Burdens, 2002

This was the final installation/performance that I did surrounding cabinets and furniture in spring of 2002. Due to the size and lack of support the shelves of the bookshelf sagged quite a bit. The entire bookshelf was suspended by hidden brackets making it appear to be levitating one inch off the floor as it was being pushed down by gravity. More information below:

In 1999, I began my first body of art work which examined my employment and research as a cabinetmaker in small furniture factories. In these projects I would design and build various pieces of furniture that would function as props for my performances or as items that viewers would interact with as part of immersive installations. While I was invested in this cabinet making series, my employment and research as a busboy slowly started to infiltrate the projects. I began to either perform or interact with people postured as a service person, busboy, or attendant. I was usually a silent, sculptural element in those installations, interventions, or performances whose job was to perform a task. I was never the “star” of the show, instead my body served a purpose to be used in service of the overall experience.

This process of self-objectification became intriguing to me after artist and educator Stephnie Ellis introduced me to some scholarship written about the early pioneering photographic work of Maxime DuCamp and the problematic objectification of his assistant, Hadji-Ishmael.  An article by Julia Ballerini describes how DuCamp used Haji-Ishmael to give a sense of scale and proportion to his photographs of ancient Egyptian sites of historical significance. Ballerini goes on to describe how the consequences of France’s–and many other countries–colonization efforts, became literally embodied through the diminutive and dismissive representation of Hadji-Ishmeal in the photographs as he was depicted as little more than a yard-stick by which to measure architecture. He was an object rather than a subject in the photographs.

These photos were meant to be “descriptive” so the upper class of French society could feel like they were expanding their knowledge of a context that they didn’t have direct access to. For them, “…the ability to visualize almost becomes synonymous with understanding.” However, despite DuCamp’s intentions to be “descriptive,” his photos instead serve as warning signs and a perfect–albeit tragic–example of how an artist can use a person as a sculptural object in a photograph and essentially erase any agency and identity that they might have. It took over one hundred years, but people eventually started to ask, “Who is that person in the photos?”  Although we might never know much about the life of Hadji-Ishmeal, the importance and symbolic nature of his presence will outlast any formal qualities of Du Camp’s photos.

I became horrified but also fascinated by the blindness of DuCamp’s casual use of a person’s body as an object to be manipulated within the frame of the photograph and began to wonder what the photos would have been like if DuCamp had used his own body in the photos instead of his assistant. Would this have just led to problematic metaphors about a colonizer “inserting” himself into a context that was not his own? I was not sure, but I thought the photos were complex on many levels and found myself thinking about them often. It was from my reflections on the problems of this work that the idea of objectifying myself first crept into my head.

In my project, Burdens (2002), I constructed a giant bookcase made with unsupported shelves. The whole structure sagged due to the force of gravity; however it had one straight bottom shelf and was suspended by hidden brackets to give the appearance that it was levitating one inch off of the ground while being forced down from above (see detail photo below). My intention was to stand next to the sculpture and crouch inside of it to mimic the body of Hadji-Ishmael and to serve as my own self-objectified yardstick. The crouching action was meant to be a durational performance; however, at the time, my back was injured and I was only capable of doing the action for the photograph. To me, the bookcase metaphorically represented the unbearable weight that knowledge, history, and the need to “visualize and understand” exerted, and then in turn, deformed the structures that were attempting to frame, support, and contextualize them. Even in 2002, I couldn’t help but wonder if these systems were on the verge of collapse. Over the past twenty years, I would go on to explore the idea of self-objection in many of art projects.

Burdens, 04/02 | 2002 | Cabinet Maker