Fatberg vs. Turd-nado

Kodi Fabricant

“Fatberg vs. Turd-nado” marks the seventh publication as part of These Essays, a series selected by editors-in-residence Suzanne Doogan and E. Saffronia Downing.


A close friend of mine was recently contracted to fabricate a window display at Barney’s in New York City. The installation was for designer Rick Owens. It was a large mass made mostly of dirt. Her coworkers called it “turd-nado.” I laughed to myself for weeks whenever I thought of this. To my surprise, the installation was affectionately nicknamed “turd-nado” before its arrival in New York City. The installation first debuted in Milan, during a Rick Owens retrospective titled “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman.”

From an article published in “The Window” May 4th, 2018 penned by Anna Deutsch:

The team was especially struck by Owens’ Earthwork sculpture—a giant globular installation made from crushed lilies, his actual hair, concrete, and sand that was suspended over the entire exhibit. The piece was inspired by a 20-year-old Owens quote: “I would lay a black glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity.” And though there’s a sense of humor in that the sculpture is dubbed “turd-nado,” as with all things Owens, it is far more cerebral. “It really is supposed to represent something urgent, a kind of creative primal force that we all have,” he says. To Mazzucca, bringing that force to the Madison Avenue windows was a must. Owens agreed.

Window display photographed by Tom Sibley

It reminds me of that time I participated in a live performance planned by Matmos at a Chelsea art foundation gala. I perched on a sink with a video camera, recording Angel, the plumber who removed the toilet from the gallery bathroom, and proceeded to snake an endoscopic camera into the sewage pipes. We poured a mixture of gold glitter and water down the hole, and it showed up as a projection behind the performers. High society patrons watched a live feed of the plumber’s routine coming from my camera mixed with footage from the endoscopic camera.

There was no turd in the pipes that night, just glittering gold flakes in the system. Owens’ metaphorical turd is glittering black, not gold, and exists distinctly beyond the designer himself. The sentiment is not so much that upper upper class socialites shit just like “the rest of us”: the sewage system of New York City does not discriminate between classes of shit. No, Owens’ turd art represents a “creative primal force that we all have”–

Introducing… “fatberg.”

A fatberg is an amalgamation of non-biodegradable waste, like baby wipes, and cooking oil/fat that builds up in obstructed sections of outdated sewer systems. Seven fatbergs were recorded in the United Kingdom, and one in Australia, from 2013-2017. Baltimore is the first American city to make the list. On September 26, 2017 a fatberg was discovered in a sewer main between Baltimore Penn Station and the 1700 block of Charles Street. Right under the Male/Female statue. It caused 1.2 million gallons of raw sewage to overflow into the Jones Falls.

Capture from WBAL live footage of a fatberg in the Baltimore City sewage system

In February 2018, a dried section of a fatberg from Whitechapel, London was put on display at the Museum of London. Rick Owens’ retrospective at the Triennale de Milano ran from December 2017 – March 2018. For the months of February and March 2018, an individual could visit cultural institutions in two major cities and view a circumstantial byproduct of human waste and a designer’s subversive representation of human creation that resembles human waste.

Which one do you think took up more space in the gallery?

(The one with an ego.)

Photograph of fatberg on display courtesy of the Museum of London

Language escapes me as I try to articulate the symbolism of the synchronicity in the exhibitions of fatberg and turd-nado. So, naturally, I imagine the two competing in battle. The habit of denying the Source in favor of the Spectacle empowers the Source.

It feeds on negation, like a demon to fear or like the Japanese video game Katamari Damacy, whose title translates to “clump soul”. The Source suppressed mutates into Spectacle. Dwelling underground, under pavement we walk on everyday, beneath buses, cars, bicycles, people yelling, people walking their dogs, dogs pooping, dogs peeing, dogs barking, police officers directing traffic. Energy transference happens constantly aboveground while the Spectacle chimera of the Source sweats in its confinement. Solve et coagula.

The Baltimore Museum of Art should’ve put a dried piece of the First American Fatberg on display.


These Essays is a periodical mini-series of non-fiction writing curated for the promotion of joy and inquiry by E. Saffronia Downing and Suzanne Doogan. For the duration of the project, one essay will be posted each Sunday here on Post-Office Arts Journal. Writing is not restricted by theme, and ranges from pop culture criticism to personal essay and material analysis. For more information or to contribute an original piece, please contact theseessays@gmail.com.

Encoach @ Springsteen Gallery (Dickie/Varadi)

Kodi Fabricant

Install view

“Art is a terrible risk, and no one would do it if they didn’t believe in themselves. I’m not sure if I buy it, but the idea has been floated that we, who do this shit, hope that through this work we can maybe escape. Even if you have to hand in your meatsack at some point, your work will stand in for you later. It’s the deposit you put down. Pay the meat price and get in the art tube.” In Steve Kado’s short story accompanying Encoach, a two-person show featuring works by Keith J. Varadi and Georgia Dickie, he skeptically addresses motives for art making. Specifically, escapism and self-preservation become central themes.

A bird’s “hand” in the work, even hypothetically, is critical in creating meaningful dialogue around motive. The presence of bird labor displaces motive from self-aware artist to non-self-aware animal performing the same work. I am using this information to decode the significance of color-sorted pellets by canary and I think it’s safe to use the canary as a stand in for any bird or non-self-aware animal. Male bowerbirds build complex structures of various found objects and sticks, usually grouping disparate objects of like colors together in an effort to attract a mate.

Birds preserve their identity through population, while artists preserve identity through objectified perception (i.e. art). This interpretation poses new questions surrounding an artist’s motives, like “Who/What are they trying to attract through their work?” making attractiveness a key component on the path to self-preservation. For me, this is a much more interesting read than plain old bricolage. The canary is the strongest component of Dickie’s work, and I wish it were more explicit.

Steve Kado’s writing contains clues for decoding the work as well and clearly states his intentions for writing in the last couple lines, “Believe it or not, this piece started out as a reflection on the way primary accumulation and risk were interrelated. It was based very strongly on some ideas detected in the work. JSYK.” Just so you know: A casual way of presenting integral information.

Keith Varadi
Keith Varadi

Oh, Hell; Past Gone; Grim Ripper; First Sight of Water; Regal Funk; Steal Those Cuts; Menagerie, PST; Foie Gras; World Truth; Live Like This; Maiden Man; Self-Help Writ Wrong. These phrases decorate 5×7 cloth panels by Varadi. An insider told me they are all titles of his poems, a detail that is not explicit, although it may be assumed or known by the artist’s friends. I almost expected full poems to be shown, considering Varadi’s reputation as a poet. The pieces mimic hardbound book covers, and are of varying cloth and ink color combinations. The colors are similarly rich, vibrant, and seductive, willing a longer pause from the viewer. The selection of this swatch of colors reminds me of Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) in which Holzer uses backgrounds of varying colors with black text, creating a visually stimulating support system for her provocative content. Varadi’s titles range from provocative (Self-Help Writ Wrong) to dramatized romantic (First Sight of Water), to absurd (World Truth).

Dickie’s work is less literal. Near the back wall of the gallery, Pisetions (binders) stands displaying storage unit, metal, coral, wax, binders, rubber, and various found objects including some sort of midi splitter and chair parts. Not birdbrain bricolage, but regular. Objects are spatially redefined, perhaps for therapeutic purposes, but definitely not for attractiveness. Liminality exists between binder spiral spine and what looks like the molted shell of a 7 in. plasma ball. This piece did not captivate me in the same way as others by Dickie. The placement of the objects is too normalized, on display and restricted to even-numbered shelves. I over think the term “binder” in effort to read the piece. The shelving unit becomes a binder of objects, hollow glass balls become binders of air, electronic equipment becomes binder of signals, rubber becomes binder of tension, so on and so forth.

Georgia Dickie
Georgia Dickie

Adjacent is Declaration, a piece by Varadi, consisting of a narrow plinth covered in adhesive vinyl photographs, with a small bottle of crude oil placed on top, enclosed within an overturned pint glass. The photographs adhered to the plinth are snapshots reminiscent of nostalgic point-and-shoot collections. Most notably for me is an image of the word “PIG” with an X through it against a yellow wall. This type of image seems familiar, like I’ve seen this wall before or one like it, which I’m sure there are hundreds. The images seem to capture pauses in daily routine, and contain the motion found in street photography. There is an element of humor specific to the photographer, something that made them pause to chuckle to themselves. I read this as “Moments of Amusement decorate the sides of the structural support to the Eternal Rose of Industry.” Escapist antics are called out simply due to the fact that cars require gasoline to move. To get in your car and just go still requires a trip to Sunoco.

Turning to the wall we see Oasis, a Nevada license plate in a holder with state promotional text “I’d Rather Be Gambling In Las Vegas.” Through the lens of contemporary social media culture, this is a passé bottom-text meme. Again, escapism is on display.

A recurring vibe in both Varadi and Dickie’s work is a sentimental recognition of a fragmented object or place. This is clear in the centrally placed work Today Was a Rare Day (Many Minutes of Fun) by Dickie. Materials include metal birdcage perches, swing, blood, auxiliary cables, photographs, discarded canary feathers, doorknob, resurrection plant, and a disposable coffee cup. I research “resurrection plant” and find it resembles a brittle bird’s nest when dehydrated, but comes to life as a green fern when placed in water. Work that requires research creates an aura of depth both captivating and alienating. It attracts a type of viewer who is eager and has access to resources outside the gallery. The other kind of viewer dismisses the work as difficult or not of their taste.

Keith Varadi
Keith Varadi

After the opening, an artist friend of mine revealed her momentary panic when she thought she had absentmindedly rested her own coffee cup on top of the sculpture. I’m unsure how to appropriately define that sensation, but I believe it’s related to what Kado approaches when he writes, “So we aren’t changing individual identities in different contexts, but those contexts themselves define sets of behaviors and attitudes that are exchanged within, and all of those relationships are trans-individual.” Whose coffee cup is resting on the artwork? Is it the artworks? Does it belong to the artist who made the work? Or does it belong to the artist who left her studio to attend an art opening? Is it the gallerist’s? Did someone leave it there during the install, and it just stuck? Once again, Dickie makes us question possession.

springsteen-install-encoach

Investigating self-preservation and escapism as motives for making art leads to some tricky conclusions. One idea is that artists preserve their identities post-mortem through work that is attractive enough to be cared for long term, that is, work attractive on multiple dimensions (visually, conceptually, socially, etc.) But being able to escape the normalities of daily routine enough to feel inspired involves an element of risk taking, which is contrary to self-preservation. Is it possible for an artist to create work that does not require an ounce of risk-taking, although the creation of art in itself is a risk?

Encoach is a great show for a viewer who likes to dig. The work can speak for itself, but it speaks tangentially. It lingers and leaves you asking questions with no discernible answers. One question I can’t seem to shake is “What happened to the canary?”

Encoach ran from September 10 through October 8, 2016 at Springsteen Gallery, 502 W. Franklin Street, Baltimore, MD. Images courtesy of Springsteen.