Hermès: a haudenschild Garage project with MARK BRADFORD

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Lara Bullock: The Paradoxical Eulogy

An exploration of surveillance, rumor, and psyche in Mark Bradford’s Hermès

Because you are the receiver, you accept the delivery of a message that is part whisper, part giggle, and most of all, not to be trusted.  You are now the sole proprietor of the message; you assume the utmost power position, for its propagation now depends on you. Though, the intensity with which you listened and your initial earnest intentions and responsibility as messenger become corrupted in the seconds it takes to transfer your cupped hands from around your ear, to around your mouth, and you start to consider the message’s manipulation. A momentary struggle of memory and power overcomes you, then instantly vanishes upon utterance.

The childhood game of telephone is a delightful play of power and morality. One is forced to decide whether or not to be a truthful messenger. In order to do this, one must convince oneself that truth is a fixed, immutable concept, despite the awareness of possible alternatives: truth’s different versions.  The game is a battle of conscience, as you have to believe that you are reporting what you heard or at least as you remember you heard.  Ephemeral thought is translated into concrete language through deliberate action. Ironically, there is no conversation in the game of telephone. Instead, the game is focused on the transmitting apparatus itself. In this way, “telephone” is an abstraction.

In some ways, Hermès, Mark Bradford’s twenty-four hour, site-specific installation in the vacant house of a recently deceased, allegedly deranged doctor is a similar kind of abstraction. The owner of the house is not present and so the piece becomes a one-way meditation on translation, memory, and time.

Though the final design and concept for Hermès was constructed by Mark Bradford, he was not the sole actor in Hermès’ creation.   In fact, he developed a plan for the piece without ever seeing it firsthand. The process of making Hermès involved Bradford’s assistant Marcos Lopez (aka “Hermès” [1]) acting as a messenger between Bradford in Los Angeles and collector in La Jolla.  Haudenschild is now the owner of this vacant house that recently belonged to her late neighbor of twenty-six years.  For six months the three exchanged stories and ideas that contributed to the mythology of the space; which, according to Haudenschild, had “negative vibes” as a result of the “deep antagonism and paranoia” of its former occupant, a woman who harassed her regularly.  In a sense, one could say there were four main actors in Hermès, as the late neighbor’s presence in death as in life is curiously palpable throughout the work. By virtue of its title, Hermès, like the game of telephone, is centralized on transmission, on the acts of exchange and communication, instead of the object or site itself.

After traipsing through the unkempt yard and past the empty swimming pool that Haudenschild immediately masked with bushes when she purchased the house, one is confronted inside with a thick, bold, unwavering, black line that zigzags along the walls with the same horror and haphazardness of a cracked mirror. In fact, in one bathroom, the line bisects a mirror, and thus any face that gazes into it.  There is no furniture inside, yet a presence remains.  The house retains the stench of old carpet: the smell of “someone’s home.”  There are no pictures on the walls, but instead mysterious stains, sun stains, and picture hooks.  There is a single candlestick and threadbare curtains.

The gestural shock of the black line distances the viewer from any moment of sympathy for the neighbor and elicits anxious feelings of restriction and entrapment ala Charlotte Perkins’s The Yellow Wallpaper.  One is also reminded of the paintings of Robert Motherwell, an artist whose work also straddled the line between painting and sculpture, which were attempts for the artist to cope with the psychological distress resultant from war and entrapment.

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre puts forth a Marxian conception of abstracted space. Social status and gendered norms are implicit in these spaces, Lefebvre argues, because instead of fixed locations, abstracted spaces are relational. Particularly relevant is Lefebvre’s third space, the “space of representation,” also referred to as lived space, which he explains “need obey no rules of consistency or cohesiveness . . . redolent with imaginary and symbolic elements, [it has its] source in history – in the history of a people as well as in the history of each individual belonging to that people.”[2]

Though he is known primarily for his large-scale paintings, Bradford has produced several site-specific installations that confront controversial histories.[3]  For these works, as with Hermès, Bradford immerses himself in the environments in order to represent something true and of the space instead of “colonizing” the site with a work.[4] At first, Hermès purports to be a much more private intervention than Bradford’s previous works, as it appears to be centered on an individual instead of a broader community.  However, like previous works, Hermès privileges the process as much as the end product: the procession to the house, the conversations between the three primary actors and their respective interpretations, as well as the visitors’, during the twenty-four hour period in which Hermès was open to the public.

The installation is a psychological puzzle, which reveals something about all those who experience it, as they are given a back story and then left to form their own conclusions as they wander during the twenty-four hours in the increasingly darkening, electricity-free house. The relationship between the psychological and architectural is a common trope in art. [5]  Buildings house people and thus stories.  They enclose and conceal. It is the viewer, not the deceased woman, who is in the vulnerable position in Hermès.  In its investigation of the psyche of the deceased, viewer involvement results in an act of panoptic display. The site functions as a site of projection.

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[1] Hermes in ancient Greece was not only the messenger between gods, but a god of thieves, commerce, and a guide for the dead. A double entendre, the title refers to the Greek figure but also, due to the accent, to the luxury accessories brand. This association, despite the location of the house in wealthy La Jolla, CA, could not be more opposite of its former occupant. Yet, Hermès the brand is a highly cultivated image, a trait that the reclusive neighbor most definitely shared.
[2] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 41.
[3] His ark-like Mithra (2008) at Prospect 1 that was located in the hurricane Katrina, devastated lower 9th ward of New Orleans was, like Hermes, named after a mythological figure, the Zoroastrian deity of judgment and fairness.  Bradford states that it was “a proposition that humanity would spring from the earth and that life continues” and that for this piece, he was “more interested in the drive here rather than the destination.” “Mark Bradford Prospect 1, New Orleans, 2008,” last modified September 27, 2011, http://vimeo.com/29661109.
[4] “Mark Bradford Prospect 1, New Orleans, 2008.”
[5] Mike Kelley explored this relationship in his Educational Complex (1995), a model reconstructed from memory of the artist’s childhood schools.  The artist postulated repressed memory syndrome as a potential explanation for the holes in the model, as Kelley’s failure to remember potentially stood-in for moments of abuse.