Post-Industrial Grotesque


by Billy Tang


Mire Lee is an artist who frequently turns to industrial materials and machinery to mine for waste and unexpected byproducts. In her installations and sculptures, there are low-fi motor-driven pumps, concrete mixers, PVC tubing, and hand-grafted silicon abscesses, which merge into experimental assemblages. Evoking a post-industrial dissolution between machines and organisms, her kinetic installations rely on circulatory systems that mimic the homeostatic process of organs. In an algorithmic world, where questions of pleasure and consumption habits are increasingly quantifiable and aligned into predictive patterns of regulated behavior, there is something primordial in the involuntary movements and behavior of Lee’s deconstructed automatons. Her works leak into their environments; they squirt, drip, or amass with viscous liquids, such as oil or grease. With increased technological advancement, where it is difficult to discern organic matter from industrial waste, her works appear as digestive organs without bodies. They are “fed” material, which as it is metabolized, in turn, activates a process where components of the artwork begin fluctuating between various states of arousal throughout the duration of the work’s display.

Take for example, Carriers (2020), a body of sculptural and moving- image work, as well as an exhibition at Art Sonje Center in Seoul, inspired by the concept of vorarephilia or “vore” — the sexual fantasy of being swallowed or swallowing another entity alive. In the context of the spatial and material parameters defining sculpture and its old-world grammar of aesthetic proposition- making, a perverse twist occurs in the process of revisiting these formal problems of sculpture vis-à-vis vorarephilia. If sculpture is the triangulation of issues connecting material form, imaginary space, and performative action, vorarephilia involves pushing the limits of their physical and psychological thresholds. Based around the arousal or gratification potentially derived from being eaten alive whole, these fantasies range widely from encounters with dinosaurs to giant whales, other humans, or even fictional characters such as Pokémon. A crucial feature of this fetish is the insatiable impossibility of realizing this desire due to physical, and/or legal, restraints.

Within this fertile realm of imaginary and real possibilities, these fetishes are often reduced to texts or illustrations, which are shared with an intimate community online. Lee provocatively looks to these scenarios as influences to push the terms of what constitutes a sculptural “body” in relation to our own. In other words, between a morbid fascination with the macabre to fantastical inversions of scale, Lee identifies an interesting convergence between technology and its physical and psychological connections. Within this dissolving line of what is natural or artificial — in terms of the border separating interactions between human, organic matter, and industrial waste — the possibilities of sculpture are coaxed into a new arena of imaginary extremes to break the norms of what is expected.

Evoking a post-industrial dystopian world, Carriers dissects the visual and conceptual layers of vore to arrive at Lee’s uniquely multidimensional language of abstraction. From its ability to induce nausea or provoke visceral responses through imagery that recall sci-fi gore movies, Lee’s heretical experiments involve transposing elements from vore into new mediums, surrogates, or conceptual vehicles, whereby their dissonance with mainstream culture can mutate and become amplified.

A carrier is a receptacle, whether a biological organism or an inanimate object, with the ability to physically carry or hold elements ranging from fluids, embryos, pathogens, nutrients to heavy objects. Among the ensemble of automatons in the Carriers exhibition is Sleeping Mother (2020), an impromptu video recorded using a mobile phone. As it plays on a loop as a projection, the viewer observes an unexplained scene where the camera pans tentatively side to side to capture her mother sleeping. Projected onto the wall of a dimly lit room, the desaturated tone lends to the work a membrane-like, spectral quality. Without sound and any other narrative, any intimacy is voided out. It is in this moment of alienation where mechanical sounds of her kinetic installations elsewhere begin to creep in and suture themselves onto an image embodying a memory of domestic intimacy.

This dissonant effect of placing something mechanical or hard next to a vulnerable image of softness recurs throughout Lee’s work. The titular Carriers automaton installation is another example, with the contrast between hardness and softness expressed in a sculpturally more tactile, rhythmic fashion. To be in the belly of the beast is a phrase that connects digestion to the feeling of being totally subsumed by an exploitative system so vast, it is impossible for us to comprehend in its entirety. How would it feel for the body to be obliterated within such a system? In Carriers, this process of peristalsis is created using PVC tubes, which occasionally ejaculate in sporadic fashion through holes punctured randomly into the system. As a final touch, the tentacular armatures and convulsive loose ends of tubing are covered with synthetic abscesses, giving the sculpture a stalagmite-like quality to its mutilated form. Activated by a peristaltic pump, its rotary action mimics the involuntary movement of fluids passing through a prosthetic gastrointestinal tract. Motor fluids lubricate and embalm this amorphous grouping of splayed bionic parts as they hang suspended from the ceiling or lie strewn on top of a metal grated concrete platform positioned on the ground below. The discharge enters a cyclical loop as it drops inside the platform before being regurgitated back inside the machine again.

This synthesis of cyclicity and vore is also on view in Endless House: Holes and Drips (2022), a work that draws on inspiration from Frederick Kiesler’s visionary concept of the Endless House. The Endless House design was a call for architecture to embrace a perpetual spatial continuity of form through biomorphic curves, in opposition to a method of partitioning determined by a rational geometric division of space into hard edges. Kiesler’s concept was conveyed by this statement from his manifesto: “Form does not follow function. Function follows vision. Vision follows reality.”/1/ Appearing like a crossover between the shape of a womb, egg, or human heart, the Endless House was famously never built to scale and exists only as maquettes that variate around an interconnected series of aortic chambers. Kiesler’s continuous, free-form space relies on an inversion of the relationship between the inner body and an external surrounding. Marking a rare foray by Lee into the realm of an overtly historical reference, she adheres only loosely to these principles to create her own elliptical vision of vore as an architectural proposal. Relating to Kiesler’s proposition for an aesthetic union of the body and mind, Lee looks at what the inverse of this synthesis would entail if perhaps the body was theoretically dying or already dead as an extension of this natural order. In Lee’s new “model” of this proposition, scaffolding is used as a temporary armature to hang a selection of bone-like sculptural elements. The construction is markedly more craft-orientated in this work, with bisque-fired ceramic parts, enhanced with a visceral patina of flesh-like fluids, textures, and movements that replicate the cadaveric spasms of a body during rigor mortis.

In contrast to these recent works, in Lee’s earlier installation Andrea, in my mildest dreams (2016), a silicon-like liquid falls like a gentle rain, emitting feelings of nostalgia like the glycerine-induced tears of an actor performing onstage. Amid this accumulation of detritus and fakery, I am reminded of Lee’s description of industrial machinery and its excessive proportions as being inherently “stupid.” On an aesthetic level this “stupidity” might apply to its faux worn-out look. Often with the machinery she re-engineers, an outside crust of some form is applied DIY style to give them a prop-like, artificially aged veneer. Stupidity also has another layer of meaning in terms of its radical potential to encapsulate the artist’s embrace of a nonsensical stream-of-conscious approach to things. From another angle, Lee’s absurdist intervention could also be understood as a riposte to the post- industrial condition, its patriarchal structures, sociopolitical oppression, or as a response to the art system itself.

The deadpan, satirical nature of her work is stretched tautly as a subtle underlying line running throughout Lee’s world of the post-industrial grotesque. In response to the insufficiency of language and passivity of the spectator, French avant-garde dramatist Antonin Artaud conjured up the extreme image of an abscess, an allegorical body part for his theater of cruelty in order to “drain” or purge the destructive sensations that society has taught us to repress. Just like the automatic spasms of Carriers, the constant shifting of forms is a spectacle to the viewer, which takes the connection beyond what can be consolidated only through verbal language. Instead, Lee looks to create a vortex of industrial noises and convulsions to a point where things unravel in a breakdown of aesthetic distance, forcing the viewer to engage the work on an instinctual level.

Beyond populating exhibition spaces with her automatons, Lee has also engaged with projects that intervene directly into building sites. Hysteria, Elegance, Catharsis; words were never enough (2018) is a large-scale commission featuring a rare use of bright-orange silicon oil to color a plastic membrane for two large components placed inside of a large warehouse. The main component was rigged like a carcass hung from the beam, shifting in subtle movements caused by a gentle wind, while the other part of the work writhed around on the ground. In Saboteurs (2019), a similar gesture is undertaken into a former appliance turned electric car factory, this time with the work motorized and rigged to rotate vertically. Both works sit within and embed themselves into an economy of production that pushes the parameters of sculpture to an industrial size. Experienced at this scale, I’m intrigued about future directions that Lee could potentially take as the works interact on a level that intersects with the psychogeography of a city.

In her recent solo exhibition Look, I’m a fountain of filth raving mad with love at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, she reveals a new fascination with concrete mixers. Stepping into Lee’s exhibition environments are like stumbling into the archaeological site of an alien, B-movie set. Through forms of metonymic play, the mixers’ rotating mouths are stuffed with a range of plastic entrails, condensing their primary work function into a series of makeshift gargoyles. As suggested in her titles, which use words such as “saboteurs,” “complicits,” and “liars,” many of her works are tethered loosely to a broad spectrum of influences to channel complex behavioral patterns, which often surface during extreme events of trauma or violence. Through a process akin to the resurrection of zombies, her automatons seem to retain only the faintest connection to memories from their previous life. In this vision of the grotesque, Lee has created a theatrical style of interrogating the darkest depths of contemporary life, demonstrating how quickly the seemingly banal innocence of its machinery can reveal a hidden inverse of depravity and dystopia.

September 9, 2022
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