When Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened its doors on April 8, 2001, their first visitors were treated to a survey of American art and objects, and an exhibition of European painting. As gallery-goers wandered to the back of the downstair’s galleries, they discovered a separate space that the center’s insiders still call “CAP.” Formally known as the Bernice and Joel Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, it was an important place 15 years ago during that spring in Nashville. While the center’s main spaces offered impressive displays of notable works and objects and decorative items, they also seemed cautiously curated to fulfill expectations, neither challenging nor offending any possible audiences. But in the CAP space, it was clear that the Frist’s curators wanted to show work that would put viewers on notice regarding the center’s commitment to contemporary art that challenges. To make sure that message was loud and clear, they called Michael Aurbach.
Recently, Aurbach announced that he’s retiring from 30 years of teaching at Vanderbilt University. The school’s Fine Arts Gallery is currently hosting the small retrospective “Last Laugh,” which features three works from the artist’s “Secrecy Series” (though not on view in “Last Laugh,” his The Administrator, which was on view at the 2001 Frist showing, is from the same series). The small selection is due to the scale of Aurbach’s room-sized installations, which are often constructed from gleaming sheets of galvanized steel, held together with meticulous patterns of screw heads, and theatrically lit like stage sets bereft of actors, but loaded with drama and humor. The “Secrecy Series” addresses themes of surveillance, bureaucratic tyranny, and administrative fascism within academia, government, corporations, or any organization that prizes control above the integrity and dignity of individual people. Plus, they’re hilarious.
Cassandra references the ancient mythical whistleblower who warned her father, the King of Troy, about a certain gift horse. In Aurbach’s piece, Cassandra is an odd, anthropomorphized jumble – she has an old fashioned bull horn for a body and a coach’s whistle for a head. “She” is leaning backwards under the imposing gaze of what looks like a small skyscraper with a single camera for an eye – an institutional edifice recast as a cyclops. The whole drama plays out on a gray-checkered floor, evoking the chess game of administrative maneuvering as well as the black-and-white floors of Masonic Lodges.
Administrative Spectacle references ancient Rome instead of ancient Greece, pointing at the folly of administrative one-upmanships. This is one of those Aurbachian constructions that looks like a small room delineated by steel railing. In this case, it’s a men’s restroom. The space includes three black urinals, each one positioned higher than the last. There is a desk lamp with an extendable arm and an illuminated magnifying lens at the entrance because, at this pissing contest, you can bet that size matters. Above the exit, on the back of the installation, presumably missed by lots of viewers, there’s a sign that reads “ADMINISTRATUS SPECTACULUM,” like a marquee announcing a new movie or, given the Latin, a chariot race or a gladiator fight. It seems an odd detail, but perhaps Aurbach is trying to tell us that the results of this spectacle are like something else that comes out of the back end in a restroom?
Administrative Trial and Error looks at the way in which administrators might apply their control over aspects of an organization in attempts to control their fellow colleagues. The piece looks like a kind of fucked-up board room with a large table surrounded by chairs, but the longer you look, the more you see that this is definitely the meeting you should choose to skip: the table is a massive mousetrap; there are bottles dangling above the chairs to dispense some unknown serum to the attendee; the whole space is surrounded by spear-tipped fencing; a bishop’s mitre sits at one end of the table; the floor is another checked surface, yet there’s also an actual chessboard with both sides only populated by pawns; and the Roman fasces symbol – an axe tied into a bundle of sticks – can be seen behind the head of the table. The fasces represented imperial power in Rome, served as the origin of the name of the National Fascist Party in Italy, and, in the U.S., two fasces can be seen today flanking the Speaker’s podium in the House of Representatives. Trial and error…
Aurbach’s work is formally beautiful and painstakingly assembled – gleaming surfaces and hard-clean edges evoke the kind of perfect façade that all organizations might aim to project. Perfectionists are eventually undone by their built-in need for control, and Aurbach builds-in little hand grenades of humor and satirical sabotage into his installations, creating just enough subversive heat to throw some light on the social costs of human institutions that value the control and order of systems over the people those systems were created to serve.
“Last Laugh” continues through March 3 at Vanderbilt University’s Fine Arts Gallery.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.