Michael Ashkin is the artist’s first solo museum show to bring together works in the wide variety of media—installation, photography, video, sculpture, text—that spans his artistic practice. The exhibition is on view in four adjacent galleries as well as on the façade of the Museum. Its main component is Ashkin’s large-scale installation, Untitled (where each new sunrise promises only the continuation of yesterday)… (2008–10), in which he explores the logic of urban spatial organization. Usually the appearance of cities or towns seems governed by systems that have evolved over time to address issues of commerce, traffic, and public safety. Constructed of mostly recycled cardboard on the gallery floor, Ashkin’s sprawling city—made up of clusters of simple houses, warehouses, and sheds with no real center—developed instead from a random combination of accident and necessity. Rather than revealing a sense of urban planning, the arrangement of his detailed architectural miniatures looks unintentional, temporary, and characterized by an absence of community. Referring to the explosive expansion of urban spaces, Ashkin’s representation of an “unplanned” community epitomizes a condition that growing numbers of the world’s population inhabit: a nebulous territory that might be defined only in contrast to the secured zones around which they develop. Based on abstractions from aerial photos, that can be associated with surveillance technology, video games, and even modern helicopter and drone warfare, Ashkin’s miniatures lack a specific identity in space or time that is amplified by his use of the monochrome cardboard material. This distancing from reality is further accentuated by the ways Ashkin directs the viewer’s gaze, never allowing a close-up examination of the cityscape, as it gets lost in the remoteness of the horizon.
While Ashkin’s installation implicitly engages the dynamics involved in the appropriation of territory, his photographic series (Long Branch) (2002–10) addresses these issues more directly. At first glance, the ten digital prints in the series seem to be documentary photographs of the New Jersey beach neighborhood that has been embroiled in a fight over eminent-domain abuses for over a decade. Though the images seem to focus on marginal and unspecified details, upon closer inspection, a variety of interventions enacted on the negatives and the prints becomes apparent as well. By either cutting negatives or pairing views that were taken at slightly different angles, in which the tonal qualities of the sky, for instance, don’t quite match anymore, Ashkin has produced a series of images that do not allow for a stable position on the part of the viewer—an ambiguity already hinted at in the parenthetical title. The many layers of information in this conflict over land and property rights are further expressed in a printed piece that not only includes the series of quasi-documentary photographs but also quotes from blogs, websites, real estate brochures, and newspaper articles commenting on this politically charged situation, interspersed with writings by the artist as yet another voice among the multitude of positions. (Long Branch), the circular, which is in effect an artist’s book, is available free of charge to visitors, much like a real estate insert in a newspaper.
Also on view are two video pieces, one projected in a darkened gallery and the other on the facade of the Museum, visible only during nighttime hours. Here (2009), the video installation inside the Museum, combines the grainy, flickering image of an empty room—an unused office or an interrogation room, perhaps—with a rhythmic, almost hypnotic, voiceover about an unnamed desert. While the floor installation in the adjacent gallery is a site for viewers to think about landscape, perspective, and horizon lines, Here is a powerful reflection on the desert as an environment that can wreak havoc on one’s eyes and mind. “One gazes until blind,” the artist’s voice reminds us. “One has seen enough mirages to not believe in them, yet their presence must be a sign.” Ashkin’s representation of the desert, however, deals not only with this kind of intense mental space, it can also be seen to allude to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. “In the desert, all battles are over before announced. Within seconds, bodies and wreckage assume archaeological stillness. The fighter beside the vehicle stood no hope of attaining those rocky hills.” Although filmed at a decommissioned military depot in upstate New York, Here lacks any kind of temporal and spatial coordinates, making it a virtual extension of Ashkin’s sculptural installation in a way, dealing with the broader concepts of space and time conveyed in the word “here,” with the viewer positioned here and there simultaneously.
Projected at about 25 x 29 feet onto the façade of the Museum, Ashkin’s video Centralia, also from 2009, takes its name from the mining town in central Pennsylvania, where coal deposits beneath the town have been burning since 1962 and will probably continue to burn for another hundred years, causing major environmental problems. But rather than document the now nearly abandoned mining town, Ashkin directs our attention to an ongoing mining operation nearby, again emphasizing layers of disappearance and absence in the process of history.
Both videos focus on seemingly unimportant spaces and events. Here presents an empty room where nothing happens. In Centralia, the camera set up far away turns massive trucks—repeating their scheduled rounds in and out of a mining pit—into minuscule size within the panoramic frame. The way in which Ashkin puts the viewer high above the scene in Centralia is reminiscent of his earlier tabletop landscapes, where he also pared away extraneous details to play up certain relationships. “The pieces are about possibilities,” Ashkin said about his scale models in the 1990s. “Something has happened or is about to happen, but you don’t know what. I don’t know what.” While in the earlier sculptures Ashkin could only allude to their cinematic potential, in his films he takes full advantage of narrative strategies that keep the viewer guessing, whether anything will ever happen.
To more fully illustrate the connections between Ashkin’s sculptural and time-based work, beginning on April 24, the exhibition will also include two of Ashkin’s well-known miniature scale models from the 1990s that depict marginalized landscapes, such as mines, oil fields, and industrial wastelands, engaging issues related to social, economic, and political exclusion and abandonment. These topographies will be shown together with the wall-mounted frieze-like piece Wall (Western Sahara) (2010), Ashkin’s most recent project, in which he uses aerial abstractions based on images from Google Earth of the Moroccan Wall (also known as the Wall of Shame) that runs through Western Sahara and the southeastern portion of Morocco. Approximately 2,700 km long, the Wall was erected by Moroccan forces to exclude guerrilla fighters of the Polisario Front, who have sought Western Saharan independence since before Spain ended its colonial occupation in 1975. While the conflict underlying Ashkin’s (Long Branch) project was over valuable beachfront property on the New Jersey shore, the dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi people concerns the control of the region’s rich phosphate and fish resources and represents, according to the Organization of African Unity, one of the last pieces of unfinished decolonization in Africa. While this immense structure is already abstracted through its representation on the internet, Ashkin adds yet another layer of alienation by only presenting a 26-foot fragment of the actual 865-foot piece.
As we see in the exhibition, Ashkin works across many different media, but his artistic practice always begins with considerations of place. Engaging the many hidden layers and histories within a specific site, “Ashkin’s works,” Anthony Graves has pointed out, “reflect his attempts to sustain a look at these zones for longer than his attention might allow.” While Ashkin’s work does not take an activist stance vis-à-vis the specific issues motivating his projects, addressing the need for prolonged attention on the part of the viewer is a political act in itself.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Ashkin’s work has been shown widely nationally and internationally, including in Documenta 11 in 2002 and the Whitney Biennial in 1997. Most recently it was the subject of a solo show at Secession in Vienna and the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina. In 2009, Ashkin received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. This year, his work will be included in shows in Stuttgart, Germany; Valencia, Spain; and Bludenz, Austria. He is currently an assistant professor and the director of graduate studies in Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning’s Department of Art.
The exhibition was supported by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts.
The artist texts in the show are available on www.michaelashkin.com.