Sue de Beer
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn
Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed
Erik van Lieshout
Stephen G. Rhodes
Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch
At first sight, Stephen G. Rhodes’s work seems to be too American to be understood by a European. Most of his works are obsessed with American history, poaching stories and traumas from the past. What is presumably easy to grasp for someone with the same cultural and historic background as he leaves me clueless—I have to stumble from hint to hint in what he lays before me: from the eighteenth-century costumes to the military music evoking the War of Independence, I gradually identify the points of reference that inform the story told in Instructions for a 16-Sided Barn: Your Shit Is In My Mouth.
In the end, however, it’s only an illusion that an American would be better able to understand the highly challenging work that Rhodes creates, as I learned from a review of the work by the New York Times critic Holland Cotter: “It’s great when someone gets ambitiously complicated and makes it work…” I bet Cotter, too, only understood half of what he was seeing in the exhibition.
But this observation does not keep me away from the work; rather, its multi-layered complexity makes me want to see it again and again, to understand it. Intuitively, I know that there is a lot to learn about it, and the more often I actually see the work, the more connections pop up in my mind. The good news is that all of the video works by Rhodes with which I am familiar are repetitive loops, often no longer than a few minutes. This makes things easier.
The only additional information I need in order to understand the setting is that the sixteen-sided barn, which is cited in the title and plays an important role in the piece itself, was famously invented by the first American president, George Washington, during his first presidency in the 1790s. One could say that it is something like the counter-monument to the official Washington Monument erected to honor his achievements as the founding father of the United States. So what does the sixteen-sided barn signify?
As Washington had grown up and lived in the agricultural state of Virginia, he spent a good deal of his life expanding his property and cultivating it, activities which led to his invention of new farming apparatus. The sixteen-sided barn was a structure he designed for more efficient, weather-independent, and hygienic indoor threshing that consisted of two floors. On the upper floor, horses were used to tramp the fresh wheat, while the ground floor was left empty and clean in order to gather the grain that fell through the gaps between the floorboards above. It took two years to build the barn with the labor of slaves, work which was to be rationalized and replaced by that of the horses, which were always supposed to do the threshing for the slaves in the first place. Why didn’t Washington build a round barn from the beginning?
Washington foresaw America’s potential to become the world’s granary, and thus his barn could be said to stand for his capitalist entrepreneurialism.
The fragmentary narrative in Rhodes’s work is quickly told: a group of masked, and hence faceless workers are watched over by a sadist supervisor who screams at them to “WORK!” They are constructing something that looks like the basic structure of a sixteen-sided barn. At one point, a drunk who is not participating in the work suggests that the slaves build an eight-sided barn instead. A fight about this results, and the workers/slaves abuse the drunk by covering his face and body with flour and shit—the shit is in his mouth. At this point, the film loop starts again.
Why do the workers/slaves side with their master and kill the only person to suggest that they break out of the (non-)logic of their production?
Today’s shift from a disciplinary work ethos to a self-determined and responsible one has obviously led to the internalization of the figure of the master, who is thus no longer the visible, easily recognizable representative of the law who has to be obeyed, and placed all the pressure to work inside ourselves. As everybody wants to belong to the group, no one takes action against the enslaver to stand alone.
That this pressure can be paralyzing is shown exemplarily in the cycle of works entitled Dualism (2006), a duality that reminds us a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and never finds an end. The dualists ceaselessly wait for the moment in which the one of them will take the first step, but neither takes it. They are already so exhausted that they can barely hold their pistols anymore. These works refer back to the Screen Tests (1963–68) of Andy Warhol. The difference is that Warhol wanted to catch the non-directional and non-active passage of time as a quality in itself, whereas Rhodes shows the tension created by passivity and the difficulty of taking action.
Nevertheless, as becomes very clear in Rhodes’s work, the only way to get back to self-determined labor is to make the mechanisms of its governance visible by acting them out.
Lives and works in Los Angeles
|2007||Recurrency, Guild & Greyshkul, New York|
|2007||Aspects, Forms, and Figures, Bellwether Gallery, New York|
|2006||Dualism #2, Art Rock at Rockefeller Center, New York|
|2005||LA Weekly Biennial, Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles |
Autonomy, Foxy Production, New York 2004
Faith, Champion Fine Art, Culver City, USA
Holland Cotter, “Stephen G. Rhodes—Recurrency,” in: The New York Times (January 26, 2007).
Holland Cotter, “Autonomy,” in: The New York Times (September 30, 2005).
Stephen G. Rhodes, “New Orleans Land, New Orleans World,” in: Bidoun, no. 7 (Spring 2006).