There is something very peculiar about the American way of building houses. An entire suburban home might be casually transported on the back of a truck. Or perhaps it arrives on flat-packed pallets, to be screwed together like IKEA furniture. While natural catastrophes have a calamitous effect on these lightweight structures, the consequences of their human demolition could be seen in the recent solo exhibition of American-born, Frankfurt-based artist Mike Bouchet.
The show’s central motif was Sir Walter Scott (2010), a sculpture in 15 parts. It was made from an Internet-ordered, single-family home, which Bouchet ferociously chopped up and carefully re-layered into a parody of the house in its pre-built state. The stacks of materials were placed on brand-new rugs, which, along with the pediment atop the first pile, hint at the materials’ original functions. The 15 carpets, which would more usually lie beneath a television or a coffee table, act as the most minimal of pedestals, their bright colours and distinctive ‘new’ smell contrasting with the discolouration and mouldering destruction undergone by the once-dignified ‘Sir Walter Scott’ (the structure’s actual designation in the vendor’s ‘American Values’ series).
The home’s visible water damage alludes to its history: before hacking it to pieces with an axe and chainsaw, Bouchet floated the assembled house on pontoons as part of the 53rd Venice Biennale, for a piece entitled Watershed Venice (2009). Consistent with the artist’s self-described signature of bad luck, it promptly sank. The work was salvaged but the evidence of its life underwater remains: tiny molluscs obtrude alongside bent nails, while scraps of seaweed happily co-exist with shards of aluminium. A spider’s web and dangling tree leaf were perhaps gathered during transport, a sense of accident – even serendipity – that is also a signature. Not only was the real Sir Walter Scott in deep debt for his housing investments, his name adorns the shipwrecked boat in Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Bouchet has maintained a consistent practice of action-based work since the early 1990s, when he was still living and working in his native Los Angeles. His aim is to reveal the dark and farcical side of America’s cultural and societal obsessions and possessions, to evaluate the very national issues of image, manufacturing and distribution of wealth that pertain to the consumer world as much as the art world. The house, in fact, could have been dismantled carefully, screw-by-screw, but the deeply physical and purposeful act of demolition allows us to disengage from the finished product and question the concepts of what we might consider ‘home’. It also underscores how intensely fascinated we can be by destruction and catastrophe.
This latter theme was picked up in the show’s next section, an ersatz estate agent’s office whose major art work was Upside Down Pacific (2010), a large-scale oil painting depicting a massive fireball with flying shards – a replica of a film poster with the text removed. Close by, Interior Crush (2010) was a set of USM Haller shelves – the decorating accessory of choice for any realtor or art collector’s office – crushed at a scrap metal yard, along with designer objects, art books, golf clubs and DVDs. Bouchet also displayed Rob Roy (2010), eight framed coloured-pencil drawings of the orderly packed housing material, stacked neatly on a transport dolly (another act of serendipity: Bouchet was unsure how to show them and simply left the works as they were delivered). Front and Back (2010), a stainless-steel replica of one of Watershed Venice’s anchors with its front door key cast in bronze, asks whether the purchase of a home is an act of freedom, the ultimate American dream, or a form of imprisonment. Two additional works alluded to the desperate desire for refined living: the tragic ensemble Ivanhoe (2010) – a collection of framed sections of ruined interior wall, where seawater diluted wall paint over the differing grains of the cheap chipboard – and the outdoor sculpture Colony Garden (2010) – an eight-metre-high scaffold supporting a patch of Astroturf, a working sprinkler and a rather slim faux-Doric column from the house’s portico.
Much of Bouchet’s work has focused on the issue of house and home and what Americans have become fixated on achieving through material accumulation. In 1993, for a gallery show in LA’s ritzy Design District, which heaves with costly knick-knacks for Beverly Hills homes, he cast household items from his body parts (an ass sink, a testicle ice-tray). The final ‘process piece’ from his California studio was Eagle Rock Shit Rock (1997–2000), in which he produced his own sheetrock from cow manure. The work ultimately led to his eviction and can be seen as a forerunner of Sir Walter Scott in questioning the faith put in cheap materials to access our heart’s desire. Large-scale photographic images of his destroyed studio were turned into wallpaper, which he used to create murals in private homes or museums. The disparity between these glimpses of Bouchet’s disordered studio and the exhibition’s pristine spaces underscored the American consumer’s general disengagement from any production process, while living comfortably within the fruits of its industry. Here, too, Sir Walter Scott’s degradation and ragged edges stood out against the Schirn Kunsthalle’s minimal halls.
This work and its attendant pieces in the adjacent office were presented under the title ‘New Living’, which might seem a snarky form of mockery to the casual visitor, or the sliced-up house a flippant stunt; for the art initiate, it could be hard to look at the debris and not think that history has seen similar incisions, that the piece is derivative. Bouchet is, however, deadly serious in his humour, playing with degrees of value, as well as the difficult distinction between objects as consumer goods or works of art, and asking us to relocate our frame of reference and reconsider what we deem important. Predominantly self-referential, his work is a continuous process, an organic outgrowth that follows his own accidents and experiments that allow for his fundamental ideas to evolve, always metamorphosing into astonishing surprises.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 134