On the ground lies Geoffrey, a cat who has seen better days. His limbs are splayed out and his skin is peeled off. The apparatus that killed Geoffrey is constructed from simple materials: a plastic bag, an air mattress pump, hair, epoxy, and packaging tape. The bag is appended to the twisted form of the animal and can be inflated from underneath in a novel method of torture that only uses household materials. A table, strewn with makeshift construction materials–Styrofoam cups, a plastic fan, clothespins–faces a wall filled with sketches for various other devices. The macabre scene is part of “Inland Architect,” the new installation piece by artist Chris Smith at Pilsen’s antena gallery.
Smith is evasive when discussing the details of his project. It is designed to be “nomadic,” he says, as in, “you can pick it up and take it with you.” When pressed, he describes the show as “the story of cast-off materials, told through a haunted tutorial for survival.” The intention is vague, but productive. His method of assembling detritus is well suited to his purpose; the grisly scenes he constructs seem to present a perspective that is consistent with the nature of materials that compose them. The weatherproofed windows and “backpack pandemic ventilator” probably do not function, but they realistically depict what such inventions might look like. The colorful set-up recalls the chambers of a disturbed mind, obsessed by the possibility of world catastrophe, reacting desperately to an onslaught of threats in a disordered surplus of activity.
Smith says he draws inspiration from his years in the Boy Scouts, where he learned how to whittle and build fires, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. It is this formative experience, he says, that first drew him to a philosophy of survivalism. “It runs in my blood,” Smith says. One can’t help but wonder what kind of scouting experience Smith had: his artistic vision, and the significant part that sadomasochism appears to play in it, is distinctly at odds with the traditional ethos of the Boy Scouts. The stark worldview implied in the installation is the antithesis of the scout’s commitment to “providing service” and “reinforcing ethical standards,” and it clashes with nearly all of the values encoded in Scout Law, such as Obedience, Kindness, and Charity. Of the ideals championed in the scout’s code, Thriftiness is the only one supported in the show.
By way of context, the artist provides what he claims is a citation from the literature of the U.S. paramilitary organization the Michigan Militia: “Those that have not will attempt to take from those that have. If you prepare to survive, you deserve to survive…If you have the kind of intellect that’s geared to survival, it may be a matter of genetics.” This Darwinian worldview, which exalts survival as the highest value, is amply represented in the show. Smith says that the Michigan Militia is a “sponsor” of the show, but it is unclear if there is any real connection.
“Inland Architect” is graphic, disturbing, and ultimately ambiguous in its effect. However, it is successful in displaying a lurid sight of the depths to which the will to self-preservation can reach, and continues the series of provocative shows featured at antena.
antena, 1765 S. Laflin St. Opening reception February 19. Friday, 6-10pm. Through March 20. By appointment only. (773)257-3534. antenapilsen.com