In 2000, when I lived in Washington, D.C. and worked, for a brief period, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I began an independent, quasi-philosophical consideration of Decay in our culture.
I wanted to know: what role does Decay play in aesthetics? What types of Decay are represented? And what does the inclusion of Decay in our visual lexicon reveal about our national mind-set?
I’m starting to think about this again, almost 11 years on.
First, it’s necessary to define Decay—too loose a definition allows for too wide an interpretation. Of course, there’s genuine decomposition and putrefaction. Is that what I mean? The gooey green byproduct of organic breakdown? No. That’s a step too far. But it’s close. I’m talking about mind-reeling disorganization, as well as the romanticization of physical collapse, more specifically fragmentation and disintegration in its early to mid-level stages. With fragmentation (speaking in the abstract), there's discord, disharmony--visual chaos. With disintegration, there are (speaking in concrete terms) abandoned buildings, peeling paint, wasting figures. And yet, these last few items come with very different associations. Abandoned buildings have a quiet, haunted majesty that speaks to something fundamental and superstitious within us. Thinning bodies, depending on how dramatic their appearance, incite a trainwreck-worthy fascination in viewers.
For the essay, I broke down Decay into three subsets:
(1) Beautiful Decay, or the glossy, seamless photographic capture of romanticized disintegration
(2) Fragmentation and Asymmetry, or the abstract disorganization that the mind generally flees from.
(3) Pure Decay, or decadence expressed by way of deteriorated materials, like trash.
One of the artists that I interviewed for the essay was Rina Banerjee (pictured above), who uses discarded materials in her installations. One of her works, produced at the time, employed the severely stained blue prints for a New York City hospital onto which she drew a Hindu-inspired figure more monstrous than devotional in appearance. This 1999 work, titled "An Uncertain Bondage is Deserved When Threatening Transmission," (pictured at right) appeared as part of the exhibition Bodies of Resistance, a benefit for the contemporary art organization known as Visual Aids.
When discussing her intent, Banerjee explained that her work was—at the time—concerned largely with identity, notions of foreignness, and the idea of contamination. The nation, she indicated, fears infection by foreign bodies and is afraid of surprise eruptions from within. That which is foreign may be waiting to strike a vulnerable area.
I interviewed Bannerjee months before 9/11, yet how prescient her remarks turned out to be.
Still, at the time, she wasn’t talking about those surprise attacks. She was referring to the slow, steady supplanting of a homogenous cultural identity with another cultural element. It is why one culture constructs “otherness" because this visualization, this classification creates a clear delineation between what belongs to one identity and what are characteristics of the unfamiliar, the Outsider. Here, what we are, (or perhaps what we should be). There, the genus and species of what does not belong.
Americans, whose ancestors were colonists, whose distant forefathers destroyed a series of vital native cultures, unconsciously fear a similar domination. Like a T-cell, we create a concept of the “invading” body, so we can identify (and sometimes, if necessary) eliminate it. We reject Postmodern Colonialism, if we are not the colonists. But what contemporary culture does not resist domination? What contemporary culture would willingly cede its authority to another invading body?
Banerjee's use of trash, generally regarded as unwanted and dirty, contributes a significant conceptual element here, since it plays directly into our notion of outsiders, particularly immigrants (And know this is relevant not only to America. This is true of many cultures; in Bavaria, for example, I was tested for numerous diseases--including tuberculousis--before I was granted a student visa because I might have "brought in" something unpleasant and would subsequently propagate this unpleasantness among the "healthy" German citizenry. Moreover, these were tests applied specifically to Americans, whom the Germans viewed as promiscuous. Really, this is what the blood-drawing Gesundheitsamt was all about).
Ultimately, Banerjee's work fits neatly into Category #3, “Pure Decay,” using decadent material to represent decay. And in doing so, she points to one of the facets of our culture’s obsession with decay: are we not, with Decay #3, holding up a notion of what is unacceptable so that it might be understood as that which undermines us? We fear cultural demise as we fear bacterial and viral infections, as we fear influenza and the similarly varied strains of hepatitis. What will kill us, we ask? Letting the Other in, we answer. (Never mind the fact that we seem to be killing ourselves just fine without anyone else's help.)
A similarly topical consideration of category #1, Beautiful Decay, will come next, with a an example of the work of photographer and videographer Floria Sigismondi.
In the meantime, read more about Rina Banerjee at Art India Magazine.