The year 2005 was the hottest on the planet in recorded history; there is open water for the first time ever at the North Pole; the snows at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro will probably disappear within 25 years. A power grid the size of Houston is being added to China every month; the United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, emits more than 20 percent of the world’s carbon. “Fifty years from now,” a noted scientist speculates, “you may be living in a world where you don’t go outside between one and four in the afternoon.” In short, our increasingly brutish country, with its end-time mentality and barbarian attitude toward the environment, would gladly trade the last frog for cheaper gas prices.
The gypsy-visionary, social-scientist, explorer-architect, eco-rogue, control-freak artist Andrea Zittel will not be able to stop any of these things from happening. But her circuitous journey away from New York to what she calls her “High Desert Test Site,” 40 acres of parched land two and a half hours east of Los Angeles and two hours south of Las Vegas—as Zittel puts it, “23 miles past the sign that says ‘Last Service for 100 Miles'”—where the weather is brutal, the snakes are poisonous, and the water is trucked in, is a glimmer of selflessness, creativity, and fearlessness in the face of a technologically advanced culture flirting with geo-meteorological suicide. Zittel uses HDTS as a part-time studio and a site for other artists to execute ideas. Its existence is a reminder that chaos is a choice breeding ground for art—an unknown zone and mental garden that can produce new thought patterns and exotic artistic fruit.
You might not know this from her current survey at the temporary headquarters of the New Museum. While expertly organized by Trevor Smith and Paola Morsiani, the exhibition, though fascinating, is so cramped it looks like Ikea. Perhaps “Critical Space,” as the exhibition is called, should have been postponed until the museum is located in its new building. But never mind. This is New York, space is always at a premium, most of the artist’s key works are here, and the show is a chance to sample Zittel’s art and to ponder what it’s about.
The Chinese “Book of Changes,” or the I Ching, talks about “limitation” in terms of “ruthless severity” and as “leading to freedom.” These ideas fit Zittel to a tee. Her rage for rules and protocols is ever present, as is her attraction to Constructivism, Bauhaus design, and modernist architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, not to mention artists like Dan Graham and Robert Smithson. You can see this in the plain but subtly sexy “uniforms” Zittel has designed, made, and worn for over 15 years. It’s in her “living units,” “eating terrains,” and “cleansing chambers,” each made to organize an aspect of one’s life. “I love rules,” Zittel says. “The only way that I can think of to be free from external rules is to create your own personal set of rules that are even more rigid. Rules are a way of liberating oneself.”
In 2000 Zittel followed these rules to their logical and illogical extremes and found herself in the desert, a place that is ruthlessly rule-less. Here, Zittel’s work perked up. After living in a trailer, she built several small structures, including a studio made of three contiguous shipping containers in a horseshoe configuration. As many as 14 people have slept on her front patio at once, or out back in the brush. HDTS is run on what she calls “no budget.” It receives no funding, and seeks none. Thus, connections to Donald Judd’s extraordinary kingdom of minimalism in Marfa, Texas, don’t hold. Zittel, 40, is as possessed as Judd, but she’s more ephemeral and investigational. She is exploring the place where art, entropy, and self-sufficiency fuse. She’s Robinson Crusoe and Mad Max by way of Walden Pond, St. Augustine, and Greenpeace.
Zittel contends that in today’s art world it is “necessary to find new ways to convey meaning and create experience.” She says, “The desert opens enough thinking space to reimagine all sorts of parallel new art worlds.” Artist Pierre Huyghe concurs and talks about this “parallel world” as “a kind of counter-place that is outside other places but that also includes them.” The desert’s total lack of structure and its indigenous chaos combined with Zittel’s utopianism and American gumption creates what she calls “gaps in which invention or change can happen.” Curator Lynn Cooke eloquently refers to such places as “a position of elsewhere,” by which she means artists like Zittel create situations “where like-minded people can go somewhat informally to work.”
Zittel’s art is bigger in the mind than it is in person. This is not a failing. Her project entices the imagination and is a resonant example of a kind of thinking and acting that, with luck, will become more prevalent.
The Internal City
One of the more intriguing things about Andrea Zittel is her name, or rather her initials. Clearly she knows this. Her company is called “A–Z Administrative Services.” These initials are a sort of philosophical readymade or hieroglyph that signifies completeness (from A to Z), incrementality (A, B, C), generic corporateness, the personal, and the public. Aloud, they also sound like Aziz, the Muslim doctor in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.
In Foster’s book Aziz takes two English women, longing to see “the real India,” to the mysterious Marabar caves. There, amidst the thundering never-ending echoes of caverns that multiply the sound of the self until the self is annihilated, the older woman has a sort of existential seizure and glimpses her own death; the younger believes she has been molested by Aziz. This triggers a chain reaction in which Aziz is imprisoned, tried, and eventually released.
The connection to A-Z is not only in the echo of the name, but in the metaphor of the cave, which for Zittel is the desert. The cave, like the desert, is elemental and has been there since the beginning. It is a place to contend with the chaos of the world, to confront nothingness, and understand one’s scale; there, the cycles of life supersede all else. The Earth Mother/Sacred Womb aspect of the cave is present in the way Zittel talks about the desert as “a place to create a new organism.” In this way it’s a kind of reverse garden, a symbolic image of the universe where reincarnation and the overcoming of death are thrown into high contrast. Zittel’s desert is a place where tire tracks, dilapidated shacks, burned out trailer homes, broken down windmills, and art merge; where science fiction, archeology, and aesthetics blur.
Passage to India ends with the brutal realization that England must vacate India for the two cultures to co-exist. Zittel’s insight is that for art to thrive, sometimes it needs to go elsewhere.
In Memoriam: Nam June Paik, 1932–2006
Nam June Paik, the color-addicted, chaos-loving, more-is-more cosmographer of the cathode tube, who in the early 1960s began piling boodles of television sets into stacks and setting them into grids while altering video feeds, causing images to wobble, go fuzzy, turn abstract, and get psychedelic, died last week at the age of 74. This Korean born puckish progenitor of what is now known as “video art” and coiner of the two terms “electronic superhighway” and “the future is now,” was clearly a mannerist poet of overkill and discordant drown-out. His revelry will echo on.