March 25, 2010
Form Follows Dysfunction
— Jeremy Biles
Currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center is an exhibition of artist Christine Tarkowski’s work entitled “Last Things Will Be First and First Things Will Be Last.” Like much of the artist’s previous work, some of the pieces in this show are monumental in stature and constructed of everyday materials – cardboard, concrete, extension cords, and the like. But as the title of this show, which alludes to Jesus’ parable of the laborers, might suggest, this work also deals with religious conversion.
As I see it, this show responds in particular to what has been called the “religion of the market,” the prevailing form of salvation religion in America. As David R. Loy has argued, market capitalism “has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.” With its false promises of happiness through consumption, and salvation through material prosperity, this religion has underwritten the failed utopia of what some (rightly or wrongly) perceive to be an American empire.
Tarkowski is interested in critiquing utopian thinking and the corresponding beliefs and economic systems of contemporary America. In this body of work, she has devised the trappings of a counter-religion to stand against American imperialism. In one gallery, visitors are assailed by strains of “punk/country/gospel” hymns as they peruse “scriptures” – prints emblazoned with messages like “Praise the Scavenger to Capitalism / The Garbage Man Is the Rational Hero.” Elsewhere, the audience is confronted by images of circles, spirals, and ellipses in which religion is juxtaposed with consumer culture: photo etchings of piled tires, Stonehenge, and circumambulation of the Kaaba at Mecca; a spiraling parking structure of cast iron; and a 21-foot-tall vertical double helix, like an axis mundi of foil on paper. Visitors can also enter a house of worship in the form of an incomplete geodesic dome made of concrete and informed by the “sacred geometries” of Buckminster Fuller’s architecture.
In fact, many of Tarkowski’s projects are rooted in architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a pioneering architect whose thought Tarkowski engages, ascribed to the dictum “form follows function.” But Tarkowski’s work inverts this idea in countering the American religion of the market. She constructs pieces in which form follows dys-function.
For example, the incessancy and emptiness conveyed in some of Tarkowski’s many spirals and ellipses appear as critical parodies of the dysfunctional religion of the market. In consumer religion, desire circulates endlessly, eschewing genuine fulfillment, and becoming pleasurable in itself. Desire thus describes an empty circle – the “endless seeking of fulfillments in more objects” (Miller).
But dysfunction is most dramatically on display in the colossal structure entitled “The Things Which So Nearly Concern Our Temporal Salvation.” Constructed of cardboard, hardware, rope, and bamboo rods, and with screen-printed “sails,” this piece calls to mind the skeletal remains of a cargo ship. In place of a hull is a rising helix of intertwined cardboard platforms. But this spiraling tower “breaks” at what would have been its topmost section, rendering it a crippled monument propped up by bamboo crutches.
The damaged form of this piece reflects the brokenness of the religion of the market, the dysfunctionality of an economic system that has collapsed in an epidemic of home foreclosures, mounting unemployment, the failure of banks, and increased poverty. But Tarkowski does not merely represent brokenness; in her work, dysfunction is turned into a critical response to that brokenness. For Tarkowski, to be willingly, willfully broken within a corrupt system is an act of resistance. She creates works that in their very brokenness at once evoke and defy functionality, countering the ruthless instrumentalism and dehumanizing means-end rationality on which capitalism is predicated. Such tactical uselessness – or what I would call critical dysfunction – subverts, rather than complies with, capitalism. Tarkowski’s dysfunctional forms are resolutely nonoperational, thwarting the religion of the market.
The ruins of a commercial vessel, wrecked on its own broken spiral of consumption: This is the unsettling image of a failed, empty utopia of American imperialism. But it is also a gesture of critical dysfunction, a call for conversion away from the religion of the market. Tarkowski’s work strikes its audience like prophetic speech. It says: Do not cooperate.
For further information on Christine Tarkowski’s “Last Things Will Be First and First Things Will Be Last,” visit the Chicago Cultural Center web page: http://www.explorechicago.org/city/en/things_see_do/event_landing/events/dca_tourism/ChristineTarkowski_LastThingsWillBeFirstandFirstThingsWillBeLast.html
I have alluded here to Tarkowski’s piece “Working on the Failed Utopia,” which can be seen at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois. For further information and images, visit: http://homepage.mac.com/michellelitvin1/Failedfinal2/Menu109.html
Tarkowski addresses her own failed religious conversion in Lauren Weinberg’s article “Little Faith,” in Time Out Chicago: http://chicago.timeout.com/articles/art-design/82229/christine-tarkowski-at-the-chicago-cultural-center-art-story
For discussions of the relations between religion and market capitalism, see, for example:
David R. Loy, “The Religion of the Market,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (Spring 1996).
Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2003).
Jon Pahl, Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).
Jeremy Biles is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).