Over the past couple of weeks I’ve found myself wandering into Sonya Clark’s exhibition in the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, and spending my spare minutes sitting with the quite remarkable works she has installed there. The proximity of my office to this gallery is one of the great treats of working in this building. (As are the moments when you can hear someone playing the piano in our seminar room, but that’s another story.) Clark’s work, however, is particularly compelling for me because she is working through some of the key issues that also drive my dissertation, though admittedly from a very different direction.
In both the pieces currently installed here and in her prior work, Clark builds surprising surfaces from seemingly quotidian materials. In my favorite piece from this show, a pile of cheap black hair combs becomes an undulating woven surface when bound up together in just the right way. This Woven Comb Carpet (2013) offers a familiar object to viewers, but in such a way that the object is itself made strange. The rigidity of the hard plastic gives way to a surface that seems to be moving. Indeed, if I spend too long looking at this piece my eyes start to swim. Clark is playing with the materiality of these objects—breaking teeth off of combs to create a wall-size “tapestry,” stitching braided cotton onto a canvas to create the effect of an optical illusion, twisting thin paper into tight ropes that leap out of holes in the wall. But even as the stacks of combs have transformed into something entirely different when seen from a distance, when you change your perspective, this elaborate textile becomes a stack of combs again.
Clark’s works are invested in practices of shape-shifting. By that I mean that they are formal experiments that nonetheless call attention to our own relationships with objects, and how they shape the way we see ourselves in the world. For Clark, objects are “charged with agency,” a phrase that evokes other works I’veeen reading this week: Anthropologist Webb Keane’s essay “Signs are not the Garb of Meaning” (2005)1, which charts out a way to think through both the material and symbolic registers of objects, and the ways that these goods shape human behavior and consciousness. Keane’s work is fun to read alongside political theorist Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts (2002)2, which examines how a combination of human and non-human forces shaped the emergence of a post-colonial state in late-19th and early 20th century Egypt. While these works were written a decade ago, questions of the “agential” properties of objects—and how they shape human life and identity, but perhaps more explosively the entire category of humanity—are still open sites for scholarly debate today. Reading Keane and Mitchell alongside Clark’s exhibition has made for a fruitful week of thinking about what Clark might mean by the “agency” of the combs and braids, and other quotidian materials that populate her work.
For both Keane and Mitchell, the material properties of non-human entities (mosquitos, Sumbanese waist-cloths, economic markets), reveal the limitations of epistemologies that privilege “rational thought” as the key engine of social change. External forces shape human behavior, just as human behavior shapes the material world. Rather than creating systems of knowing that privilege one model or the other, how can we recognize the interconnectedness of both? As Mitchell puts it, “human agency, is a technical body, something made,” (53) just as man-made objects are. By making art works that offer new ways of seeing everyday materials in order to open conversations about the construction of social collectivity, Clark puts herself right into this debate. In particular her work asks how shared ideas about power articulated along divisions of race and gender, are mediated through the materials of everyday life, and how the physical properties of those materials shape these conversations in unexpected ways.
In my work on the industrial production of the regalia worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, I spend a lot of time thinking about how white supremacy, a shared ideological project, was reproduced in everyday objects and gestures. But Klan robes aren’t the same as black combs—they are objects created expressly for their symbolic qualities, to transform the wearer into a representation of a political ideal. The ideal use of a Klan robe is this symbolic value. Thus, I argue that interpreting only its symbolic properties continues to elide the mechanics of white supremacy as a form of social organization. Clark’s work suggests something similar by highlighting the ways that social collectivity is crafted through the materials, stories, and gestures of everyday life. But the power of the symbols through which mass cultural projects are enacted is not far from these discussions. In Clark’s other works, such as Unraveling and Unraveled (2015), she shows the slow labor of untangling the quotidian practices of racism from its most powerful symbols, by carefully deconstructing a woven confederate flag, thread by thread. Objects may be agents, Clark’s work suggests, but we are too—perhaps the trick is not underestimating the power of either.
–Katie Lennard, Mary I. and David D. Hunting Family Fellow, American culture; 11/13/2015
1Webb Keane, “Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things,”Materiality, ed. Daniel Miller (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 182-205.
2Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).