Tracing Obsolescence brings together four artists who explore the material and psychic traces left by declining industrial-scale manufacturing and extraction. Through printmaking, sculpture, installation, and performance, they attend to goods that have been discarded, places that are abandoned, and memories that seem forgotten. In so doing, they question the finality of obsolescence, reactivating materials and intervening in processes of deterioration in order to investigate contemporary environmental, socio-economic, and geo-political crises.
Sto Len’s printmaking and performance practice exists through collaboration with nature. Using an adaptation of suminagashi, a 12th-century Japanese technique of printing from ink floating on water, Len captures the moving surface of the Newtown Creek, a polluted 3.8-mile tributary of the East River flowing between Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. Drawn to the solitude and serenity he finds there, Len maintains a studio-shack at the creek’s eastern terminus in Maspeth, an area originally called ‘Mespeatches’ after the Native American people of the same name who lived there.
Mespeatches translates as ‘at the bad water place.’ While the name once referred to the area’s abundant swamps, in today’s Newtown Creek the ‘bad water’ comes from a variety of sources. Beyond oil leaks from the refineries that operated in the area from the mid-nineteenth century’including the notorious Greenpoint oil spill, uncovered in 1978’the creek has long been used as a place to dump all kinds of refuse including animal and human waste, grease, and acid. The closure of many industrial plants in the area did little to stem the toxic flow. Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers it is now one of the most polluted waterways in the US, and in 2010, was designated a high-priority Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Len’s work exposes New York’s dirtiest secret. He explores the creek by boat, observing the patterns created on its oily surface and occasionally intervening with a stick or brush. Toxic historical sludge rises from the riverbed, creating a palimpsest of industrial decay, past and present. Capturing the composition is a delicate process, involving laying the paper down on the water’s surface, carefully retrieving it without tearing or smudging, and transporting it back to the bank to dry out.
Recently, Len’s ‘Pollution Print’ series has expanded to projects in Colombia and also Vietnam, where he has developed installation-performances drawing on Vietnamese funeral traditions. His altars honor the ‘deceased’ water, inviting people to grieve and reflect on their relationship with this vital resource and the natural world more generally. For Len, juxtaposing the beautiful with the disgusting is a way of approaching political environmentalism without pushing an overt message or agenda. By revealing its material traces, his prints draw attention to the lingering effects of industrial waste, both on the environment and on its human dependents.
Tahir Karmali explores abusive mining practices in Africa, as well as disposable consumerism; he ritually deconstructs discarded technologies such as old mobile phones to obtain substances like cobalt and copper, disrupting their typical path toward the trash heap. Selasi Awusi Sosu uses video and sound to create ghostly holographic re- stagings of the now defunct glass bottle manufacturing process in Ghana, while Dana Whabira’s installation highlights the rise of automation and the fall of machinery, technology and people that have become redundant or terminated.
Together, these artists’ works propose non-linear, context-embedded ways of tracing obsolescence in post-industrial landscapes, revealing material circuits and trajectories that may be redirected to create unexpected, problematic, and mysterious beauty. Tracing Obsolescence was selected through apexart’s Open Call. For more information or images visit apexart.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evelyn Owen is a writer and curator based in New York City. A cultural geographer by training, her research explores contested geographical imaginations, especially in relation to contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora. She is currently the Curatorial Fellow at The Africa Center, NYC. Her writing has been published by The Guardian, FOAM, Contemporary&, Okayafrica, 1-54, and Africa is a Country. She received her PhD with a thesis on the geographies of contemporary African art from Queen Mary, University of London.
apexart’s programs are supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Buhl Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Greenwich Collection Ltd., William Talbott Hillman Foundation, Affirmation Arts Fund, the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, the Fifth Floor Foundation, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.