The Still Life: Abigail Lucien at Seed Space
I’ve encountered Abigail Lucien’s work on a number of occasions under the auspices of larger group exhibitions such the Atlanta Biennial held at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. These stagings have been fairly ineffectual, tending toward wares-display, and lacking much critical bite. Drupe, an exhibition by Lucien at Seed Space in Nashville, TN, dispatched with those expectations. This exhibition, being a solo effort, was not an assemblage of works unfamiliar to one another; Lucien’s presentation was a creaturely organism drawing on multiple sources- fruits and fans, substrates and sounds- to exist, to subsist. Drupe requires a certain sensitivity to habitation amongst the grouping of sculptural actors. Each element amplifies the sense of enclosure, of isolation, and witnessing of time’s essence as they variously decay, disperse, and disclose. The space, equally critical to the work’s efficacy, is small, rendering time essential and spatial. Seed Space is cast back in a corner, at the end of a series of hallways, foreign much like the actual and metaphorical island of Lucien’s video, Desert Islands (2017). This remoteness yields a secretive quality, a confidentiality, a silence, requiring intimacy, and an attempt at solitary embodied engagement.
But our time, the present, is dominated by fragmentation, hybridity, interdependence, and enmeshment. Libertarians will tell you otherwise but we are most certainly bound, to one another, to every tree, rock, cereal box, and pelican out there. Despite the internal engines that animate, I is always a we, Rosi Braidotti’s “+1”. In the compositional fabric of the art installation, objects are contingent, they are inscribed with memories, and other contexts are never far from their surfaces. These orbits of meaning shape-shift and are just as itinerant as the bodies, objects, images, and sounds themselves.
Lucien’s work is unstable and has a dependency problem- well, a problem only as it’s pathologized by most looking to assign value to and aggrandize individuation, singularity, and self-declaration. Therein lies the profundity of Lucien’s work, the collaborative, networked, enmeshing of presences made dramatic, ie, theatrical by how isolated each element renders the viewer. The viewer ultimately participates as a one, not a one plus one, but as only a you or a me, not a them. This is only possible as a result of the many that overshadow the few, i.e., the pitting of objectivity against subjectivity and the magnification of collectivity through a structured emphasis on the one. In Drupe, the one and the many, the private and the public, the voyeur and the witness, the looked at and the looker collide.
Lucien’s objects are bathed in gaze, need eyes to acknowledge how their surfaces behave, and ally with all senses to witness smells emanating, each form and surface a sensual accelerant. What do you or we feel when we look; the haptic, and how do these sensations leap from the surfaces themselves, lively and eager? A pineapple. A hue. All rotating, never quite fully exposed but always enticing, the eventuality a total, revelatory experience.
Without the presence of further works enlivening the space, the awning-wall works are easily exhausted, succumbing to rote conceal-reveal exercises. Acknowledging that intent here attempts to transgress but ultimately falls short with duck-blinds, peek-a-boo, gaze obstacles, body bifurcation, and curtain explorations that never arrive at anything fully formed. But, this is also a strength, there is reason for them only to have taken a partial breath, they are the bodega-scale bigtop and they need help, they want help, help is on the way, help in the form of context, critical activation, further elements to consider, more stuff. This stuff is not limited to the art but inclusive of bodies, your own and others, space, and those other often-neglected senses of olfaction and audition, the what is that smell and what is that sound-ness readily available to most but typically intellectually relegated to below the metaphorical neck, the threshold of thought, descending into the body, the sensual, and as a result, the modernist racialized primitive. Somehow we, us Westerners, have come to understand our book-bound minds as perceptual tools that operate autonomously. This fictive separation set into motion by the French philosopher Rene Descartes and subsequently upheld and acculturated by American sensibilities was, and is, a tool to make any sensation less-than, crude, carnal, irrational, and necessitating suppression. The ultimate goal here is a typological distancing from a fundamental truth: human-animals are just that, animals, and by extension, conversely, groups that more fully occupy and utilize their body’s senses are mischaracterized as inferior. Lucien’s installation tests this threshold, poking it from both sides, designing scenarios where mere viewership is impossible and one has no choice but to inhabit the soup.
What emerges is The Still Life itself, and the impossibility of stillness, life is never, neither is death. Dutch still-life painting wriggled with this same imperceptible throb described by Norman Bryson in Looking at the Overlooked. Bryson alludes to the fleshly nature, the intimate mortality of the picture, images distilled to moments, moments of ends, called Momento Mori, an imagistic, object-oriented, or situational reflection on death and passing.
John Berger’s recent passing rendered his gaze unavailable to us but “Ways of Looking” continues to affect looking and maybe more importantly, unlooking. Does Abigail Lucien’s installation perform isolation for the viewer or does it present raw what isolation-experienced is, at its most fundamental, its origin, from the center, the self that produces it, and the vacant surrounding that forces clear the identity?
Imperatives, those vital requisites for life, mobilize bodies through sensation, pleasures, and pains. They urge stops to become starts, what is sedentary to animate, indifference to be devoured by desire, and transform dereliction into radical habitation. These are conscious and subconscious states, influenced from within and the omnipotent, without. And while an awareness of how much consciousness is a byproduct of collectivity and external influences there is always the lingering fact that everything, including Mastodons, have imperatives too. So why be concerned with imperatives? Well, my guess is that imperatives have a stickier relationship to what might be characterized as instinct or intuition, what our guts tell us. The gut, in my opinion, is at least partially fabricated by culture and subjective experience and so can never be the omniscient driver so often lauded. But, I still believe my gut and most likely your gut, steer us in ways compelled by some instantaneous metaphysical force toward real horizons and futures. This problem of guts and imperatives get at an even slipperier concept: Authenticity. And what Lucien’s installation illustrates is no matter how well you perform, you, yourself, or others, you will only be as good as you are bad. In awkwardness and vulnerability lies redemption and authenticity, the ability to leave the stagnation of perspective, to witness the unknown, the Tropical.
What does all this me/you, object/subject, insider/outsider stuff mean? In the space Abigail Lucien has established for these things to be considered, as an individual, as a group, as an individual as part of a group, or seeking personal individuation, we are made tourists. The tourist’s primary role in history has been to reify, through expansion and commodification, the colonial project; through looking, staging, framing, habitation, consumption of the exotic, and appropriation of otherness. Drupe enables space for considering artifacts of some-place mostly unfamiliar to most, the staging of other’s bodies, and for the audience to become the subject.
Awkwardness by Adam Kotsko
The Imperative by Alphonso Lingis
Audience as Subject, a catalog based on an exhibition of the same name organized by Bettie-Sue Hertz at the Yerba Buena Center for Art
The Tourist by Dean MacCannell
The Posthuman by Rosi Braid