In a 2015 interview with Momus, Canadian artist and educator Liz Magor interpreted her artistic practice as an investigation of things: our relationships with things, their relationships with one another, and how these rhizomatic exchanges expand, contract, and connect to one another. She describes her work as “totally against ideas” as “ideas are a dime a dozen.” Magor constructs her thing-centered thesis with methods akin to the field of affect theory as she investigates how these object centered relationships contain vocabularies that communicate “below-the-radar traumas, irritants, small anxieties. Things are always breaking…there is a general entropy and destruction going on in your life.” While asserting an affinity between Magor’s work and affect theory may seem counterintuitive, given the friction Magor herself situates between the physicality of her work and theoretical realm, it is this relational friction that Magor explores––she asks, what are the origins of your discomfort?
It is this pinprick of tension that draws out an audience’s emotional response. Magor’s alteration of items like thrift store shoes, blankets, fabric, and stuffed animals, edge their material disposability and anonymity into a state of alterity. Through this process of othering, Magor, in turn, allows space for the individual viewer to imagine. Such imagining can take the form of a viewer remembering previously forgotten pairs of shoes, the untold nameless things that have carried them to this moment. Celine Kopp reinforces the presence of this affective style of viewing in their essay “Are We Looking at Dead Birds?” on Magor’s work, observing that it is “not about markers or pop culture, but about finding moments where the material is almost not meaningful. It is about the ups and downs in an object’s life and the trajectories of our relationships with them.”
Magor’s show Blowout, currently up at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, continues to interrogate the entangled, sometimes contradictory, web of relations that join one’s life and feelings to the mundane things of everyday life. The title of the show brings to mind the quiet anxiety underlying the acquisition and ownership of things. Blowout calls forth a certain nervy excitement; the anticipation of a last chance sale and an uneasy recognition of the forces that precipitate such an event. One remembers the relocations, job losses, and familial deaths, that might have necessitated similar inventories of previously forgotten things. In the show’s programming materials, Magor likens these orbital motions to natural processes that there is first,“nothing, something, a huge something, and then nothing again. . . ‘blowout’ is a word for that last moment in the cycle, when there’s no point in saving anything and you let go.” Yet through the act letting go, the viewer sees the object in a skewed way, the relation between the viewer and the viewed changes. Like Jan Verwoert asserts in their essay “Being with Things: On the work of Liz Magor”, “things are never quite what they seem, and that precisely because of their twisted condition they carry something within.”
The sculptures Valet (violet) and Valet (pink) rest at the edges of the space, demurely framing the centripetal force of the show’s veiled chaos. Valet (violet) and Valet (pink) are composed of boxes of Ikea “lack tables” and “billy bookcases.” On top of each stack, there are two handbags slouched upon their sides. When a viewer shifts their angle of observation, both pieces reveal oozing rivulets of purple and pink sludge emitting from the handbags. Upon close observation, the handbags are revealed to be a cast polymerized gypsum with silicone rubber expulsions that Magor crafted in her studio. The boxes and the gestural movement of the handbag molds bring to mind the progression of domestic scenes: past moves, purchases, and home improvement projects. Like Celine Kopp notes in their “Dead Birds” essay a sense of unease accompanies this process of remembering as “we understand the anxiety around caring for these things and we seek a way to visualize an identity in them.”
The piece Shoe World braces the exhibition, positioned on a diagonal to Valets. In Shoe World, thirty-three pairs of second-hand shoes are arranged in a manner similar to commercial shoe racks or boxes in home storage. On a slightly raised platform, viewers see thirty-two mat board shoeboxes with transparent lids. The shoes are a range of sizes and styles, some soles are worn to black while others are barely touched. From a small, intricately beaded pair of slippers to battered Clinton era heels, the memories, as Verwoert asserts in “Being with Things”, “echo their charge in their own key of anonymous specificity.”
The heart of the exhibition is located within the sprawling, intermingled pieces: Pet Co., Seasonal, Closet (fur), and Closet (jacket). All of these pieces are displayed at ground level, positioned throughout the main thrust of The Renaissance Society’s exhibition space. The grouping of works are crafted through Magor creating modular structures from thin mylar, that are then folded into boxes. These mylar boxes vary in size, shape, and composition but are filled with assortments of faux and real fur, toys, animal pelts, textiles, second-hand paper, and plastic products. The mylar walls produce an iridescent sheen, similar to a bubble’s casing, providing a window to an intimate, intense tableau: a rat pelt nestled in pastel tissue paper next to an aged child’s toy. The viewer is forced to step between the boxes and modify their pathway in relation to the undeniable presence of these objects.
Yet, what does the coupling of a rat with a child’s toy mean? Does it need to mean anything? Is it, what author Sheila Heti recounted in a reading of the exhibition essay she crafted for Blowout, that memories are not as sweet as they seem? Maybe, but perhaps more so than sweetness Magor reminds us that memory and meaning are malleable; both systems subject to erosion, wear, and tear. It is no coincidence that Magor’s objects could be termed detritus by virtue of their material condition; they are etymologically susceptible to the term’s slippages, the soft and uneasy forgetfulness that accompanies ownership of unloved items. Magor’s work shifts uncertainty to the forefront, a reminder that nothing lasts for long.