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Furniture Music
by Eva Diaz (Assistant Professor, History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute)

Picture the interior of a corporate office, say IBM in its heyday in the 1950s or 1960s. As an extreme example of bureaucracized space, you probably can visualize it even if you haven’t actually seen it. Picture a vast area populated by endless rows of uniform desks, a seemingly limitless expanse made brightly sterile by fluorescent fixtures ensconced in the depressingly regular grid of a drop ceiling.

Next, envision a domestic interior, a living room for example, primed for a Met Home spread, every object tidy, ordered, pleasantly asymmetric, every chair standing to attention, each vase, lamp, and tchotchke intentionally placed with a compulsive eye for display. These are environments in which presentation has calcified into predictable pattern.

With these sites in mind, imagine them detonated, unearthing a new order in disturbance?picture fragments of chairs held magically aloft, pieces of desks and armoires clinging to walls, phones forcefully jammed inside drawers, dangling their tangled cords like so much unkempt hair. Picture the corporate-designed and the interior decorated intermingled and exploded, caught hovering in mid-blast with a stroboscopic camera, frozen in the midst of catastrophe.

This fragmented place could be as Alice found it in her fall down the rabbit hole, with cupboards and bookshelves mischievously adhered to walls in an awry parallax of the world as previously experienced. Such a rearrangement possesses the menace of other, recent and cruel alterations of space, however?the attacks upon the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001 come to mind. As embodiments of corporate office culture and capitalist efficiency, their violently destroyed interiors (though shielded by the hulking modernist towers) perhaps experienced a comparable instant of dislodgment before pulverization. Or, this new off-kilter space may bring to mind the aftermath of Katrina, in which the domestic was ferociously reordered and inverted, whole homes floating off their foundations as their bobbing contents drifted away into limelight of publicity.

In Euyoung Hong’s recent sculptures a similarly aggressive rethinking of objects and interior space occurs. Hong scatters and suspends precisely sliced wedges of furniture throughout the gallery space, creating moments of unexpected repetition, say, when corners of a desk have gathered together in an improbable wall-bound sequence of jutting triangular promontories, or when an end table is sutured to another and suspended mid-room in an odd upended hybrid. Chairs, like hyper-magnetized objects having finally surrendered their independent resolve, are ripped asunder and charge toward a single point in a jumbled cluster of legs protruding chaotically from the wall. Eerily, each object is blanched to match the stark walls, as if coated in the dust cloud of a massive explosion or exposed in the ionic flare of a white hot nuclear blast.

* * *

In the early part of the 20th century, composer Eric Satie called for new musical forms “which will be part,” according to his great advocate John Cage, “of the noises of the environment.” Given the length of some Satie’s pieces, such as the more than 24-hour composition Vexations, his music was intended as background for other events; Satie’s plan was to create “furniture music… designed to satisfy ‘utility’ requirements.” If it was barely recognizable as music, if it blended in with the innocuous furniture, only then would his compositions possess the “power to irritate” and to “despise art.”

Reflecting upon the career of filmmaker Luis Bunuel, literary theorist Michael Wood noted that attempts by avant-gardists to conceive of a rigid order, of straight-laced furniture as a foil for a revolution in music, in fact serve to set firm points of opposition and fixed codes to transgress. In this manner, transgression misrecognizes the intractable problem of the symbolic order: that it’s always changing, and sometimes with a perverted rationality. The tendency to dissolve the category of art into functionality, “life” defined by its utility, in turn creates a life gone sterile with its reduction to pure use value. To Satie the furniture is a constant, a backdrop to mimic in its overlooked ubiquity. But what if the furniture rears up and wants to transgress too, if it tires of playing the straw man of conformity to the rebellion of actions around it? What if objects and background aren’t fixed tableaus upon which to act out change, what if they are recognized as part of a process of revolutionizing outmoded forms, and indeed bring attention to the ubiquity of form in our surroundings, bringing “background” to prominence in a move that was the promise and technique of modernist design?

Hong’s disorienting spaces may at first appear as imagined, as a visual enactment of the condensed and displaced logic of dreams. Yet in the detritus thrown up by Hong’s catastrophes a demand for redress is made by the recently outmoded objects that are the kibble of landfills. The quaint and obsolete cord-bound phones now supplanted by wireless networks, the mock Chippendale clawed chairs or pseudo Federal-style bedside tables that are the fixtures of thrift stores and cheap motels, the “functional” desk whose emulation of modernist design stopped at the point of uninspired austerity; this junk has been given the dignity of weirdness, has been chopped and rearranged so that its uselessness and ugly bad design acts like a beacon, a warning from the virtually disposable objects of our culture that they are still replete meaning and strangeness. This stuff, the normally unattended to backdrop, insists on being seen as charged with intention, as created and ordered with certain interests and certain quick profits in mind. The way we create objects and organize spaces is a corollary to the way we arrange our society?never neutral, always constructed. For Hong slicing open these disregarded objects unlocks insights into the way our habitual use of space can be estranged toward a close attention to the appearance and organization of form, so that new forms can be created that represent our ever-changing symbolic order. Here the music doesn’t become like the furniture so much as the furniture creates a punk cacophony of its own.

*Eva Diaz is an art historian and writer. Her Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton University, titled “Chance and Design: Experimentation at Black Mountain College,” was advised by Hal Foster. Diaz was on the faculty of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program from 1999-2008, and she was recently the curator at Art in General, a non-profit contemporary arts space in New York. She has taught art history at Sarah Lawrence College and Parsons The New School of Design. In fall 2009 she joins the faculty of Pratt Institute in New York as an assistant professor of contemporary art.

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