Near the entrance to Ben Schumacher’s recent show at Bortolami, “D S + R and the bar at the Orangerie,” visitors encountered a large 3-D printer and a somewhat forlorn-looking 9-by-12-inch canvas containing figure sketches against a watercolor ground. If this was a nod to what Claire Bishop has referred to as the “digital divide” between contemporary art practices that self-consciously employ new media and those rooted in more traditional approaches, then the rest of the exhibition seemed aimed at collapsing this distinction.
The “D S + R” of the show’s title refers to the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which participated in the exhibition, deploying a member of its design team to work from a desk situated in the center of the gallery throughout the show’s run. (The work space was vacant when this viewer was there.) On the desk was a motley assortment of printouts, glue tubes and parts of architectural models, along with the requisite array of office technology. Such material diversity is typical of Schumacher’s practice, which might be summed up as digital-era bricolage. Among the seemingly incongruous materials used by the artist are Internet-sourced photographic images, readymade industrial items, marble slabs, pieces of vinyl, textual fragments, objects made on 3-D printers, video screens and hair harvested from the artist’s shower drain. These materials and many more were integrated into an installation of sculptural and wall-hanging works that, taken together, present a vision of the analog and ordinary acceding to the digital.
Schumacher uses the orangeri—a type of greenhouse for conserving exotic and nonnative vegetation—as a metaphor for the Internet and its immediate access to information from around the world. Works included in the exhibition evinced a particular preoccupation with language systems and the unimpeded flow of energy and information. A number of freestanding, partitionlike, two-sided glass sculptures showcase portions of text from online discussions carried out in Esperanto and other auxiliary languages constructed to serve as universal modes of communication. On the other side of one such work, Maxwell’s Demon Returning a Gift in Much Degraded Form (2013), Schumacher has reproduced a drawing of the fictional entity postulated in James Clerk Maxwell’s famous entropy-defying thought experiment in thermodynamics. Electrical cords strung through holes in the glass sculptures and snaking throughout the gallery gave the impression that these works constituted a single, multipart installation—a microcosm of wired civilization in its increasingly global dimension.
Another series of works drew a portion of its content from food items purchased at Chelsea Market, a neighborhood destination for foodies and tourists alike. In these idiosyncratic artworks, various gourmet foods were reproduced on 3-D printers, overlaid with low-resolution images of D S + R projects and affixed to Ikea shelves complete with their manuals and bags of screws and fittings. Encased within rectangular Plexiglas frames and hung on the wall, these objects serve as suitable emblems for Manhattan in the 21st century, where gourmet food and high design are on continuous offer amid increasingly prefabricated surroundings.
As a short fictional text that accompanied the show appears to affirm, Schumacher’s work is at least partly a flirtation with post-humanism: the supposition that scientific progress will eventually lead to human obsolescence. Amid the exhibition’s technologically advanced environment, the twists of golden hair and lint set between tempered glass panels in a pair of Schumacher’s freestanding sculptures looked almost like relics of a bygone era.
PHOTO: Ben Schumacher: Maxwell’s Demon Returning a Gift in Much Degraded Form (back), 2013, tempered glass, inkjet on perforated vinyl, rapid prototype of seaweed and mixed mediums, 621⁄2 by 97 by 15 inches; at Bortolami.