liliana porter – “man with axe”

we have a show of liliana porter’s newest work at our gallery in new york.   the  centerpiece is a sculptural installation called “man with an axe” in which a man in a suit and hat smashes up what appears to be the wreckage of the past,  chopping it into bits…

the man is 3 inches tall.      the pile of debris is 12×12 feet.

the rubble is composed of furniture, a toy piano, several different representations of homes, a wedding dress, a key and hundreds of pounds of broken crockery.

the piece is the culmination of a series of works created in the last several years, in which porter positions a tiny, solitary character in front of a pile of material completely out-of-proportion to their size or ability.   faced with an impossibly overwhelming task, they seem to toil unceasingly.


the collective title for these works,“forced labor,”  implies, of course, a lack of free will…

porter is the puppet master of  an eccentric and encyclopedic collection of figurines, toys, souvenirs and knickknacks.  her talent lies in transforming junk into scenarios that speak to the most most basic of human emotions – longing, love, pride, fear, loss and death.

when she pops a statuette into an unexpected circumstance, she provokes uncanny political, philosophical and existential interpretations.

in addition to the man with the ax, the sprawling piece is populated by dozens of tiny figures.   the cast of characters includes archetypes – soldiers, travelers, farmers, geishas, kings, a mariachi, a groom — as well as specific personalities.   some of the people actively participate in clean up.  some powerlessly contemplate the wreckage.  others go about their business carelessly.

the guy with the ax isn’t the only one engaged in a monumental endeavor.   an itty-bitty man with a broom attempts to sweep up a deep-water-horizon-sized spill of blue pigment…

while a gardener with a watering can sprinkles the flowers on a shattered plate.  all gardeners are optimists.   is this an act of hope?   an attempt to coax something beautiful from the destruction?

or is it a study in impotence.   surely nurturing shards of shattered dinnerware is a fruitless effort?   as pointless, perhaps, as hand-painting fragile porcelain in the first place?  is it the strength (or folly) of human nature to persist in the face of the inevitable?

the power of liliana porter’s work lies in ambiguity.  visual puns.  the open-endedness of the narratives.

her work is as profound as it is complicated.  and this work — at its ambitious scale and epic scope — is more complex and significant than any of her sculptural works to date.    porter has worked with recurring motifs in the art she’s been making since the 1960’s.   many of those themes are incorporated into this single monumental work.

there are 13 clocks — broken, unwound or without a source of power.  archaic.  perhaps it’s not the guy wielding the ax, but time that’s the wrecker…

viewed in a mirror a clock runs backwards…  the possibility of reversing time is another of porter’s themes.

as are mirrors…

which offer us views we’d other wise find physically impossible.   they also act as metaphors for self-reflection.  or narcissism.  significantly, they are a means of forcing a viewer to see themselves within an art work.

there are several houses.

all broken.

there are the remains of cultural icons — che guevara, mao ze-dong, mickey mouse, bambi, charlie brown, a sickle, a coca cola insignia — fragments from our collective memories of the 20th century…   and the detritus of failed political or social systems?

interspersed with scattered playing cards, bingo chips, dice and mah-jong tiles, there are 11 wrecked ships in this installation.   life is a game of chance…

with serious consequences.

a tiny man sits on a mah-jong tile.    looming over him, an enormous, tumbled chair balances precariously on the edge of the platform, ready to slip and crush him.   He  gazes off, insensible to or untroubled by the constant peril…    bravery?  or denial?

one thing is certain — this is a mess.  a reminder that life constantly threatens to shatter into fragments too small to ever be repaired…   a train wreck in which forces beyond our control pile one thing on another, compounding the disaster.

this work is about the ubiquity of fear.  porter’s brilliance is in portraying cataclysm in a way that allows a viewer to look at tragedy head-on.  by projecting our horror or heartbreak or grief onto toys, we’re given the opportunity to examine our emotions without being crippled by them.

but back to our friend with the ax…     the question remains — is he causing the wreckage or is he merely set to the task of crumbling the pieces into a manageable scale?

is he the main character in his drama, or a bit player in someone else’s?

“man with axe” 2011  wooden platform and found objects, 12×12 feet is part of liliana porter’s exhibition at hosfelt gallery, new york, on view through 21 january, 2012.