It’s Alive! Attended pre-opening tour of the Tobacco Project at the Aldrich Museum (Ridgefield CT) lead by Richard Klein and was unprepared for the impact of 1st Class, conceived by the renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing, and still in process of assembly when I saw it.
You simply have to enter the second story gallery where it resides and the piece begins to act on you. First of all, the fragrance! How often do we experience this with a piece of art? It’s a beguiling scent, and also one that’s associated with a societal enemy: tobacco. It draws us in with its fragrance. And we begin to connect with the centuries old seductive power of tobacco, the world’s first global commodity.
As an onlooker you’re an active part in the creation of the piece because 1st Class morphs radically and dramatically as you move alongside it. Like a flip book ,the coloration of the piece changes slowly as you move around it, from white and black to the russet brown, black and white we associate with a tiger. Like the rug it references, 1st Class has a tactile depth to it from the varying heights of cigarettes. Oh yes, the cigarettes…Did I mention that the piece is made from 400, 000 cigarettes?
The surface recalls digitally mechanized die cutting. As its topography slowly changes beneath you it’s easy to think of landscape viewed from a plane or the surface of the ocean peaking and rolling toward you. Yet its surface undulation wasn’t planned. It occurred fortuitously in the hand fabrication process, as cigarettes were placed and glued by hand into smaller rugs by assistants who then stitched smaller sections into the larger piece.
Smaller work forms the rest of the exhibit, along with associated ephemera, personal history, items associated with tobacco use. The show’s prospectus by Klein helps us to understand what we’re looking at, and adds to our enjoyment. The artist’s forebears were farmers; we hear about his empathetic visit to the tobacco farmers in Virginia. For CT residents it’s a revelation to learn about Martin Luther Kings’ visit as a youth to Simsbury where he worked in the tobacco fields one summer. We hear about the death of the artist father who died of lung cancer caused by tobacco. Such addendum grounds the gigantic, seemingly pulsating piece of art in some linear sequence of development. The inherent visual allure of the work far outstrips its associated ephemera in side galleries. However we are motivated to learn more by the piece itself.
The vogue for back story in exhibitions often seems used to validate a work of art. As if without it, the piece alone might be too arcane, impenetrable or even yes, boring for the viewer to grasp, enjoy or fathom. “Blah” art pieces are often enhanced/energized by a dramatic back story, as though someone is telling you a fabulous tale that embellishes your immediate viewing experience. However in this case, the major work dominates your senses as it should. It doesn’t require assistance; it simply makes you want more information. Which you’ll find plentiful around this installation.
But in 1st Class, there’s an interesting back, back story. So back it didn’t get out front in any of the accompanying text. A vibe that was clear at least to me, because we could see the fabrication process in front of us. As the tour watched the assembly of the piece precede, that slave labor/colonialist/ tobacco pickin’/ overseer/ elitist vibe was coming through, one that is obviously related to the American history of tobacco. When you watch all the lowly workers (assistants) slaving (happily and devotedly) over the art work, breathing in the tobacco for hours while they glued 400,000 cigarettes in place, scrunched up on the floor, for an absent and powerful artist…the metaphor is there.
The semi permeable walls of lofty arts institutions may not want you to go there. They are protective. But think about the money, $400,000 alone expended on cigarettes, the cost of assistants crawling around the floor to put it together, shipping, documentation and installation, etc. And this is the third time the work has been created from almost scratch. You may even think of the 1% of artists and institutions, galleries, who can afford to put this money into such a piece. Of course the cost of large installations of public art during financial downturns has provoked controversy in previous times.
Ellsworth Kelly, when asked in a recent interview in the NYT about having teams work to create his artwork a la Jeff Koon’s and Damien Hierst, (and as we see here Bing) referred to himself as “old fashioned”. Though he’s on supplemental oxygen and 88 years old he said he didn’t feel right about his art unless he made it himself. Kelly is an art maker, not a conceptual artist, and there’s the rub. Clearly, 1st Class could not be made by one person. Charlton Heston (oops! Michelangelo), contrary to popular Hollywood films, did not paint the Sistine Chapel all by himself. Rubens kind of stayed off the scaffolding and left the lion’s share of large paintings “by Rubens” to be executed by assistants, from concepts and compositional drawings. However, certain artists are thinking along these lines: “I’m thinking of a piece that will cost a fortune and other people will physically do the housework of making it”. So what do you, the viewer make of this?
Go meet the rug. See what you think. See if you want to touch, walk on, feel the surface (there are guards who will prevent this!), and if you enjoy the experience of having the image alter because you have walked alongside it. Like a big living creature. See what you’re left with, all the sensations, associations and connections.
And yes, beware, it made me want to smoke…