ANTICHRIST VS LITTLE MERMAID
MAX HOOPER SCHNEIDER IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL NEIGHBOR. PART MAD SCIENTIST, PART AMERICANA ANTHROPOLOGIST, HE SHARES HIS TIME BETWEEN DEMIURGIC LAND ART PROJECTS, DEATH METAL CONCERTS, AND MAKING WEDDING CAKES WITH ADORABLE CREATURES.
INTERVIEW BY PIERRE-ALEXANDRE MATEOS & CHARLES TEYSSOU
L'OFFICIEL ART : You are part of the Aros Triennial The Garden – End of Times; Beginning of Times, where you will present a mausoleum of trash in the forest. Could you tell us a bit more about this project? MAX HOOPER SCHNEIDER :
The work performs an autopsy of the present through the reclamation and exhibition of what the present casts off and abandons as trash—and yet is oriented toward the future. The discarded commodities – non-charismatic remnants of capitalist society's disposable economy, having served their purpose and exhausted the desires of their users – appear to be corpses, obsolete forms capable only of evoking memories or past longings. And yet this is illusory: in their half-ruined and transient state the materials remain vital, capable of generative action, serving as the material substrate and source of fantasy-energy for an unknown future. Genealogically akin to Walter Benjamin's Passengenwerk, the refugium functions as a hortus conclusus that, like the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, or a cemetery that generations later blossoms into a wilderness, or a time capsule that sends a message to a future ecosystem or civilization, intends the assembled materials as compost for what is to come. In their pyramidal mausoleum the materials are entombed in an oily grave, but only to slowly change and decay; they have not been assembled for perpetual preservation or nostalgic contemplation but, following Benjamin, as an exhibition of nature reworking nature in the form of history—i.e., in the form of human productions becoming nature's ruins. While its pyramidal form and occult glow, its lavatic movements, are intentionally suggestive of the folly-architecture of a tomb—a tomb whose folly is to allegorize life rather than death—the work is emphatically oriented toward the future, in what Ernst Block calls an “anticipatory illumination,” a Vor-schein, that “lights up” the event that a garden ultimately is—not life becoming death, but a site of unceasing transformation and mutation, of rot and regeneration, ruin and resurrection: of a heedless future that is always-already on its way.
This is not the first time that you have played with such a large-scale context.
Yes. I chose the MLA program at Harvard precisely because I sought an atelier that considered all sites and scales, their potentials
as living systems, and which would expose me to nuanced and foreign materials that would help me develop a language for constructing a universe. I've always wanted my works to function or exist as things inseparable from the world “out there”, no matter how discreet. The bulk of my early opportunities as an artist were outdoors, and existed at a relatively larger scale to those works that pepper popular media. One of the most, if not the most salient examples was the 2nd Edition of the Mongolia Land Art Biennial, which took place over the course of summer 2012. This project was the result of being somewhat marooned in the middle of the Gobi Desert. About 15 artists were hosted on a nomad settlement for a month with very few resources for artistic production other than that which could be carried on our persons and acquired at flea markets and through barter. I clad a large granite outcropping with a phosphorescent cement mixture that was situated amidst a `virgin' grassland – a grassland so ripe and untrodden that merely a few footsteps would deeply tint one's shoes with iridescent green pollen, and produce a thick aroma of sweet butter. Mountain goats, wild horses and birds of prey outnumbered our species tenfold. Small eruptions of purple amethyst punctuated the landscape like termite mounds. The isolated work, irradiated by a powerful sun, became active at night. Free of any ambient light-source other than the stars above, the granite rock formation gave off an intense, blue-hot azure glow, and soon became a beacon for nomads traversing the region. Upon returning from Mongolia, it was relayed to me that shamans and passersby began depositing bones from their settlements at this glowing rock formation as if the work had been incarnated as some sort of shrine. It had begun to do its own work; it had generated its own ecology outside my authorship. That notion alone became the lasting gestalt of the project. This was an expedition, a thing that ruptures reasoned calculus; true fieldwork.
You were awarded this year's BMW art prize, which allowed you to explore the reef ecologies of the Indo-West Pacific, Russia and East Africa.
Indeed, I was - a tremendous privilege, a personal milestone. It still blows my mind that I am going on this mega-expedition beginning this August. It is always hard for me to be pithy, but ultimately reefs are giant petri dishes that provide a lens for humankind's mutability. This, for me, is their allure. Until the nineteenth century, no one knew what corals were—animal, mineral, or plant, “petrified fountains'` or “charming underwater genii eager to marry human beings.” We now know that corals are animals, polyps whose exoskeletons form limestone reefs, but this knowledge doesn't diminish their capacity to
enchant. The unembellished facts of their existence are themselves extraordinary. Coral reefs are dynamic, living systems and yet entire nations are made of them. In this and other ways coral reefs influence the chemical balance of the planet and its oceans; they function as the first responders in issuing warnings about ongoing planetary degradation. I see this as a last chance to interact with the reefs, to bear witness to the vanishing of a life-form that may never come again. However, if you think in terms of planetary time, or of a universe in which things are continuously coming into being and passing away, then it may not be significant if the reefs—or humans—become extinct. My personal preference, however, is that if something has to go, it be humans. Perhaps most importantly, the BMW Art Journey has afforded me the opportunity to make filmic work for the first time – something I've been tending toward for years now – as well as expand upon my dioramic practice with materials culled from the tropical aqueous fields and shorelines.
The notion of the non-human is fundamental to your practice, and often becomes a tool to link nature to metaphysics, in an almost Leibnizian way.
The first step is to see the world in a monist way and to understand that there are, in fact, real interactive influences existing between all beings, all bodies, that we are not always aware of. The process of mutual morphogenesis is difficult for modern western humans to accept because they are congenital Cartesians who believe themselves to be outside of nature, masters of nature. Human beings are a constituent part of nature and exist in a universe with the totality of other beings, from rocks to tide pools to computers. All beings, in simply existing, modify one another, leave their marks on one another in an autopoietic choreography; humans leave their marks, as do starfish and electric drills, and these marks are not reversible if you believe, as I do, that time is real and moves in only one direction. Recognizing this fact aids the breakdown of classical taxonomies and material binaries. I prefer the play of mixing and hybridity. I've always had absolute faith in the power of non-human nature. So quite readily my practice serves to incubate and produce works that advance my critical worldview, a view that encompasses many conceits, including strains of metaphysics and those that are more materialist. My work functions not to represent nature but exist as nature.
This bio-art dimension in your work is often seen through the prism of American pop culture, especially in your dioramas and installations, which are
populated by death metal signs and theme park reminiscences. As we've already discussed, it's like a meeting between Learning from Las Vegas and a deeper eco-art tradition.
I take no issue with my work reflecting deeply rooted personal or auto-biographical obsessions and delights, whether we want to classify them as Americana, kitsch, scientific/ascientifc, landscape architectural, speculative, nihilistic, etc. My rubrics of classification, to the extent that they exist, allow for plurality. The works and I are not one, and hopefully the works are more articulate than I am regarding their intention of adhering to no classificatory law and order. While I recognize the classificatory impulse—i.e., the branding impulse—and its uses, I am never completely comfortable with coming up with labels to define what I do. Dioramas, Japan, marine biology, death metal, artificial flora, aquaria/terraria, the variegated surfaces of junk, a taste for the baroque and the repetitive, are recurrent tropes, motifs, iconographics, and modes of experience that appear in the works but they do not define the works categorically—e.g., the works are not odes to death metal or celebrations of pop culture—unless impurity itself is a category a la Walter Benjamin, for example, and this may be what you mean by referencing Brown, Venturi, and Izenour. I went back and looked at the book and I like the first sentence: “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.” By this they mean learning to look at an existing urban environment “nonjudgmentally” rather than being engaged in a continuous critique of what is there and how it can be replaced. I like the non-authoritarian, non-totalitarian aspect of the sentiment: abandoning urban master plans is similar to abandoning master-categories. I also like what Celeste Olalquiaga says about kitsch—“eclectic cannibalism”, “unbridled voraciousness”, kitsch as the “original recycler” in its stealing and redeployment of motifs and materials with no regard for their original context or use—which lends it an inherent criticality vis-à-vis hierarchy and classificatory boundaries. I understand how any given work of mine could be described as a landscape garden, a constructed universe or biosphere, an architectural or visual mnemonic, the strip mall survivor of a bombed metropolis, a materialized repetition compulsion…I understand them as follows: as material worlds offering, in the manner of the everyday worlds we inhabit, a bombardment of the senses, multiple associations at different semiotic levels that will confuse and clash and remain fragmentary and never be reduced to a singularity or for mac oherency— des pitethe illusion of their environmental containment and coherence.
Max Hooper Schneider, The Discovery of VHS, 2015, lecteur de VHS et matériaux mixtes, 156 x 40 x 62 cm.