Power Objects at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts[uds-billboard name=”powerobject”]
“In the service of getting at something by whatever means. With the objects, I imagined using their powers in unison…used just right to act as a summoning tool– from within themselves the cherished cause for their survival, for the hands they have been passed through.” – Gedi Sibony, from the In the Still Epiphany catalogue
The most remarkable turn within In the Still Epiphany is the sudden appearance, the manifestation and vision of the fragile hands, the many hands, the mass — the bereft, brief power of the common. In a spare exhibition of power objects revealed within one, a few anonymous objects act in unison. The first is a quartet of lead bricks tucked in the bottom of a white-on-white contemporary curio cabinet containing a collection of historical keepsakes, currency and unfinished archaic stones assembled in the main gallery. The heavy, nameless bricks hold up the whole structure. A weight at the bottom of the world. They are not inscribed with any seal or signature; most museums would keep them out of sight like night watchmen, but Sibony displays them in The Pultzer like the plinth they are: the ground holding up roof, walls, hearth, supporting the sculpture, making the rest possible as art objects. The bricks are unlisted in the catalogue, but the gallery assistants all seem aware of them. Their weight is in not being named. They are simply a support. Brick only shows its power when it is removed, when it refuses to remain, as we see in the bricks of our city, collapsing an urban fabric because they can’t continue standing.
The second object is a verso woven textile, reversed to reveal its stitches, the work and worker reunited. The philosopher and his poor. This is Sibony picking through rags, assembling the ruins, whatever their worth may be. As in his own work, the value of the actual material is irrelevant, of use only in his sparse arrangements of objects in poetic form. Sibony’s catalogue text leading you through the museum marks off the exhibition as an attempt to summon the power of “the hands [the objects] have been passed through.” Weaving through space a textile and we are woven in it, passing through.
The third, and most concentrated object is a boli — an amorphous, curved animal form from Mali. It is a brute idol, a literal “power object” sequestered in the back room, the lowest room of the institution, as if it is propping the thing up. This object has been built over time of “orgranic material”–blood and excrement, earth and body. A people joined together, both body and imagination, to give this object its power. They added to the physical thing their history, the narrative of their emergence, their fear of death and disease, their hope for transcendence; their search for epiphany.
The object is streaked, not with age, but the pouring of sacrifice, the secretion of a people. You see the motion of the makers, the strokes dripping on every side. Its contours are all centers, all gravity, its force continually sinking in, deeper in. We also want to be absorbed into it, our bodies becoming part of it, along with our projections on what power means. It is elegantly preserved, but has been cracking since it was created. Power is precarious, held together by people willing to let it stand. It seems impossibly dense, emanating the collective power of a disappeared people, anonymous in their longing for an idol to sum up and overcome our own frailties. Where are their lead bricks, secretly reinforcing the structure, propping it up as we all are?
But this object is also owned, possessed. It is collected. It is a specter of the artist and of the institution. One definition of the boli’s function is that they are held by secret societies with a collective name of Jow that are defined as “institutions that wield power by concentrating it into material objects and launching it, under control, out into the world.”  The boli was the negotiation of the people’s power, condensed into an object and presented at select moments, then hidden from view, added to, preserved.
Yet, the power object is also dispossessed, out of context, lost to itself and its makers. What power is actually on view? You can see it is off-balance, hobbled – its rear left leg is unable to reach the ground. Was it left unfinished or has it lost something? It is an unbalanced power, out of line, cracking over time, but collected. A metaphor for our time.
It is an object of the 20th century, an object of will and ambition. It is a modern object, a vanguard.
You won’t see its frame or support, its bones and blood; you look and see only our own, which has given it power for so long. You are a lead brick, a smooth concrete block, the manifestation of our power, collected. You are the support system, the plinth, hearth, roof. You are the sculpture, blood and earth. You are a power object of the 21st century. You too may have to offer your body, your blood, your history, a narrative of your collective emergence in hopes of a new epiphany.
This is a transcript of a talk given at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts as a Frame of Reference discussion in conjunction with the Gedi Sibony-curated exhibition “In the Still Epiphany” on view through October 27, 2012.