SECAC Review, November 2002
Southeastern College Art Conference
Exhibition Reviews, pp. 153-154
Michael Aurbach, The Administrator
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, 2001
Though they now tend to transcend their historical context, great works of art from the past often had immediate political implications for the viewers of their time. Donatello’s determined Judith beheading Holofernes, for instance, offered 15th century Florentines a Biblical symbol of tyrannicide, a forceful catalyst for their own resistance to the subtle, but dictatorial, Medici. And Michelangelo’s youthful David, courageously facing the giant Goliath, provided another witness to the power of faith, galvanizing Florence to resist the inimical Milanese then menacing the city from the North. In the same vein, Michael Aurbach’s installation, The Administrator, makes a trenchant statement about contemporary academe, castigating the nameless individual responsible for orchestrating the university’s destructive policies. Rejecting the drama and high seriousness of his forebears, however, Aurbach relies on mordant satire and caustic wit to denounce obscuration and its obverse, the privilege afforded to those in governance. Aurbach defines the administrator “writ small” by a fortress-like office filled with farcical “symbols” that satirize his cruelty and ineptitude. This visual synecdoche creates an antic portrait of a man whose spirit and stature are complementarily pusillanimous and undersized. In the words of John Dryden, “The cowl might make the monk if it were not for the satirist.”1 Galvanized steel walls surround the administrator’s office, interrupted only by barred openings through which the viewer can peer. Needle-like projections along the top further dissuade entry, each decorated with fleur-de-lis, sign of the French sovereign, a ruler by divine right. Steel “tiles,” staggered in matte and shiny finishes cover the floor, alluding to the practice of employing floor patterns to create the illusion of deep interior space in Renaissance painting. Thus, the artist underscores the proud artistic heritage he is tapping into. Hard, metallic, and gray, striking emblems of tyranny abound. Kneepads indicate the correct posture for supplicants; hoops in graduated sizes are arranged for prescribed leaping through; vacuum cleaners hanging on the wall are awards for subordinates who “suck up.” An electric burner converts the visitor’s chair into a fasces, making visible the leader’s power to flog and decapitate. The despotism, however, is but the other side of cravenness. The administrator has mounted a security camera at his door and placed a telescope at the window. This convoluted instrument, nonetheless, curves around to peer at his own backside. Reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, a pitcher, basin, and towel stand ready for “hand washing.” Two mirrors on the desk reveal an overt narcissism: he sees only himself. An array of stamps shows characteristic institutional responses-“confidential,” “delay,” “rejected,” “terminate,” “deny.” On the desk lies A Field Guide to Invertebrates-indispensable for anyone without backbone-while dangling puppet strings mark the administrator as the instrument of those above him in authority. In need of counterfeit power, consequently, the administrator relies on an electrical fuse box affixed to the back of his desk. Such insecurity, the artist taunts, stems from a piddling height: shoe lifts decorate the wall; a car jack hoists his desk chair; another raises him to reach the telescope. Hinting at the causes of his incessant volleys against academia, the artist includes veiled suggestions that he has had personal confrontations with the administrator. On a shelf lay a series of loose-leaf binders marked “Aurbach Incident 1,” 2, 3, etc.-eight in all. Aurbach’s guerrilla skirmish with the individual wielding academic power is but the latest in an ongoing campaign. In an earlier work, The Institution (1997), he indicted the university as a whole. The Institution greets the visitor with an outsized, mock-up triumphal arch encased in unrelenting silvery galvanized sheet metal, held together with myriad screws-both human and steel. The form mimics those set up by Roman emperors at strategic places within a city to celebrate their military victories. Aurbach’s arch bespeaks an architecture harkening to the past in other ways as well. Crenelations at the top evoke mediaeval fortified structures and the sharp inverted “V” of the passageway is a spare interpretation of a splayed Gothic arch. Notwithstanding its allusions to history, the arch sports very modern, twinned message boards spelling out disclaimers, each rapidly dissolving into the next: “We regret hardships created by this situation;” “We have no comments at this time.” In addition to its visual messages, the installation engages viewers physically as well. They enter the space, passing under the arch on insulating rubber mats, tensing at the discomfiting sibilance of a motion detector whose beam they have disturbed. They then encounter The Institution itself, a metallic façade dwarfed by the gigantic arch. A miniature stand-in for the administration building on the artist’s own university campus, The Institution’s triadic entrance would fit exactly into the upside-down “V” of the triumphal arch; it is “hand in glove,” so to speak, with its grandiloquent images. The sightless “eyes” of the entrance, moreover, suggests the slits in a Klansman’s hood-cowards, indeed. References to defensive masculinity multiply. In addition to being “cut out” from under the arch, the triangular lines of the façade entry imitate the inseam of a man’s pants. Further, the markings on the door are those of a big zipper whose flap at the top indicates that The Institution is “zipped up” to exposure. Finally, a truncated tower just behind provides a facetious doppelgänger type of the “little” fellows who run things. If tempted to pry into The Institution’s secrets, visitors who bend over to push aside the dark curtain, covering openings on the left and right of the inhospitable entrance, see their own derriere on a screen inside the cubbyhole. Spying on the “spy” is not without retribution! Inside are signs of surveillance, all unused by their ghoulishly absent operator-an array of switches, a computer keyboard, headphones, a wall telephone-together with the ubiquitous message board reiterating institutional propaganda: “Identify team players;” “Free speech need not exist;” “Never reveal your sources;” “Alter personal files;” “Avoid direct contact with employees;” “Monitor all calls.” Aurbach’s telling thrusts at The Institution’s self-shielding pretensions continue. Numbers meant to aid in judging an intruder’s height are affixed to the back of the arch. In addition, the façade’s metal sheeting, patterned with simulated rustication, refers not only to the stone work of the artist’s university but is, at the same time, the material that covers the empty spaces under trailer homes, making them look more substantial than they really are. Under certain conditions, moreover, the light-spilling metal seems to dissolve, implying that The Institution is more a fata morgana than reality. Then, too, its modular construction allows for facile dismantling. Plumbing pipe supports the tower and the metal sheeting rests on wooden frames. For all its impenetrable aspect, the assemblage is one gigantic hoot. In a kind of sculptural farce, therefore, Aurbach delivers incessant blows to the institution’s bland and unresponsive power and to the administrator’s arrogant incompetence. Aesthetic catharses, these works especially delight those who have smarted under the weight of grinding authority. Eric Bentley affirms that “in farce hostility enjoys itself,”2 so that one can, with Charles Lamb, “wear [his] shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of imaginary freedom.”3 Whereas Aurbach’s works unmistakably reflect the policies of contemporary academe, at the same time they mock the abuses of authority, which transcend time and place.
- John Dryden, “Preface to the Fables,” Essays, ed. W.P. Ker (Oxford: London 1926), II, p. 260. 2. Eric Bentley, “On Farce and Satire,” Comedy: Meaning and Form, ed. Robert W. Corrigan (Chandler: San Francisco, 1965), p. 302. 3. Cited by Bentley, p. 303.
Dorothy Joiner, Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History LaGrange College