Art

Scott King Takes Our Obsession With Monuments Down a Peg with ‘Totem Motif’

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Can we all agree that the pair of shiny white shafts blazing heavenward adjacent to the ground zero site — calling it “Tribute in Light” somehow undermines its ghostly majesty — is the best public monument since Maya Lin wedged a black granite boomerang into the National Mall in 1982? Like minimalist set pieces, both invite expressions of personal grief without demanding the shedding of tears.

But carry such monumental simplicity to extremes, as Scott King does in the centerpiece sculpture of his wry solo exhibition “Totem Motif” at Bortolami, and it becomes clear how easily such gestures can go awry. In a show preoccupied with man’s outsized attraction to building outsized monuments, King offers a DIY memorial that reveals underlying tendencies toward public displays of affectation.

King’s Infinite Monument is a modular tower of mirror-covered boxes, each slightly smaller than the one beneath, that can be stacked (using more or fewer boxes) to fit any space, theoretically reaching to the moon. Installed here, the piece nearly touches an HVAC duct. This one-work-fits-all ethos broaches a theme King explores in the photos and illustrations also on view at Bortolami: the naive wish that civic statuary might cure social ills through edification and contemplation, when most people just need clean water and a roof.

The largest object in the room, Infinite Monument is also nearly invisible. Approach from 45 degrees and it all but disappears into reflections of surrounding walls. Face it straight on and all you’ll see is you, refracted and sawn up like the lady in the magician’s box. Witness gallery-goers taking selfies (this one sheepishly included), and you’ll see how the piece eccentrically celebrates the ego.

King was born in England, and his show’s preoccupations would pair well with a Pimm’s Cup. Anish and Antony Take Afghanistan, his 32-panel satirical graphic novella featuring drawings by Will Henry, imagines a United Nations–sponsored public artwork intervention in ravaged Afghanistan. U.K. art luminaries Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley star as toffs called upon by “Dave” Cameron to make some magic for Mr. Karzai’s citizens. The plot unfolds with much hilarity until the penultimate panel, a sobering image of commercial aircraft destroying a rebuilt Afghanistan. New Yorkers who witnessed the World Trade Center attacks may balk.

Despite this tender spot, King’s larger themes — of monuments that on their surface embody hope or pride but end up boastful and paternalistic — translate well into New Yorkese. Even the Freedom Tower falls under the category of Art de Triomphe, what with its rhetoric of rebirth encased in a faceted middle finger aimed at the evildoers.

And what of once-sparkling, now-failed monuments? King finds a choice specimen in Blackpool Tower, a late-19th-century spire of iron and steel that’s the spitting image of the Eiffel Tower’s top half, but painted red. (Exactly half its French cousin’s size, it was built just a few years later.) The tower, a beacon when it rose over this booming resort town, is now the worse for wear, encased in pockets of scaffolding that hint at its age. Like a down-market edition of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji, King offers 14 photographs of the tower presiding over northern English concrete blight. Here it looms above an off-licence. There it emerges behind a Funland. From wherever you look, it’s a cold, gray day. The mighty have, most definitely, fallen.

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