of my work can be categorized as a sort of fictitious realism. Put another way, I use illusory art-making techniques to reflect a vision of the nature of reality, which is itself potentially illusory. This stance is tautological and fictitious (simultaneous/contradictory). What does this mean? Taoist philosopher Chuang Chou explains it this way:
“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
* * *
January 11, 1960. That was the year that Ruben Nusz died. I share the man’s name yet have never met him. He was my grandfather. When I look at pictures of the man, I try to understand him. To decipher what he was like. I don’t know too much. As a teen and as an adult, he chain-smoked cigarettes. There doesn’t exist a photograph of him without a smoke. Cigarettes killed him.
How do I get to know my grandfather? I do what all artists do: I make something. Something real. Art unites us with our fellow humans, in the present, the past. Living, lifeless. Rosalind Krauss describes a condition called the uncanny, which is prevalent in the Lifelike exhibition; it seems appropriate to share it here:
“The uncanny sensation stems from the recognition that these doubles are at one and the same time the extreme opposite of oneself and yet the same as oneself, which is to say both alive and dead.”
Art and death aren’t the only social amalgams. The shared experience of communal labor binds us as well. The ashtrays symbolize the excesses of work, of a work-a-holic, nine-to-five employee or laborer circa 1960. The cigarettes mark the passing of time; the ashtrays are like clocks.
We all know the scenes in old movies of doctors smoking cigarettes in their offices. When I installed the work I focused on the narrative potential of the sculptures, linking them, when possible, to workers throughout the Walker Art Center. What if the desk attendants were allowed to smoke? What about the curator and the director?
* * *
When I set out to make an ashtray, I didn’t want to construct a facsimile, I wanted to make a real ashtray. Only I used materials with which I was comfortable, or that served a symbolic purpose. There’s no stepping outside of life to observe it. Here’s what I mean (in three points):
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle: “Published by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, the uncertainty principle was a monumental discovery in the early development of quantum theory. It implies that it is impossible to simultaneously measure the present position while also determining the future motion of a particle, or of any system small enough to require quantum mechanical treatment.”
“In 1972 Gerhard Richter would remark that, during the 1960’s he had been less concerned with painting photographs than with using the methods of painting to produce actual photos.”
—Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting
When we look in the mirror or when we see ourselves in a photograph we don’t say “that’s a facsimile of me.” Even a two-year-old child will say, “That’s me.”
I’m uncomfortable with the notion that viewers might see the work and “think about reality differently.” Rather, I’m interested in either accepting facsimile as actual or embracing reality as fiction.
* * *
Nothing good happens after midnight/Everything good happens after midnight
That’s the title of the ashtray work. Late one night I stabbed myself in the hand with an X-ACTO knife while carving a sculpture. The emergency-room doctor said, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that nothing good happens after midnight?” I responded: “I thought that everything good happened after midnight.” He laughed.
Among Ash-heaps and Millionaires
That’s an alternate title for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald never used it so I stole it and attached it to a sculpture from 2009. Actually, I’d like to use that title for all of my work. The Great Gatsby is pretty good, too.