One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid was Land of the Giants, a sci-fi series about the crew of a spaceship that crash-lands on an Earth-like planet where everything is 12 times bigger than they are. As shrunken-people stories go, it was much more satisfying than The Borrowers or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in part because the set was full of giant telephones, ashtrays, and other household bric-a-brac, and members of the stranded crew were always in danger of being stomped on by people 70 feet tall.
Little did I know that in the not-too-distant future, super-sized household appliances would become much more than simple stage props—they would become . . . art! Or that in a futuristic wonderland called the Walker Art Center, inflated office supplies and grooming tools would, in the equally gaseous words of its promoters, “transform the ordinary into something beguiling, loaded with narrative and metaphor, and imbued with an arresting sense of humanity.”
Lifelike, the Walker’s brilliant and perplexing new exhibit, will make you think like that—but don’t let it stop you from going. It’s fun to look at a comb six feet tall and ponder the size of that guy’s hair dryer, or stand underneath a card table ten feet high and feel, for a fleeting moment, like a schnauzer waiting for table scraps.
This idea of “re-contextualizing” everyday stuff as objets d’art got started with the Duchamp-Johns-Warhol school of soup cans and sight gags, but has since been honed into a fine art by all sorts of artists for whom irony, deception, trickery, and subterfuge are the extra brushes in their palette. Fittingly, the exhibit opens with Jasper Johns’ wall toast and Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, but things immediately get more interesting. In the first section, called Common Objects, sits a giant lunch bag created by Alex Hay.
It’s made of painted fiberglass, but looks exactly like a paper bag—nay, a beguilingpaper
bag—which of course prompts the viewer to contemplate various concepts of lunch, lunch-ness, lunch-ification, or lunch-iosity. It’s an impressive piece, because it’s very difficult to make a realistic-looking paper bag out of non-paper-bag materials, just as it is difficult to make a block of marble look like a Hefty trash bag, or a chunk of bronze look like a box of Kleenex. Yet you will find all of these objects and more in Lifelike, and when you encounter them in the context of a contemporary art museum, you will doubtless be reminded—lest you have forgotten—that the world is full of garbage and things to cry about.
Still, nothing compares with the almost incomprehensibly elaborate installation “Bremen Towne,” by Chicago-based sculptor Keith Edmier, who has taken it upon himself to re-create, in excruciatingly accurate detail, the kitchen and dining room of the suburban tract home in which he grew up circa 1970. You read that right: the guy is literally trying to recreate his childhood, one piece of linoleum at a time. Edmier spent a year scouring garage sales, flea markets, Craigslist, and eBay in an effort to track down the exact objects and materials that were in his home when he was busy depreciating it. (Who among us hasn’t mourned the disappearance of tri-tone shag carpet and appliances the color of processed cheese?) The line between art and pathology is blurry in this one. It gets even weirder when you learn that the Walker installation is only part of a much larger work that includes four more bedrooms. I truly hope Edmier gets the therapy he needs, but in the meantime one can only marvel at his obsession and wonder in silent awe, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
There’s plenty more to Lifelike, from Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of a bowl of fruit slowly rotting, to Susan Collis’s pile of discarded junk that’s really made of rare woods (holly, bird’s-eye maple), precious metals (silver, platinum, white gold), and gemstones (black diamonds, garnets, mother of pearl). The most provocative pieces provide classic Walker WTF moments, and there are some—like Evan Penny’s “(Old) No One,” an eerily lifelike human head—that are in a class of amazement all by themselves. Trust me, if you look at that guy for more than five minutes, he will haunt your dreams.
In its entirety, Lifelike constitutes a multifaceted meditation on the nature of “reality,” by proving how easy it is to fool the senses into thinking something isn’t what it seems. After all, when you see a bathtub full of water embedded vertically into a wall, you know something’s amiss. The delight comes first in being tricked, followed by the satisfaction of learning how the trick is done. (Important note: read the plaques on the wall and listen to the audio accompaniment, or you won’t be quite so satisfied.)
Which is to say, Lifelike is a quintessential Walker exhibit: clever, provocative, cheeky, absurd, challenging, funny, whimsical, political, philosophical, confusing, and relevant. In the age of “truthiness,” we need more than ever to be reminded that the world is full of lies. What better way to accomplish this than to mount an exhibit that admits up front it is B.S.-ing you. All you have to do is figure out how.
Lifelike continues at the Walker Art Center through May 27.