Archive for August 8, 2012
Bad manners? I asked myself. The name of the work, which is part of the ASU Art Museum’s newest exhibition Bad Manners and selections from the ASU Art Museum collection, clearly struck me as more of a question than a first impression. Walking into the gallery and still too far away to read the accompanying text panel, I was bewildered. The work, a ceramic installation piece by artist Marilyn Lysohir, initially appears to be anything but “Bad Manners.”
Far from crass or revolting, as the name might imply, the installation is intricate, even delicate. The complexity of its construction is a thing of awe. At the very center of the gallery, so that everything, even the viewer, must revolve around them, sit four life-sized ceramic figures. Two men and two women are dining at an elegant table complete with tablecloth and decorative candelabrum. They lack heads but are pristinely dressed. The men wear slacks, ties and sports coats. The women are presented as elegant and proper in garments buttoning primly all the way up their necks and along their wrists.
The table itself is another wonder. Somehow not bowing under the weight, it is laden, if not overflowing, with a plethora of exquisite, glossy ceramic food. A whole roast chicken, a vibrant red berry tart, spaghetti and several elaborately decorated cakes stand out among a vast array of other dishes. Far from the sloppy connotations of “bad manners,” each individual piece is beautifully crafted. Beyond that the tender, painstaking care required to assemble such a detailed, complex installation is striking. “Bad Manners” seems like a misnomer.
However, up close and upon inspection, my first impression was proven very wrong as the distant appearance of elegance disintegrated. These aren’t mere headless figures. Looking under the table, the true extent of their inhumanity becomes apparent. The men seem ordinary, disguised by their slacks, but in the space between the women’s hemlines and fashionable pumps there is nothing but air. Then it dawns on you (or at least me): These aren’t figures at all; they are hollow, empty suits of clothing. A second inspection of the table reveals more incongruences disgusting in a scene so falsely elegant. A deviled egg sits atop an artfully decorated chocolate cake. There is a slice of pizza in the salad. Corn on the cob is haphazardly placed on a bowl of spaghetti and a hot dog lounges insultingly on the elaborate frosting of another cake. With each newly noticed unfortunate detail a nascent sense of dismay and revulsion grows. As much as you might want to look away, the conscientious care of each individual ceramic piece and the installation’s assembly draws you in. The work becomes both terrible and exquisite as you stare in fascinated horror.
Bad Manners stands, a glossy stark polemic against our increasing consumerist society. The four empty suits of clothing symbolize mindless consumption: the overloaded table critiques gluttony and excess. Through this work, Lysohir cleverly poses the fundamental question of what is really necessary in life. We undeniably look at excess with envy when we desire the glamorous lifestyles afforded to successful actors and musicians. The excess awarded with fame and fortune is alluring. How else can we explain the (unfortunate) enduring popularity and never-ending string of participants appearing on shows like the X-Factor and American Idol? Normally the best we muster is negligible guilt when we are reminded that we throw food away while people in other regions of the world live without even clean water. Bad Manners doesn’t provoke any guilt; it instills a sense of sheer repugnance at the excess it presents. It awakens a lingering sense of shame exacerbated by the initial pleasantness of the scene as we see ourselves seated around that table. The longer we look, the more hollow the suits of clothing become. They will never receive any satisfaction from the feast laid out in front of them, and no amount of food could ever fill their empty forms.
Bad Manners is a sobering experience, but it delivers its blow with an odd compassion. As much as it revolts, shocks and shames us as we recognize our own greed, these same feelings reaffirm our humanity. It is our very ability to realize and feel such dismay that defines us as more than just hollow suits of clothing. We don’t need to be empty.
ASU Art Museum intern
Images courtesy of the artist.
Bad Manners and selections from the ASU Art Museum collection is on view at the ASU Art Museum through Sept. 1. More information here.