The Corporate Wasteland | Art Review | Chicago Reader

The Corporate Wasteland 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

ROLL

at N.A.M.E.

Installed in an alcove at N.A.M.E., Jin Lee's simulated office space instantly flashes you back to every crappy white-collar job you've ever endured. As part of a four-person show called "Roll," Lee's pointedly austere re-creation critiques the dehumanizing effects of corporate culture. Aptly named Working Words, the scene features a series of steel wall panels filled with text, a desk with two chairs, a couple of file cabinets, a small sofa, and a watercooler. There are no signs of personality--no family snapshots, no postcards from afar, no gaudy mementos or goofy birthday cards decorating the desk or walls. Only a few potted plants break up the beige monotony. This generic atmosphere is a sad reminder that millions of people drudge away a third of their lives in just such spaces. But it is the small, corporate-cool panels that give the installation its real condemnatory thrust.

These panels mimic the name plaques or directive signs of the standard corporate office suite. But the playful format and personal references of the silk-screened text are things you'll never find at IBM headquarters. Near the top of each panel is a sentence fragment that's completed by a vertical list of alliterative resume-building verbs. One panel reads:

To get ahead, I

scheduled

selected

set up

served

serviced

simplified

sold

solved

strengthened

stimulated

structured

streamlined

studied

suggested

summarized

superseded

supervised

supported

suppressed

Lee's alliterative stacks of words draw us into a rhythmic singsong mode that's initially fun, like a child's learning game. As we read off each verb, certain value judgments may flash to mind. But there is little time to reflect on these, for the inherent structure of the list pushes us on. As we read through the 12 panels, our style changes from alert participation, in which every word receives attention, to a skimming, trancelike chant. The words begin to look and sound alike, and the nonstop tyranny of the lists exercises a hypnotic power. Eventually, the texts produce the same mind-numbing effect that boring corporate environments have on employees.

Sometimes Lee's opening sentence fragments are repetitive: "To have security," "To maintain my lifestyle," "To support myself" all seem slightly different expressions of the same goal. But the physical reality of phrases like "To keep warm" and "To feed my family" movingly reminds us of some of the human needs and desires that drive us to submit to the identity-sapping corporate structure.

Lynne Brown's installation, Boardroom/Parlor: Arrangements, also aims at corporate critique, so its themes often overlap with Lee's. However, the acerbic bravado of Brown's overtly mocking tone provides a counterpoint to Lee's calm straightforwardness. Brown's installation commands an entire room of the gallery. The derisive mood is immediately established by the color of the walls, which have been painted a delightfully nasty pink--the color of a ten-year-old bottle of Pepto Bismol. A couple of the walls display photos of golf, bowling, and tennis trophies in gold metal frames. An engraved plaque below each photo espouses a bit of utopian corporate philosophy. On another wall, where you might have expected family portraits, a mantel holds several more trophy photos. A few small-scale models of Greco-Roman pillars, a few old studio portraits of Victorian males, and occasional phrases made up on printers' metal stamps--"Diamond Engagement Ring" and "Perfect Fit Guaranteed"--complete Brown's view of the historically intrusive, stereotyping profit-motivated patriarchy.

In this view, loyalty to the company replaces loyalty to the family. Time spent in pursuit of excellence on the job is time stolen from the cultivation of loving romantic and familial relations. Even playful competition, represented by the sports trophies, is co-opted by big business to encourage more work; competition between employees and courting clients on the golf course come to mind. Advances in computer technology and telecommunications have helped corporate America promote an obsessive work/career ethic: any place can be turned into a boardroom. As round-the-clock business dealing usurps the traditional functions of the living room, bedroom, restaurant, vacation resort, and even the car, personal relationships begin to erode. As Brown's pink walls proclaim, these are indeed dyspeptic times.

While Lee and Brown focus on the human casualties of an all-pervasive Western business mania, David Helm reminds us that we are not the only victims. His installation, Points of Origin, uses audiotapes and slide projections to connect toxic waste with endangered species. Eight slide projectors that look like freestanding spotlights herd together on the floor of the gallery's main exhibition space; they project eight large, identical portraits of Charles Darwin onto a couple of adjacent walls. Portable speakers attached to tape recorders hang in various places on the walls. From each speaker we hear a soft, often unintelligible voice reading alternately from a list of poisonous chemicals and a list of threatened animal species.

Compared to the installations of Lee and Brown, Points of Origin seems visually skimpy and thematically uncommitted. Helm's ecological subject matter is ultrarelevant, but he never seems to take a stand on it. We want him to tell us something we don't already know or make some connection between nature and culture we haven't already thought of. That man-made toxic waste is killing off hundreds of species is obvious. Helm's installation doesn't offer any ideas about where to go from there, nor does it seem to express a personal opinion on this dire situation. The emotionless voices read endlessly from unseen lists, while multiple Darwins gaze at us with vacant eyes. Perhaps Helm's point is that in the face of concrete horrors art is merely a powerless gesture.

Ironically, the show's final installation is not "art," but it is powerful. Since 1986, restaurant owner Prasong Nurack and his Des Moines establishment Taste of Thailand have hosted an ongoing poll that queries customers on important and not-so-important issues of the day. Questions, which range from the political to the philosophical, the pragmatic to the facetious, are composed and tabulated by a committee of the restaurant's customers on a regular basis. Poll questions and answers from February and March of 1991 appear on a long roll of white paper unfurled across a gallery wall. In addition, N.A.M.E. viewers may participate in a special contest by filling out a questionnaire (they're stacked on a table in front of the wall piece). Obviously, this is not an art installation per se--or if it is, it's in Duchamp's sense: because it's in a gallery. But the ongoing project accomplishes something important: it shows us that it's the small business owner rather than the powerful, faceless conglomerate that best embodies the original spirit of free enterprise. The poll provides the restaurant with direct-contact advertising while allowing customers an opportunity to participate in a dialogue that has nothing to do with commercial concerns.

In one way or another, the installations of Lee, Brown, Helm, and Naruck give business the business. By appropriating corporate accoutrements like plaques and office furniture or organizing structures like lists and polls, "Roll" shows how deeply oppressive even the best economic system can be when it forgets the individual. But this is not a doom-and-gloom show. Its emphasis on the importance of the individual--human or animal--points to a way out of the corporate wasteland. We don't need revolution so much as involvement in decision-making processes that affect our lives. As crime and substance abuse increase, as natural resources shrink, corporate culture is entering an era of accountability. Shows like "Roll" indicate currents of thought and feeling coalescing in the larger sphere.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Lynda Barckert

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Tempel Lipizzans Tempel Farms
June 19
Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories