Understanding Apparatus: Notes on Roxy Paine’s Aesthetics of Knowing

by Christian Viveros-Fauné

I. The Studio Visit and the Cheat Sheet

Here’s a few super-concentrated ideas Roxy Paine tossed my way—in the form of a neatly folded sheet of paper—as I prepared to write this essay about his most recent eye-opening, mind-boggling sculptures.

His printed notations began thusly: “The translation between entities—between modes of thought/between languages of thought/between material languages/between processes and systems.” A gnomic set of pronouncements that matched up neatly with a few other favorite concepts I’d heard Paine talk about in his Long Island City, Queens, studio, these observations stuck to his Natural History Museum-scale dioramas like a stack of invisible Post-It Notes.

An artist not given to public bouts of loquacity—though when he does speak, people tend to listen—Paine nonetheless prevailed upon me over the course of a wide-ranging conversation to help “translate” some of his expertly realized ideas into the language of critical writing. He didn’t have to prevail long. Having been a fan of his work for almost two decades, I quickly acceded to serve—in my own rambling, non-art making capacity—as a “verbal” interpreter for “Apparatus,” the crypto-poetic title he gave his latest detail-rich pair of spectacular visual paradoxes.

To his great chagrin, I showed up days later carrying a miniature digital tape recorder for my next visit to his rugged elves shop. Evidently, it was not miniature enough. “When you start that thing,” Paine said bluntly, “my mouth will go dry.” Yet somewhere in the halting flow of the ensuing conversation, I managed to capture several fundamental Paine-isms and a few of the artist’s key artistic-philosophical concepts, some of which I’d never heard before. One, in fact, had to be spelled out for me several times: W-A-B-I-S-A-B-I. It sounded, I told the artist, like a ferociously spicy tuna roll. Paine quickly corrected me, offering, in point of fact, that the term in question had long been the driving force of his artistic vision, and that it would help if I became acquainted with it forthwith.

II. Wabi-Sabi, or the Beauty of the Flawed Woman

Wabi and sabi, as leading scholars of Japanese culture inform us, are twin and complementary concepts that emerge from the ancient Mahayana Buddhist tradition; initially, they represented nothing less than liberation from the material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Around the 14th century, the meanings of these ideas began to change gradually, taking on more material connotations. Wabi eventually came to signify simplicity or rusticity, referring both to natural and man-made objects. Sabi, in its own turn, was modified to describe the beauty that comes with age—that is, the visual and spiritual effect physical wear and tear has on things in the world. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is usually condensed into something like the “wisdom found in natural simplicity.” In art books, it’s typically defined as a practical ideal: “flawed beauty.”

Boiled down to its bare essentials, wabi-sabi is Japan’s long-standing answer to the ideals of beauty and perfection handed down to the West from ancient Greece. A term tied intimately to the notion of encountering the beautiful in natural processes, the concept also carries with it a conscious acceptance of the eternal cycle of growth, decay, and death. According to the architect Tadao Ando, wabi-sabi is about slow, nearly geological change. Through it, he says, we learn to embrace inevitable phenomena like rust, liver spots, and use-worn materials, as well as the march of time these represent.

“Wabi-sabi is flea markets,” Ando wrote in a celebrated essay called What Is Wabi-sabi, “not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass.” In another instance, Ando compared this core Japanese ideal to preferring Katherine Hepburn (the handsome companionable actress and not the trembling dowager, one assumes) over Marilyn Monroe (the blonde bombshell and not the needy suicide, one assumes). In a nutshell, wabi-sabi can be said to be the illuminated choice made to forgo the blonde bimbo for the flawed beauty. Only regular sessions of Pilates sound healthier or more realistic.

Not merely the kind of aesthetics Andrea Dworkin would approve of, Paine’s adoption of this Japanese teaching also reflects directly on his remarkably precise choices regarding workmanship and materials. The balance struck, for instance, between the gargantuan scope of his constructions and the minute rendering of their tiny detail appears, speaking loosely, as the epitome of Zen. Additionally, the artist’s full-scale dioramas of a generic fast-food restaurant and an anonymous control room are hand-carved from birch and maple, as opposed to being factory made from powder-coated plastic and finished metal. Bucking a corporate-inspired 21st century trend toward manufactured art, Paine instead has doubled down on the time-honored manipulation of natural materials—raw stuff, that is, that will remain open not only to the ravages of time but, above all, to interpretation.

On the folded paper Paine handed me, the words “WABI SABI” appear printed in neat capital letters. Fourth from the bottom in a list of loose ideas that appears to grow more orderly by the minute, the term momentarily assumes an uncanny familiarity. I’m reminded, above all, of Magritte’s painting of a train steaming out of a fireplace. Below Paine’s rendering of the Japanese phrase in Latin script appears another enigmatic notation: “A hyper specific banality.”

III. A Hyper Specific Banality

If there is one thing most people know about the French philosopher, social theorist, philologist, and literary critic Michel Foucault it’s that, besides being the 1980s intellectual equivalent of the ideal utility player, his wide-ranging theories principally addressed the relationship between power and knowledge. A lifetime laborer in the banana plantations of academic rigor, he indentured himself to strenuously questioning the logic of social institutions in order to uncover—to use a favored Nietzschian formulation—their truth to power.

Constituting a radical departure from previous Kantian or materialist conceptions of social or political power, the Frenchman—through books like The History of Madness, The Order of Things and Discipline and Punish—effectively challenged the notion that coercive strength belongs to specific actors or discrete structures in history. Rather, Foucault posited, power is overwhelmingly wielded in a dispersed and pervasive way; not through “episodic” or “sovereign” acts of domination or coercion enacted by a single individual or group against another, but by a sort of pervasive distribution of “metapower.”

“Power is everywhere,” Foucault wrote with his usual brio, and “comes from everywhere.” A statement that opened up millions of historical closets containing tales about both the powerful and the powerless, the popularity of his approach helped lead—among other late 20th century developments—to a marked political apathy among his liberal readers (after all, if power is everywhere, it is also nowhere, and so is hardly worth bothering with). Still, the anti-Enlightenment theorist had plenty of revealing observations to make about the various rationales that make power possible.

Here, for example is Foucault on the “rationalization of society and culture,” which he called essentially “banal”: “Everybody is aware of such banal facts. But the fact that they're banal does not mean they don't exist. What we have to do with banal facts is to discover—or try to discover—which specific and perhaps original problem is connected with them.” According to Foucault, the “banality of evil”—the famous formulation Hannah Arendt used to peg mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann—deserves an important expansion, extending itself to the world’s most ubiquitous and prosaic institutions. Think of every fast food restaurant and power station this way: as necessary cogs in our globalized world order; uniform hubs, that is, of social, political, and economic control.

As I wrote these words, I was grateful to receive an email from the artist, clarifying the relationship of his mostly beige sculptures—“Carcass” features a plain sanded wood finish, but the dials and gauges in “Control Room” are painted battleship gray—to some of the ideas we discussed in the studio. Alongside commentary about the works and their relationship to the two hundred year old picture-viewing device that is the diorama, the note also included a crucial allusion to our present cultural context, including the effects of Big Data (we currently churn out as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of man to the year 2003) and Moore’s Law (computer processors double in complexity every two years)—two of the most significant developments to have kicked off the new century. Paine’s note clued me into the truly visionary reach of his so-called “hyper-specific banality.” In fact, his observations were so crystal that I feel the need to quote them in full. “Dear Christian,” he began:

“I would like to add a couple of notes to our previous discussion. I think the best way to understand these dioramas is through an epistemological lens. In fact an overriding concern that has permeated the work from the beginning is epistemological: the structures and mechanisms of knowledge formation, storage and dissemination. Related to this is understanding the universe in terms of systems and complex interactions between systems. In that light, both dioramas can be seen as machines, machines devoid of humans and stripped of functionality.

“I have been very influenced by Foucault's idea of the episteme, the knowledge structure and base of an era which determines what kind of questions can and cannot be asked at any point in time. I think it is particularly pertinent at this moment when the amount of information is so vast, and access to it so instantaneous; yet the kinds of questions being asked feel throttled and narrow, a retreat into the comforts of each person's hyper-specialized realm of knowledge.”

By the time Paine signed off with “Best, Roxy,” I knew that his two sculptures were in no way your standard-issue aestheticized totems. They were, instead, nothing less than an attempt to fuse the fluid, overlapping systems of art, politics, and economics into a stunning visual metaphor about the bedrock power of knowledge. Potent, capacious and highly critical reflections on art, culture, and society, his environments prove to be counter-environments: tableaux designed to make visible what is usually invisible about our world; sculptures that act as sculptures, but that also function ultimately as visual essays on knowing and the social limits of what is knowable.

IV. A Copy of a Copy of a Copy

Here are a few more nuggets from Paine’s Delphic studio note: “Steps of removal from subject: A memory, a blurry snapshot, a drawing, a model, reconstructing from buried bones, filling the gaps.”

“Control Room” and “Carcass” (the ironical title nudges Paine’s fast food restaurant replica toward the reality of sun-bleached bones in the Mojave) upend the traditional functions of the diorama: namely, spectacle and natural history. Invented in 1823 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (the same dynamo who gave his name to the daguerreotype), the diorama—from the Greek, the word means “through that which is seen”—began its life in Paris as a popular entertainment. More than a half-century later, Daguerre’s theatrical experiments (they were like the first movie houses) were adopted by museums for educational purposes.

The first diorama created for a museum was constructed for the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1889. Amazingly it remains on view there, the institutional equivalent of a carved Indian statue inside a cigar store. Like Paine’s tableaux, Milwaukee’s diorama contains a painstaking recreation of an actual habitat; unlike the artist’s recent sculptures, it features stuffed muskrats and a commitment to 19th century verisimilitude that this artist deliberately updates. Neither a carnie attraction nor a committed educational tool, Paine’s bookend sculptures instead reconstruct an idealized historical present to frame the breakneck obsolescence driving our digital age. Rarely has the Now looked so antique or forlorn as it does under several inches of reinforced glass.

As a work of art, “Apparatus” is “a memory, a blurry snapshot, a drawing, a model” of our own deracinated civilization. A “copy of a copy of a copy” of highly representative social environments, Paine’s tableaux faithfully render bastions of contemporary influence, power, and knowledge in the form of ghostly habitats. “Carcass,” in this sense, loosely represents both the global town square and the driving social, cultural and economic force that is consumption; “Control Room,” for its part, figuratively echoes various operation centers around the world, from Chernobyl’s failed nuclear plant to the NSA Star Chamber that successfully surveils the whole planet. A brilliantly generic representation of archetypal locales that radiate present-day meaning, “Apparatus” provides not just a picture window into the mysteries of globalization, but a fully resolved view of something far more unique and urgent: an aesthetics of knowing.

Christian Viveros-Fauné

Related Artists: Roxy Paine

Related Exhibitions: Apparatus

Back to Top