Come for the Eggs, Stay for the Sociopaths
by Tamara Fox
I had the unusual good fortune to see two exhibits in one excursion to Detroit: Fabergé: The Rise and Fall, at the Detroit Institute of Art, and Neither Here Nor There, a retrospective exhibition of the photographer Alec Soth at the Cranbrook Art Museum. Turning-off the expressway onto Woodward Avenue was a vignette prescient of the day’s expedition; to the right was a well-groomed church complex with a crisp new curb and sidewalk, on the left was a crumbling sidewalk atop of which was an empty liquor bottle and very large piece of accident detritus.
In addition to their geographic proximity, both exhibitions are loosely connected to concepts of utopia. Coined in the 16th century to describe a place in which everything is perfect, the word utopia literally means ‘no place.’
Whereas I had been looking forward to the Fabergé exhibition for months, the trip to the Cranbrook Art Museum was a last minute decision, involving only confirmation of the address and hours. Perhaps it was the overzealous anticipation of the former, or the absence of expectations regarding the latter, that colored my perception of both. I was really moved by the Soth retrospective, and mildly disappointed with the Fabergé exhibition.
Visitors to the Fabergé exhibit may be surprised to discover that of the two-hundred objects on display at the DIA, only five are Imperial eggs. The majority of the Lilly Pratt collection (on loan from the Virginia Museum of Art), consists of items more commonly produced by the Fabergé workshops: tableware, bonbonnieres, cigarette boxes, enameled picture frames, figurines carved from semi-precious stone, and a lot of parasol handles. The lighting of the galleries seems to diminish in direct proportion to the rarity or value of the pieces on display, and there were frustrating “traffic flow issues” at those objects featured in the audio guide. If you wish to optimize your experience, I suggest that you bring reading spectacles and attend on a weekday, when there are fewer patrons. If you love jewelry and high craft (or parasol handles), the exhibition merits a trip to Detroit.
When imperial Russia was overturned by communism, the result was that one dysfunctional hegemony was displaced another. The jeweled eggs produced by the House of Fabergé, became icons for all that was wrong with Imperial Russia. Like Imelda Marco’s shoes, or Marie Antoinette’s Hameau at Versailles, the contrast of these indulgences with the reality of the contemporaneous populace, was so perverse as to be absurd. However, these bejeweled baubles so prized by the aristocracy and bourgeoise of Europe, are artifacts of a story that is surprisingly relevant to capitalist America.
The history of the Fabergé family is similar to that of many American families; having fled Europe in response to the religious persecution of Huguenots, through hard work and a keen entrepreneurial sensibility, the family eventually established an internationally recognized atelier. Gustav Faberge, patriarch of the House of Fabergé, introduced the accent egu to the family name, in response to the Frankophilia of 19th century St. Petersburg society. Peter Carl Fabergé’s training not only included apprenticeships to several fine goldsmiths, but the study of museum collections throughout Europe. One of the most radical changes he implemented was to shift perception of value onto the quality of craftsmanship and design, instead of the quantity of valuable materials employed. Although the origin of the first imperial egg is uncertain, one story is that Carl Fabergé made the first on speculation, presenting it to the Czar gratis. In this scenario, he correctly anticipated that if the gift pleased the royal family, that the House of Fabergé stood to sell a lot of, well, parasol handles, for example. Much like runway fashions sell prêt a porter clothing, the objective was to create a high-profile presence that would assure the sale of more conventional luxuries.
Modern history has witnessed many attempts to employ art and design to improve social welfare. The Arts and Crafts Movement, de Stijl, Constructivism, and Bauhaus, all fell short of these aspirations. There is nonetheless something inspiring about the fact that utopian ideology is re-visited, even if never successfully implemented. Cranbrook owes something to these movements, particularly Bauhaus, which recognized that thoughtful design could and should, be applied to industrially produced products.
American pragmatism tempered antagonism towards industry, which had been an impediment to modern European design. America’s pioneering spirit embraced individuality, revolution, and innovation. This ethos supported capitalism and the industrial barons who would establish such institutions as the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Cranbrook complex. At one end of the spectrum is the confident entrepreneur, at the other end are the subjects of Alec Soth’s Broken Manual, men living in isolation on the periphery of conventional society.
The first time I saw the work of Alec Soth was in 2008, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Given the number of extraordinary museum collections in such close proximity, I was not elated at the prospect of viewing an exhibition that featured photographs of aesthetically challenged Minnesotans and ice fishing houses. I had a similar twinge upon entering the Cranbrook Art Museum, and realizing the featured exhibition was From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, but this time I was captivated by his photographs, particularly the more recent Broken Manual series produced over the course of four years starting in 2006.
The work of Alec Soth, it is reminiscent of the work of Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano. All three artists chronicle elements of society that are either concealed, or those we would rather not see. Serrano’s portraits are informed by 17th century painting, Goldin’s by photojournalism; Soth is situated between these two traditions. Serrano’s portrait subjects including suicide victims, the homeless, or Klansmen, possess kind of dignity, which intuitively we would deny them. Soth, Goldin and Serrano interject themselves into the cultural element that they document, but Serrano’s sensual tenebrism romanticizes the subjects, and Goldin’s subjects often keep us at arm’s length. Soth is exceptional in his ability to successfully chronicle his subjects in a manner that is neither patronizing nor sentimentalizing. In this respect, Soth is like an anthropologist securing the trust of these individuals in order to document them, while withholding any kind of judgment.
Unlike his earlier series (Sleeping by the Mississippi, NIAGRA, Paris/Minnesota), Broken Manual suggests religious iconography and medieval or Renaissance painting. In Number 22: S. Alabama, a bearded man stands behind a row of scraggly tomato plants, like St. Jerome in the wilderness. Number 8 depicts a man in hooded robe, dwarfed by an autumnal forest setting like Casper David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea. The sleeping portrait of Number 3 resembles the head of St. John the Baptist. Roman The Nocturnal Hermit is a barely discernable black and white portrait that suggests the image of Christ on Veronica’s veil. Numbers 4, 5, and 6 form a triptych consisting of a portrait, flanked by a woodland scene (presumably where the subject resides), and a stack of VHS tapes with such titles as, Y2K I and II, Frontline: Waco, Biowar, Immanent Military Takeover, Avoiding Armageddon.
There is sparse didactic information about the images, and the titles are frequently numbers, which offer little in the way of descriptors. The viewer attempts to fill-in the gaps between the images, and construct a narrative that will not coalesce. Some elements like the afore-mentioned VHS titles, or the swastika tattoo on Number 23 (posted above), suggest that the subjects are sociopaths or fugitives of the law. At the very least one admires their resourcefulness, but often there is genuine empathy for the subjects like the jumpsuit-clad man in Number 12: The Arkansas Cajun’s backup bunker, who affectionately caresses a cat.
Soth’s Manual subjects represent a cultural tradition that is not unique: hermit, refugee, fugitive, madman, ascetic, superhero, flâneur. The archetype resonates with our preoccupation with alienation, and has numerous literary and cinematic incarnations–Black Stallion, Robinson Caruso, Cast Away, Tarzan, Jungle Book, Swiss Family Robinson, The Life of Pi. The tourism industry as well, effectively capitalizes upon the fantasy of a respite from civilization.
There is an element of admiration for those who can successfully live outside or at the fringes. Particularly when admiring their resourcefulness, one can fall into the Gilligan’s Island dialectic, “If these people are so intelligent and resourceful, why can’t they just build a damned boat and get off the island?” or in this case, “Why can’t these people just develop coping strategies like the rest of us?” Is retreat from society an act of heroism, a necessary means to support one’s authentic self, or escapism? In short, do they propose a utopian existence, or are they the casualties of a dystopian society?
Michel Foucault offers two examples that give some context for Soth’s Broken Manual subjects. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault presents the evolution of our perception of madness from that of acceptance, to marginalization and confinement. Instead of an alternative form of reasoning, madness became the absence of reason. The proponents of unconventional reasoning were dehumanized, which facilitated institutionalization and subjugation. Broken Manual documents a utopia of the subaltern, or heterotopia as iterated in, “Of Other Spaces” (1967). Heterotopias are liminal places, both mythical and real; while they have always existed, their function shifts in relation to our culture. Consider as an example Soth’s Number 9, in which the whitewashed corner of a cave is fashioned into a closet by the insertion of a rod with twelve empty hangers, as if the occupant at some point, anticipated visitors. Loners forever preoccupied with ‘others’, anchorites without religion, ascetics without self-discipline, egomaniacs with inferiority complexes, one can easily imagine the subjects of Broken Manual as motley ambassadors to heteroropia.
Fabergé: The Rise and Fall, is on view at Detroit Institute of Art, through January 21, 2013
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, can be seen at the Cranbrook Art Museum, through March 30, 2013.