In the famous The Art of War essay inspired by the teachings of the Chinese general Sun Tzu and presumably written in the fourth century BCE, battlegrounds are classified in nine types: scattered, easy, challenged, open, where major roads cross, dangerous, difficult, closed off, or hopeless. The terrain of art appears to embody all of these at the same time. An exhibition that takes shape and develops in the Winterpalais in Vienna inevitably brings to mind the historical and political figure who commissioned the building, Prince Eugene of Savoy, who at the end of the seventeenth century was one of the most important and influential military figures of his time and arguably in the history of modern Europe. The spirit, representation, and iconology of his military feats, and therefore of his influence on the geopolitical structure of his time, permeate the adjoining rooms of the Winterpalais. Very often the dynamics and strategies for visibility of cultural avant-garde movements in general, and of contemporary art in particular, have been associated metaphorically, and at times almost paradoxically, with military ones, as if the work of art and its message were to take military action in occupying a territory, the same territory defined by the surface of the work and the broader and intangible territory of its action and influence in society. This dynamic is even more apparent and its metaphor even more evident in and applicable to Sterling Ruby’s oeuvre.
His works use, represent, and at the same time effectively condemn aggression—a forced and explosive occupation. The use of the most widely differing and diversifying techniques, collage and the deconstruction of images from very different sources, the constant gear change from figurative to abstract, from amorphous to readymade; the sharp superimposing of scale among the objects; and the bewildering foray into design and fashion resemble an all-out war strategy, with all means deployed on and directed toward the voracious stage of the contemporary art arena. The way in which the traditional materials of art—from canvas to ceramic, iron to bronze—are attacked and blown up in a violated, wounded, splattered image, is reminiscent of the devastating brutality of attack and destruction. The rational and utilitarian geometry of the objects and architectures is adjusted and targeted as in a bombing, an explosion. In his work, the actual human figure, whether present, hinted at, or simulated, is always deformed, bruised, erased, or flattened in a stain or pulp, or is reduced to a shred of body or garment, an unnatural flaccidity. Assemblies of welded iron rods or of other metal plates also end up revealing an anthropomorphic nature in which the verticality reminds us of a human body in its essence, in a skeletal or crudely undernourished dimension, while the horizontality references a maimed, fragmented, and truncated dimension of a limb or rib.
The verticality of Giacometti’s figures or the horizontal prone position of Brancusi’s heads are represented in the pared-down and “suburban do-it-yourself” aesthetic of the assembly of pieces of metal—spectral architectures in a city in ruins or a district still under development. Outstanding among his ceramics is that of a sandal with torn outline, the shape of the five toes as if attached, the flesh stripped off, and the shape fossilized in the material. It appears cast not in the ceramic blast furnace but instead in an atomic holocaust, abandoned in some site of a mass murder, a Gradiva whose grace and movement have been interrupted and tortured. In another ceramic, a round bowl containing a semicircular tube, Basin Theology/Mandelin Reagent (2012), becomes a votive receptacle as the title suggests, ambivalently contaminated and saved at the same time by the Mandelin reagent; a reagent which allows identification, thanks to a specific color range, of the presence of toxic substances and synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, hence the association with the theological dimension, inspired by the association between the effect of the substance and the ecstasy of Baroque saints. A chemical and symbolic transubstantiation that, as in a collage, also a linguistic one, forms a short circuit, also plastic, through the destructive and cumulative fragmentation of the image.
It is in fact collage and its potential for disorientation and eternal ambivalence which appears to permeate the entire corpus of Sterling Ruby’s work. He takes over materials, techniques, images and objets trouvés, idioms and slang, static equilibriums, ratios of force and construction models, to then overturn their meaning and appearance in order to form completely new and independent visual aggregates and apparatuses, yet deliberately filled at the same time with the residues and detritus of their origin, performing that total revolution of the object described by André Breton, deviating them from their purpose and causing them to be taken into consideration, due in fact to the doubt that may arise as to their previously intended use. Exemplary in this process are the Scales, mobiles that dismember and free objects from their mass and their weight, suspending them from the ceiling. Like the mobiles by Alexander Calder, they constantly redefine the surrounding space as they move; and like the objets trouvés in the Scales by Robert Rauschenberg, they take on a pictorial quality through the appealing multicolored packaging of the objects, or, as in Scale (5415) S.R. CLOR (2015), through the splattering of plain weave trousers, at the boundary between real and painted object which references the informal or Abstract Expressionism tradition.
In another series of works presented last year at a major show in Paris, Ruby had the parts of a decommissioned US Navy submarine divided up and reassembled, after having been found by accident in a sort of scrapyard near his studio in Los Angeles. What previously was a large war machine is transformed into a hybrid, into a metal cadavre exquis which, in a collage of giant mechanical parts, repositions and decodes the sinister and disconcerting warfaring purpose of its previously intended use into an almost playful monumental quality deliberately an end in itself, in bachelor machines which underline the subversive potential of the artistic act in reshuffling the factors of history. The large wall hangings on which Ruby has worked in recent years move along the same lines, installed in the rooms of the Winterpalais, as in the seventeenth century, the period in which the palace was built for Prince Eugene, with the Flemish tapestries that very often celebrated past and present battles and military victories. In a total overturning of the celebratory and dedicatory intent of war, these works deconstruct and decode war rhetoric, and at the same time update its imagery through the use of visual structures which clearly refer to contemporary warfare.
The colors or symbols of American flags or those of the countries invaded by the US in recent decades, or the frottage of the floor in his studio, reconstruct and suggest the bird’s-eye view of a desert territory taken by a military drone. The latter has made a forceful entry into collective imagery through constant repetition in the media, and it is probably the most innovative, revolutionary, and controversial element, not only from the military viewpoint but also from the ethical and political standpoint in the recent history of international conflicts. As Jean Baudrillard had already realized during the first Gulf War (1991), all the images of the conflict that reached the media were generated by AWACS radar aircraft and spy satellites directly controlled by the US military command; they therefore could not be checked by independent sources and in fact were screened and constructed. These same technologies then ended up by entering our lives through applications that have become part of daily use, such as GPS or Google Earth, which then in turn reproduce and represent the same aesthetic of omnivisibility, the same ethical problems of potential and factual control and disciplining of military drones, and which Ruby uses in his wall hangings. The creative fascination which artists in the Sixties had with the Moon landing or space conquests is transformed in the second millennium into the angst of hypercontrol of individuals and the hyperreality of new flight technologies which, although extremely more powerful than the human eye, have limits of perception connected to the capacities of resolution of the images they produce. Ruby highlights these problems, through the synoptic capacity of art, in a collage that does not collect and recompose just images, but also the questions and contradictions that they represent, maintaining and reproducing the same ambivalence of the fragmentation of the real as that of the mediatic world.
Ruby gives shape and body to images that are otherwise virtual and in any case always mediated by electronic devices. The corporal and tactile theme permeates another series of works, crucial in the corpus of work by Ruby, the famous soft sculptures. Giant anthropomorphic figures of which Laying Figure (2013) is possibly the most emblematic within this context, a kind of enormous elongated cushion, midway between aircraft and a limbless human being, is wound or rather imprisoned like an Egyptian mummy in a fabric which references the motifs of the American flag. Like a disproportionately overgrown toy gun, it brings into play our perception of conflicts at a spectacular level in contrast with those who actually suffer bombing. Other Figures are anthropomorphic beings with large tentacles, the presumed security and the presumed comfort of their smoothness and softness peeling away in their sinister scale ratio, in their mortuary and embalmed position, an oxymoron rigor mortis where the muscle stiffness is contradicted by the softness of the material.
Contrarily, the sheets of urethane and Formica of the Acts (acronym of Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity) mimic the immortalizing monumental quality, the hieratic and the authority of marble, giving at the same time a sense of instability and precariousness, also thanks to the off-axis overlapping of the two blocks which form the whole. A misalignment which deliberately, as in all the works by Ruby, makes the uncertain certain, the certain uncertain, the ambivalent that which is familiar, and the familiar that which is ambivalent, fiction likely, and fake as that which can be verified.
Artwork © Sterling Ruby. Photos by Sophie Thun. Originally published in the Gagosian Newspaper, October 2016.