Ian Johnson: Refuse Culture

Refuse Culture: Archaeology of Consumption uses multiple installations, and installations of multiples, to consider the remnants and debris of human activity littering the planet’s surface. Each installation revolves around an object, or fragment of an object, taken from daily life. Cell phones, plastic bags, car bumper covers, compact fluorescent light bulbs; these everyday objects are…

2010 Mar 27 – 2010 Jun 13

Ian Johnson: Refuse Culture, Archaeology of Consumption

Curated by Rod Taylor

Mass production: the production of large quantities of a standardized article (often using assembly line techniques)

Refuse: 1. unwanted or unusable materials 2. To indicate unwillingness to do, accept, give, or allow

Garbage isn’t new. Archaeologists have long sifted through ancient garbage sites to gain insight into past civilizations. The term itself can be a subjective one, because naturally what is worthless to one person may have value to another. As one of the earlier forms of detritus, pottery has a special relevance here. Its longevity can be attributed both to its durability and to the quantity in which it was produced. In a very low tech way, early and continued innovations in ceramic production could be seen as one of the roots of contemporary mass production.

Originally trained as an architect, a number of years spent working in conjunction with his partner Stephanie Fischer developing and maintaining a line of ceramic items has made Ian Johnston no stranger to the concept of production. More recently, his focus has turned to developing medium to large scale installation art, informed by a string of residencies in Canada, China, Denmark and the United States. In his current body of work, (some of which you see on display here) he frequently combines these elements. Often playing off the concept of multiples, Johnston harvests discarded or undervalued forms and materials from contemporary culture. Using varying methods of production, he recombines and repurposes them from their original use, a sort of creative upcycling.

The fluorescent lights of Bag Suite in Four Four Time echo those found in countless bargain retail centers, with rows of identical bowls lining bland, utilitarian shelves. Cast from a single plastic shopping bag, the bowls elevate the form of this archetypal symbol of consumer culture. The method of ceramic production that was used has also been used for many years to produce everything from soup bowls to figurines, and contrasts with the largely disposable form that it is reproducing here.

In Cellular Brick Road, yellow cellphone forms are arrayed on an undulating path of repurposed nylon wigs. Curvy and enigmatic, the piece is undeniably attractive. Ultimately however, the path leads nowhere. The cellphones are non-functioning and combine with the synthetic tresses to a somewhat disquieting effect. Whatever promise that this path makes is likely an empty one, if not an outright sham.

Arguably, the least redemptive of the work here is Maw. Constructed primarily from a discarded rim originally from a jet engine and many, many guitar strings, the piece reads as equal parts sand worm (from the 1984 film Dune) and baleen whale. Whatever it is, it’s definitely hungry. In some ways, it could be seen to reference the formerly insatiable (but increasingly finite) hole into which things go when they are thrown “away”, or alternatively, perhaps the endless appetite of consumption itself.

Conversely, Re-Inventions of Convenience, the final work in this series, suggests the allure and promise of what has yet to be attained, tempered in part by the uncertainty of the outcome. It is perhaps, then, a fitting point not only for departing this body of work, but for beginning the process of realizing another.

Ultimately, Ian Johnston’s work resists offering easy solutions or didactic interpretation. One thing it does suggest, however, is that the things we throw away are a legacy that will outlast the often fleeting purpose they were originally intended for. I look forward to seeing more.

Artist Statement

Refuse Culture: Archaeology of Consumption uses multiple installations, and installations of multiples, to consider the remnants and debris of human activity littering the planet’s surface. Each installation revolves around an object, or fragment of an object, taken from daily life. Cell phones, plastic bags, car bumper covers, compact fluorescent light bulbs, these objects of everyday are seldom disposed of with the same degree of order, reverence or celebration with which they were created and acquired. By collecting these objects together, the works amplify a contemporary narrative of consumption. Cast in porcelain, the objects mimic the archaeological evidence left to us from preceding generations and ask the viewer to question how the future might interpret our culture through these collections of fragments.

Long obsessed with our relationship to, and use of, material, when I had the opportunity to participate in ceramic art residencies in China, Canada, USA and Denmark I developed a project that would examine and explore this relationship. The idea was to create works that explored the vernacular and colloquial aspects of this connection. After all, every culture has a distinct relationship to the environment as expressed in the detritus left in its wake. Surely China would present a unique taxonomy of consumption as compared to Canada, the United States or Denmark. In my search for these differences I realized that the overwhelming power of the project lay in the commonalities and scale of the global consumption movement rather than the few remaining differences. As a result, Refuse Culture: Archaeology of Consumption became about the seamlessness and universality of the contemporary human condition as expressed in our lifestyle of consumption.

By creating material narratives, these installations document various aspects of human activity through constituent parts or object fragments. These may be held together or strewn apart, and the work captures and arranges this kinetic diffusion of material at a specific point in time, exploring scale and space in the context of consumption culture.

The narratives or installations are part fiction and part non-fiction, and each narrative takes its cue from the different culture/countries where the residencies took place.

The scale of the works is an infinitesimal reflection of the scale of the production, use or prevalence of a given object or idea in relation to human scale. The ordering principal behind many of the works reinforces some of the initial thinking behind the pieces or it is influenced by ideas fleshed out during the creative process. There are also autobiographical aspects to the installations where recent and distant personal history has influenced the process. All of this is interwoven and influenced by contemporary discourse regarding the particular objects or consumption behaviours being referred to in a given piece

Artwork Labels, explained by Ian Johnson

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