The Bottom Needs a Shadow

Written in response to the collaborative exhibition The Bottom Needs a Shadow on display at 1708 Gallery from November 6 to December 6, 2014.

In Robert Smithson’s photo-essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” published in Artforum in 1967, Smithson turned an artist’s eye to his boyhood home: urban Passaic, NJ. The diary-like-essay offers a series of photographs depicting industrial places, ranging from concrete derricks to empty parking lots of entropic documentation, or so-called “ruins in reverse.” Most known for his large-scale transformations of the environment, Smithson displayed his first non-site, a pile of rocks divided into several bins alongside printed materials, in New York-based Dwan Gallery’s “Earth Works” show in 1968. Displaced from its original site, the non-site exposed and expanded the limitations of the gallery setting, while highlighting its original environment.


In many ways, “The Bottom Needs a Shadow” begins with Smithson’s historical precedent: the non-site, entropy, environmentalism, and displacement. In fact, the artist statement that accompanies the exhibition is rife with allusions to art historical practices and preoccupations of the 1960s: Minimalist artist Donald Judd’s “specific objects,” experimental composer John Cage’s anechoic chamber, art historian Rosalind Krauss’ understanding of the grid as Modernism’s defining moment, and references to Constructivist painter Kazimir Malevich and Duchamp’s readymade undergirding it all. This sense of a shared theoretically-influenced and art historically attuned dialogue is underscored throughout the exhibition. The installation itself is smart and layered in a good way, but sometimes the discourse gets ahead of itself, taking pride or pleasure at its own wit. However, when left alone to its own devices – rather than just existing as multivalent jargon – the work as an installation speaks to a much larger dialogue. Discourse then can become another valuable layer instead of a defining crutch.


For “The Bottom Needs a Shadow,” artists Alexander Hayden, Aaron Koehn, and Thomas Burkett – all who usually work individually – teamed up to produce the exhibition. A series of five large plastic drums, taken from along the banks of a James River paper mill, have been placed in the gallery. Some stand upright while others lay on their side. Dwarfing the narrow space, each bulky form exudes weight and mass, even though the hollow drums are empty, save for the two catfish swimming in one and a subwoofer in another. Graffiti, water stains, and other signs of outdoor wear cover the exterior of each drum. Alongside these sculptural objects, three separate photographs of steel awnings, each affixed to a convex mounting, hang on the wall, high above the viewer’s head. Surveillance cameras are visible in one. The back left of the gallery has been reserved for a series of ten store-bought metal, hooded lamps hung in a row at descending heights. Corresponding to their sequential placement, each solar-powered light incrementally turns on and off at 8-second intervals, one after another. The solar power, produced by three panels that have been installed in the back windows of the gallery, is fed through a series of wires and batteries running down the back steps and snaking through the gallery; there are no attempts to hide the cords. The white and black extension cords provide the power for the lights and the sound, Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” a song that alludes to a tag on one of the drums.


However, the cords also provide a network of connectivity bringing together this seemingly piecemeal installation and become a thread running throughout. And this network is not just visible. Namely, its congruency is situated dialectically in vision and sound. Ironically, while the hulking frames of the drums themselves seem to take precedent, it is instead the overlooked, the fragmentary, and the invisible that commands the most attention. While the rap music is clearly intended as a musical component, it is not the only sound emitted from the work. In many ways the rap music seems to be the most “dumb” element, acting as a stand-in for reconsidering the displaced sound. For example, when standing next to the lights, one can audibly hear the click of each bulb going on and off at temporal intervals. Together they create a pulsating type of rhythm. Similarly, the six battery packs give off a droning noise that is inescapable; like the lamps, it is incremental rather than continuous. Even the catfish swimming in the water-filled drum emit soft sounds as the subtle waves they create lap up against the sides of the plastic. Taken together, these fragments of sounds coupled with the rap music create a syncopated rhythm of noise; a mishmash layering that fills the space more fully than the objects themselves while bringing attention to their incongruency.


When considering experimental sound, John Cage remains a pivotal figure. His experiments in the anechoic chamber in 1951 lead him to theorize sound as a material thing and restructure time from a temporal to a spatial designation. This sense of spatial temporality and material sound is underscored in “The Bottom Needs a Shadow.” For the exhibition, the objects as non-site are doubly displaced from both their original site and visible primacy. Rather than just acting as a non-site that alludes to its original, the drums, light, and photographs combined with the sound create a temporally marked environment that brings attention to the fragmentary moments marked incrementally by the white noise. Connected by a network – literally extension cords and wires – the noise of solar power flowing through the site creates a material that literally exposes the limitations of the gallery walls as a container of space.


But to what end? In their artist statement, the three believe that the work offers an understanding of “place, time, and a dwelling for mutable things.” Embedded in object-oriented ontology, the artists claim that when rearranged into new hierarchies, the objects in the installation produce an “adaptive life of a city, an economy, a geography, a body of water, a species.” Objects then become a way of renegotiating our own subjectivity. Claiming such a redemptive value for objects seems far-fetched. Like the photograph of the surveillance camera pictured in one of the awnings that alludes to a gaze but in reality records nothing, these types of theoretical calisthenics that ground “The Bottom Needs a Shadow” offer but one thread of interpretation. Mimicking the limitations of the gallery, the artist’s sentiments and words map out a series of limits that should be exposed, pressed against, and turned inside out. Like the title itself, the artists’ framing of the work needs a shadow as well. Sound then becomes a way of reframing the conversation, turning against the visible things that command our attention, and looking at the network underneath that powers the whole system.

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams
December 2014

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams
is a doctoral student and instructor in Art History at VCU; she is writing her dissertation on Walter de Maria. She received her BFA in Sculpture from VCU in 2007 and her MA in Art History and Museum Studies from the University of Cincinnati in 2011. She previously worked as a fine arts specialist for Cincinnati-based Cowans Auctions Inc. and has written about art for Richmond’s 
Style Weekly, Cincinnati-based ÆQAI, and Critics’ Picks.

ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.

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