Posted by: mollyjoyce | November 2, 2021

Review: Lenka Clayton’s Comedy Plus Tragedy

Lenka Clayton visited Mount Holyoke College on Thursday, October 28th to deliver a lecture entitled “My Grandmother Lived to be a Hundred Years Old.” Born in England and based in Pittsburgh, Clayton examines daily objects anew through philosophical and humorous means. Her work has been displayed at the MET, and her current exhibition at the MHC art museum marks the 75th anniversary of the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum. In this talk, she discussed some of her past projects as well as her current MHC exhibition, Comedy Plus Tragedy.

MHCAM Director Tricia Paik opened the lecture. She acknowledged the Indigenous land that the art museum is built on, and also mentioned the colonialist approach to collecting that was common in Skinner’s time. This acknowledgement of the past was not only respectful and important, but is similar to the way in which Clayton approaches her work. Many of Clayton’s projects center hidden histories. Her piece Historic Site (2021) takes the form of a plaque on her studio in Pittsburgh. In collaboration with Phillip Andrew Lewis, Clayton sought to uncover extraordinary hidden human stories, and the work reads as a vivid, comprehensive chronicle of the history of the land on which she now lives and works. With a scope of hundreds of millions of years, it’s an incredibly clever deviation from the conventional historic plaque template and is a model for a respectful, in-depth acknowledgment of the history of the land on which we reside. Here is a link to a PDF of the plaque text, as provided on Clayton’s website:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52b10728e4b0871946c17e32/t/614a3fd721e7fa0747c3467c/1632255964644/plaque_proof.jp

GC_Opening_20210918_259.jpg
Lenka Clayton unveiling Historic Site, 2021

Clayton also talked about her exhibition at Carnegie International in Pittsburg, 2018: Fruit and Other Things. Carnegie International started in 1898 with an open call for submissions, and works were selected by a jury. They kept intricate records of every submitted work, including rejected ones. However, the records are simply categorical in nature – they include artist names, dates of submissions, and titles of submitted works. But how intriguing it is to read the title of a visual work that has and will never be seen. Clayton and Jon Rubin compiled a list of the 10,632 rejected titles and on each day of the 57th Carnegie International, visitors had the opportunity to take a handwritten card with one of these titles home, to use however they liked. Clayton said that she will sometimes check local Zillow listings in Pittsburg and see those cards hung in people’s homes. The full list can be found here:

https://www.fruitandotherthings.com/the-list

A Carnegie International archival record card (A=accepted, R=rejected)
One of the handwritten cards from Fruit and Other Things, displayed in Callie Disabato’s Pittsburgh home

Clayton referred to these lost artworks as “things people thought were worth looking at, that were never seen.” This incredible line made me think about photography and how it has evolved. By the 1870’s, advancements in photographic technology had already made photos so affordable that in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, John Tagg referred to it as the “era of throwaway images.” Photographs had become “so common as to be unremarkable… they were items of passing interest with no residual value, to be consumed and thrown away” (56). How accurately that describes photography today. There are many physical copies of photographs that were taken before the digital age that are considered meaningless to anyone but the subjects or their loved ones. Now, many of us have a bounty of beautiful images on our devices that will never be displayed in a museum (they can be on Instagram, however). But to harken back to the “era of throwaway images,” today we are able to take infinite photographs. Many of us have hundreds and thousands that are meaningless even to ourselves. Think about the decillions of photographs that have been taken in the past and the billions more that are taken everyday. How many photographs do you have on your devices that you would not consider worthy to be shown? I have countless photos that are of little value to even myself – a photo of my breakfast on some random day, or a selfie I took on the bus just to check if my bangs looked alright.

Clayton ended her lecture by talking about her exhibition at the Mount Holyoke College Art museum, Comedy Plus Tragedy. Starting three years ago, Clayton began to visit the Skinner Collection, and in her words, “met the objects one at a time.” Among the items that piqued her interest include the eggs of an extinct hen and a single brick from the house in which Louis IV died. Clayton said that her process in working with the collection was trying to move from not knowing, to knowing. Many of the objects are difficult to make sense of because they’ve been removed from their original contexts. We experience the objects in the Skinner museum as they are now – in a quiet, sheltered afterlife. There’s dinnerware that is no longer used, armor that will never be worn. It could be said that some of the objects have lost their value – a key to a jail cell is useless sitting in a museum. But Clayton has made something special and new out of random, unrelated objects. She illuminates these objects’ vibrant pasts, even when those pasts are unknown, and encourages us to think of them beyond their current state.

One piece, entitled Four Invisible Things, spotlights the remnants of objects that are no longer with us. These include a 134 year old piece of Skinner’s wedding cake eaten by mice (so just an empty box), a label that says “Rough Diamonds,” (that were stolen, so there’s nothing there), a flag that is much too large and fragile to ever be opened again, and the pedestal on which an exploded cannonball used to rest. I appreciate that Clayton has highlighted these objects. They are lost and inaccessible, and could easily have been forgotten. But here they’ve been given a new life. How many material objects have been and continue to be abandoned, devalued, forgotten? How many objects end up in landfills, never again to be used or seen? There are so many “things” that once served a function, or had value to an individual, that will be lost to time simply because they have an imperfection, or have lost their functionality. Clayton implores us to rethink our evaluation of objects and their implicit value (or lack thereof), and acknowledges that we can still have a meaningful interaction with an object that is no longer with us.

Lenka Clayton, Four Invisible Objects, 2021

Another piece in the exhibition, Remainder, features a sequence of vessels from four different continents, separated by four centuries. They are all connected by having the shared utility of being a vessel, but otherwise their design, size, and exact usages vary. This piece reminds me of the way in which our examination of a wide range of photographs in this course has given them a unique afterlife. Professor Martin has taken all of these unrelated images – sometimes the only thing they have in common is the fact that they’re 19th century photographs – and woven them together to make an intriguing study on Victorian visual culture.

Lenka Clayton, Remainder, 2021

Works Cited:

Clayton, Lenka. “Historic Site.” Lenka Clayton, http://www.lenkaclayton.com/historic-site.

Fruit and Other Things. Carnegie International, 2018, https://www.fruitandotherthings.com/home. Accessed 2 November 2021.

Tagg, John. “Essays on Photographies and Histories.” The Burden of Representation.


Responses

  1. Molly, I think this review of Clayton’s artist talk and exhibit is extremely insightful. I also attended this event, but left not knowing what to really make of it. I had a very mixed reaction to Clayton’s work, as some of it seemed full of meaning to me well other pieces seemed less meaningful. What really stood out to me was Clayton’s plaque that she researched and wrote for her studio in Pittsburg. It seemed like such an in-depth consideration of what the land had seen before Clayton arrived, yet I failed to see such a commitment to research in other objects she used. I wonder why that is, or what I’m missing. Either way, thank you for a better understanding of Clayton’s work!


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