Walking through Milstein Hall makes me feel like a hippie lost in a space station. Judging by Maria Park’s new exhibit in Milstein Gallery, I’m not the only one. The exhibit, entitled Shelf Life, was created in response to Milstein's architecture, and it, like the rest of Milstein, is far, far away from the green planet that surrounds it. Shelf Life presents the viewer with the world of man, teetering on a sterile white shelf as it dismembers the natural world at right angles. It is effective and it is brutal.
Upon entering the gallery, I am presented with four identical white shelves, one on top of the other. The shelves hold evenly spaced objects: balls of paint (green, white, blue), solid plastic cubes (green, white), a row of plastic LEGO trees and bushes. Everything is in order, laid out with mathematical precision, ready for assembly. It brings me back to long days spent surrounded by LEGO, breaking the world up into indestructible little blocks and reassembling them to suit the purposes of the present game. Everything here suggests a tree. But nothing here is a tree.
On the opposite wall hangs a painting of two humans passing through a garden. I consult the gallery guide and check the materials: acrylite on Plexiglas. I look closer. Like so much else in this gallery, this is another reconfiguration of plastic. Little fragments of colored plastic, arranged in a particular way and attached to a larger piece of transparent plastic. Plastic is a petrochemical. That is to say, it is derived from petroleum, which is what happens when dead plants and animals lie in the earth for a long time. Derived, somewhere along the line, from an actual artist seeing actual humans walk among actual plants, these bits of plastic have come a long way. We have done with the image hanging on the wall that which is characteristically human: We take the world presented to us, flatten it out, smash it up into its component parts, mold it together into a shape which works for us (a tool, a toy, a building, a work of art) and put it on the shelf. Look at it. Scratch our heads. Appreciate it.
It’s beautiful, I guess, and a certain kind of exciting, just like Milstein Hall, in its way, is exciting. We worship innovation for its own sake, and Milstein is nothing if not an innovative configuration of concrete, metal, plastic and glass. That dome with the plastic bubbles on it is ... cool? I’m not sure it’s quite the hang-out spot the architects imagined it would be, but hey, at least it’s different. Is it a beautiful building? Meh. It’s innovative, and it’s quite energy efficient, but I would hesitate to call that concrete labyrinth a thing of beauty. Those massive slabs of concrete, those sheets of brushed metal — they were mountains once, sacrificed, like so much of Planet Earth, at the altar of innovation.
Shelf Life sits at the heart of this bittersweet monument to mankind’s LEGO-set mentality. Explicitly created as a response to the architecture of Milstein, the gallery serves as an exaggerated parody of the building’s cold, crazed modernity. The second room of the exhibit, like the first, is framed by sterile white shelves holding chopped up bits of the world. Atop each shelf sits a series of books: Thoureau’s Walden, a number of works by John Muir, a guide to the trees of North America. Each series of books is bookended on either side by a plastic cube covered with abstract, fragmented jungle-scapes. The books are, of course, printed on paper, the flattened-out-smashed-up-remolded form of the rainforests suggested by the bookends. It’s an elegant and a horrible joke, these naturalists sitting on shelves in a space-age gallery. Thoureau and Muir become, like me, hippies lost in a space station.
Shelf Life scares me. It does what art does best; it forces us to confront the paradoxes and contradictions of our lives which are so difficult to put in words. These uniform shelves, always suggesting nature but always deeply unnatural, tell the story of Planet Earth under the hands of innovative primates, our perspectives profoundly limited by the straight lines and cubes into which we carve our world. They tell the joke of hanging nature up on a gallery wall like a fresh kill.
Most of all, they ask a question. What is the shelf life of such a world? What is the expiration date of nature on a shelf? And what will we do once the whole thing goes rancid?