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El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace

Amanda Sanfilippo

El Anatsui, Garden Wall, 2011, aluminum and copper wire, wall piece: 205 x 209 inches, floor piece: 209 x 295 inches. Installation at the Bass Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Silvia Ros. Courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art.

The Bass Museum of Art
February 8 – August 18, 2014

Gravity and Grace holds satisfying contradictions: huge, humble; shimmer, trash; detail, big picture; spectacle, substance; industrial, craft. The scale of the monumental wall works is impressive, and the recycled materials they are constructed out of, curious. Like a magpie or a family of raccoons, we indulge in the multitudes of flattened metal scraps—bottle caps, tin-can lids—that comprise the works, and marvel at the mind-numbing labor required to produce them.

As a matter of principle, Anatsui does not provide installation instructions. This perhaps overly convenient metaphor for life’s ever-changing nature as espoused by the artist is thwarted by museological pedantics. The arrangement of the works—every crinkle and fold—was designed at the Akron Art Museum, and followed to exact specifications here.

The use of recycled industrially produced metal offers an avenue to explore the economic principle of exchange value vs. use value: when a pot is broken it is not the end of its life, but rather a change of form that can bring about new purpose; (a loose quote from the artist’s Art:21). The use value of the objects shifts from functional to contemplative. Yet according to that same source, Anatsui does not have ecological or activist leanings. What is problematic here is that the semiotics are too strong to ignore. Denied an agenda, we are left feeling dazzled, but dumb.

What is more interesting is that the caps and scraps, almost exclusively derived from liquor bottles, illuminate the economic triangle between Africa, Europe, and the United States, where the introduction of liquor to Africa by European merchants became the hinge in the American slave trade. Amongst this presumption, it cannot go missed that Anatsui himself has built a guild of young men in Ghana to twist pieces of wire together and form the vast glittering chainmail. The pieces then tour internationally through museums and galleries, ticking off all their boxes: accessibility, narrative, spectacle. The work’s possible subjects—colonialism and the forces of global capitalism—are reflected in the production and dissemination of the works themselves.

In this trajectory, it is no coincidence that the large-scale works from a distance resemble weavings, the patterns and colors suggesting the native textiles of Ghana, or perhaps more generally, Africa. The massive, glimmering abstractions work as fetishizations of that continent’s complex history, an avenue to re-claim colonialism on its own terms and in its own patterns and style.