Joel Ross

at the Chicago Project Room, through October 26

By Jim Dorling

The Chicago Project Room is a new gallery that seeks to address a need even the so-called alternative spaces in Chicago don’t. Michael Hall felt that, with the recent closing of MWMWM, West Chicago Avenue needed a space that would not function like a typical gallery–as a forum for an established stable of artists–but as a testing ground for ideas: every month he’ll turn the space over to a new artist with a strong idea for the entire room. The first exhibit is an installation by Joel Ross, Capacity.

Ross has completely covered the floor of the gallery with low plywood boxes of various sizes and shapes: only an area large enough for the front door to swing open remains bare. Each of the 180 boxes has a person’s name printed on it, because each has been tailor-made to contain the head, torso, arm, or leg of 30 of the artist’s friends and relatives. All of the boxes for the torsos are in the front of the space, then come the ones for the arms, the heads, and finally the legs at the rear. At the opening, people walked all over the boxes, which form an uneven but serviceable floor.

Formally the work resembles the minimalist sculpture of Carl Andre, who was covering gallery floors with wooden blocks and metal plates back in the 70s. But Andre and his peers were focused on formal issues, to the exclusion of any discussion of content; there was certainly no discussion of his works containing human remains. In the early 80s Andre was acquitted of murdering his wife after she plunged from a window, though her final condition evokes interesting connections to his work. On a similar note, Richard Serra, a major minimalist, has had at least one workman accidentally crushed to death while installing his massive Kor-10 steel-plate structures. So Ross’s suggestion that what underlies the formal structures of minimalist sculpture is dismembered human bodies starts to sound less unfounded and scurrilous than one may have at first imagined. Following this line of reasoning, a revisionist historian might claim that the true father of minimalist sculpture was not Constantin Brancusi (the orthodox choice) but the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, who murders and dismembers an old man and hides his remains under the floorboards. His work completed, he has an opening and invites the police to come in, sit down, and chat in chairs placed immediately over the old man’s remains.

Given the implied content of Capacity, it’s easy to imagine the show culminating in a scene quite like the resolution of Poe’s narrative–the door bursts open and authorities bearing warrants pry the top off one of the boxes, revealing a hideous trophy. The raving artist is hauled away in chains, the voice-over moralizes about his having crossed the line from simulation to murder. Gallerygoers who find themselves more intrigued than repulsed by this work can’t help but feel a faint disappointment, knowing that such a resolution is highly unlikely. We may go so far as to consider this a shortcoming of the work, regarding it as nothing more than a shell game designed to send a chill up our spines through willful deception. Perhaps what separates major minimalists from an upstart like Ross is that they’ve seen death while he’s only talked about it.

Yet a cop did put his finger on the most crucial question raised by Capacity. Setting up the show, Ross and some friends were carrying the boxes from a van into the gallery around 9:30 at night. A squad car patrolling Chicago Avenue stopped and the officer asked, What’s in the boxes? After a moment’s hesitation Ross answered, Nothing. This answer seemed to satisfy the officer and he moved on. Anecdotes like this are usually cited to demonstrate that avant-garde art illuminates the great cultural gulf dividing the educated elite from the average Joe. But in this case the opposite was true–the question “What’s in the boxes?” unites layperson and art aficionado. The modern civilized mind, whatever its pedigree, has a legalistic, scientific bent that turns an inquisitorial eye toward such suspicious-looking objects and thinks that it’s about time it got some answers. What is in these boxes? Is this your idea of a joke? What have you done with the bodies? Who is responsible?

Yet the issues of identity and culpability that inform the civilized mind would never have troubled those in “less civilized” societies. According to anthropologist Maurice Bloch in Prey Into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience, every member of the clan or descent group in many Asian and African oral cultures underwent an initiation, which for them was the literal death of the body. After this “death” the body was transported to the underworld, where it was dismembered and devoured by spirits. These acts were not considered merely hypothetical or symbolic, yet they never aroused Sam Spade-like suspicions. No one thought it odd that after such an ordeal the person should return to his daily routine. Moreover it was widely accepted in such cultures that during initiation the bones were removed and replaced with new ones often thought to belong to their ancestors. This is an entirely different mind-set than our own, one unconcerned with locating bodies, placing blame, or defining the individual. Because some of a person’s bones were exchanged for new ones, the initiated body actually existed in two places at once–an unthinkable condition to a society rooted in laws that demand the presentation of a unique and singular body for judgment (the writ of habeas corpus).

The ambiguous Capacity subverts the modern legalistic mind because the people actually present at the opening were treading across boxes purportedly containing their own trunks, arms, heads, and legs. Far from being a morbid case of serial-killer envy, Capacity is a metaphor for the workings of the “primitive” mind. The crucial problem for oral cultures is forming a permanent totality out of bodies that are not permanent, not by trying to defeat mortality but by succumbing to it prematurely and then incorporating it into the culture. In order to effectively play this shell game with death, primitive society had to revoke the potential for individuality. Though their bodies were reassembled after their “deaths” so that they could carry on with their lives, the reality of the bones in the underworld always superseded the weaker reality of the visible world.

A member of an oral society would understand the contradictions of Capacity more than modern observers. They would say that both the body attending the opening and the body dismembered and scattered in various boxes underfoot are real, but that the body fitted into the jigsaw puzzle underfoot is more real than the one walking around. At this point they might invoke Plato’s allegory of the cave to help explain how the visible world is the mere shadow of a more profound reality.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Capacity” by Joel Ross – photo by James Prinz.