The first thing one notices when stepping into New York’s bitforms is the golden-orange color of the gallery walls—they exude a coastal warmth into the typically white-cubed space. Tapered over them is an almost impenetrable wall of text outlining the most granular details regarding a series of object descriptions in alphabetical order, categorized by numeric code. Artist Marina Zurkow’s “MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans)” approaches the socioeconomics of growth through shipment and trade on a global scale. The code displayed is the Harmonized System Commodity Description and Coding System, or Harmonized System (HS for short) which outlines goods that are exported out of the United States. The code is made up of 26,000 items in 99 categories, a specificity of which borders on the absurd.
In MORE&MORE: “China, India, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, USA” (2016), six video sculptures of various shapes and colours are situated throughout the space, some placed upon wooden boxes that evoke shipping crates. The algorithmically generated visuals portray a looping combination of shipping motifs and abstract mosaics: cranes load and unload cargo, ships cross bodies of water and trucks transport to and from ports day and night in all manners of good and bad weather. In one video, oil droplets stretch down the screen.
There is a cartoon-plasticity to the color scheme of both the space and the video works. Which isn’t an insult– the videos have the appeal of a low-res 1990s PC game lacquered with a sun-baked richness where players score points through the successful transport of goods.
With that in mind, ports depicted have a synthetic quality that is incongruous with the world as it actually exists. This adds another layer of irony to the System Commodity Description and Coding System’s (self) description as being ‘Harmonized’ in that it doesn’t fit comfortably with the natural state of the world. That is, as a self-contained human-made ordering system, the HS feels discontinuous with the world in that it doesn’t offer an actual depiction of it. It is a lens through which the world becomes a list, or jumble, of stuff that is moved back and forth. The more we impose a description, the more stuff we make, the more we produce, the more we must catalogue and the more that must be transported. An actual portrait of the world remains elusive. Our depiction of reality, then, becomes a garbage heap of infinite approximation.
↑ The apparent repetition of the successive entries accentuates the granularity of the Harmonized System (HS) code – only very small changes or additions are made from entry to entry.
A pop-up store accompanies the show, selling products crafted from materials such as 3D powder, plaster, and fungus. They look and feel as if they had been culled directly from the planet and shaped into commercial products such as clothing, poultry, or guns and grenades, to name a few. At the opening, chocolates in the shape of objects such as bullets and blood diamonds were given out to guests. Resources are extracted from the Earth and transformed into consumable or commercial products that can’t be recycled back into to the planet. Rather, they further obfuscate the Earth by creating more clutter as well as the necessary byproduct of consumerist culture, waste. We shape raw materials for our own purpose but in so doing, we terraform the planet into a junky plastic-island wasteland. We extract, process, produce, catalogue and then excrete.
We add to the pile in service of economic growth, distancing the supposed benefits of this process from the exploitation it is predicating upon. The press release expresses the sentiment, that the ocean is now treated as “asphalt connecting a Pangea of capital”. While prior generations viewed the open seas as a frontier into the not yet known world it has lost its inspirational heft. We approach the ocean more pragmatically now– as a means of sustaining a way of life that, in truth, is unsustainable, through leisure and commerce. Indeed, included within the shop as well is an interactively-designed swimsuit series that radiates the cool glow of haute-indifference. It ignores the provenance of the contents that make up the patterned design gracing its body in service of complacent fashion. The ocean is a playground.
↑ Installation details from Marina Zurkow’s MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans) / the MORE&MORE Store (left) and Travel Companions for a Canned Crustacean from Guatemala to Mexico (right)
In the press release, 17th century philosopher Hugo Grotious is quoted as describing the ocean as “immense”, “infinite” and “bounded only by the heavens”. It is apparent that the ocean no longer retains this symbolic impact in our culture. Which is not to say that it doesn’t inspire exploration, but its function as a metaphor for what is necessarily unknowable yet profound has lost its potency.
Coincidentally, Rachel Rose’s video work that screened at the Whitney Everything and More closed the weekend before Zurkow’s “MORE&MORE” opened. Immediately an asymmetry between the titles of the piece and the show presents itself. ‘Everything’ is broad enough to encapsulate the entire universe, both the known and the unknown. While ‘More’ can be read as additive in both cases, its use in the title of the Zurkow show is much more active. MORE&MORE evokes an endless production in service of an insatiable demand. Everything & More describes a state of existence wherein nothing is to be added on since all that there is has already been included– even that “more” which exists beyond all that ‘everything’ contains.
↑ Rachel Rose Everything and More (2015), installation view (photos: Ron Amstutz)
‘Everything and More’ also represents the juxtaposition between Earth and space in the video. Central to the work is a series of remarks by NASA Astronaut David Wolf who (according to the essay), made seven spacewalks throughout his career and spent 128 days aboard the Mir Space Station. He suggests that the return to Earth was more disorienting than the entry into space; he had to re-acclimate his senses to the planet. The astronaut came face to face with the profundity of a borderless universe, an experience that human sense is ill-equipped to handle. To return to the planet was to become forcibly aware of this inadequacy.
At one point the camera is submerged below water in a buoyancy tank used to simulate zero gravity in a NASA laboratory. This is in contrast to Zurkow’s piece in which the ocean’s depths disappear, and, as the press release puts it, is transformed into ”asphalt” connecting commercial ports. However, the simulation is not a replacement for zero gravity, Instead, it is a paltry preparation for uncontainable, irreducible experience. When the camera emerges from the water, a kaleidoscopic, crystalline effect abstracts its view of the laboratory as if the water has disoriented viewer.
In Zurkow’s work we are presented with an explicit picture of the world through object description and cataloguing. Rose’s presentation of the universe, in contrast, is much more expressive. While the work is indeed punctuated with images of crowds enjoying an electronic music concert they are in service of portraying an emotional experience above all. This dovetails with her depictions of space through chemical concoctions that, while not quite equivalent to space, still have similar features to that expanse. Instead of capturing the look of space exactly they approximate it through a familiar visual appeal. By collaging together images of the seas of people with these more abstract portraits of space-like fluids we draw a line between the collective emotional experience of music with space as an overwhelming immensity that we can only engage in a purely abstract way.
When confronted with infinity we only have our senses and in space those aren’t enough. It is an endless void that we can never truly entirely contain through our limited, human means, of comprehending the world. In Zurkow’s MORE&MORE we see an effort to categorize everything down to the slightest minutia without ever arriving at any total understanding. All it does is clutter the world with more stuff burying it even further under our perception.
The infinity of space can only be grasped so far despite how much we might or might not know about it. For as much as we continue to learn about our universe there is always some quality that is just outside of our boundaries of human comprehension. However, it is that elusiveness that inspires us to continue to explore. This, of course is a definitive characteristic of the pursuit of science. But even before rational thought comes into the picture it is the wonder of that untouched infinite expanse that inspires us to act.
There is a fear, then, that since we once held the seas in similar reverence that space is resigned to a similar fate. One hopes that due to its unimaginable scale that it can never arrive there and we continue to treat it with awe, at least in our lifetimes. While the sea is relegated to a single planet, however mysterious it might remain, it is forever finite. Space, on the other hand, for how much we know about it, will always remain infinite and will retain its majesty in the face of the desire to truly understand it. It is this truth that David Wolf was confronted with: no amount of human ingenuity will contain the profundity to which he was exposed.
How much longer until the current source of wonder is denigrated in the same way? We speak now of mining meteors for minerals and the privatized space travel of companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Hopefully for as long as we can be awed by the infinitude of the unknown space it will continue to instil within us a sense of wonder.
When we are faced with the can’t-be-known (or can’t-be-known-yet) we are left vibrating in its presence. It’s sheer magnitude is unveiled to us as a form of an ungraspable beauty that is infinitely outside of our reach. Its permanent elusiveness is not discouraging nor is it tragic, however. Instead, our confrontation with the unknown compels us to venture outside of the comfort of our senses and into the darkness of a borderless immensity. All this despite the potential for limited success. It is not about reaching an ultimate point of total understanding but to continue to be inspired by the unvarnished beauty of the not yet known.