Frist Art Museum
Filled with hidden symbols like the famed Merode Altarpiece or Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Michael Aurbach’s latest work is purportedly the office of The Administrator. Rather than concealing supernatural truths or learned meanings, Aurbach’s witty symbols poke fun at the defensive, autocratic mentality of the person in charge. In the words of Mark Twain, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
A veritable bastion constructed of sterile, silver-toned galvanized steel, the administrator’s “office” is surrounded by metal walls. Fictive openings, like those in a dollhouse, allow the observer to see inside. But they deny entrance, since they are blocked by bars. To thwart intruders, spiky projections run along the wall’s upper edge, each topped with a fleur-de-lis, emblem of French royalty, who reigned by divine right. In an ironic reversal of social pretensions, however, the sheeting along the bottom is embossed with imitation brick patterns, similar to those used to dress up the gap between a house trailer and the ground. The floor is laid with steel “tiles,” alternating shiny and matte surfaces, in deference to the Renaissance tradition of painting geometric floor patterns as an aid in constructing perspective. With these details, the artist alerts the viewer that his artistic legacy is a lofty one.
The administrator’s desk offers multiple clues to his governing style. Metal fasces on either side align him with an august tradition, extending from ancient Rome to Mussolini. These rods clustered around an ax, emblematic of authority, confirm his ability to scourge or—that failing—behead insubordinates. On the desk, ready for immediate impressing, stamps bear labels marked with characteristic decisions: “confidential,” “delay,” “rejected,” “terminate,” “deny.” Two mirrors on the desk show that the administrator, like Narcissus, sees only himself. A hearing aid indicates that he has trouble hearing as well. But the coup de grâce is A Field Guide to Invertebrates, a volume that might be subtitled How to Manage Without a Spine.
The fun goes on around the room as well. A flat “globe” reveals a pre-Columbian mentality. A car jack to crank up the administrator’s chair and shoe lifts on the wall behind testify to a man of diminutive stature. Dangling from the ceiling, marionette strings cast him as a puppet of higher powers. A pitcher, a basin, and a towel whose gray color echoes the incessant steel of the office, proclaim him a “hand washer,” in the mode of Pontius Pilate. In addition, a fuse box attached to the back of the desk, an air compressor, and an adjacent electrical motor all demonstrate his need for artificial sources of power. Insecure, the administrator has aimed a surveillance camera at his door. And numbers in red and white, like those on the doorjamb of convenience stores, allow him to judge the height of fleeing intruders. A jack lifts him to peer out the window through an oversized telescope, which reverses direction, loops around and ends up pointing at his own derrière.
A “little” man, the administrator knows intuitively how to deal with underlings. Equipped with an electrical burner, the chair in front of his desk, over which hangs a bright interrogator’s light, is a literal hot seat. Also available are a series of variously sized hoops for others to jump through, kneepads for supplicants, and several vacuum cleaners displayed on the wall like trophies to given to those who have “sucked up.” On the shelf behind the desk, eight loose-leaf binders are labeled “Aurbach Incident 1, 2, 3,” etc., making oblique references to the artist’s personal confrontations with the administrator.
As the inaugural exhibition of Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts, The Administrator makes irreverent gibes at fatuous pomposity. Analogous to the strategy of the wisecrack, Aurbach’s hidden symbols deliver rapid-fire visual salvos mocking viciousness and ineptitude. Apposite here are the words of the Earl of Shaftesbury, writing in the 18th century: “Tis the persecuting spirit has raised the bantering one? The higher the slavery, the more exquisite the buffoonery.” Like classic satire, the work is ultimately sanative, warring against oppression, but with “exquisite buffoonery.”