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Archeologies Of The Future: Michael Joo’s Radiohalo At Blain|Southern
Robert Barry , February 21st, 2016 14:22

Craft/Work talks to Michael Joo about his new show at Blain|Southern in London and how to calculate the energy expenditure on the way to enlightenment

Michael Joo, Untitled (Take), 2016, Silver nitrate and epoxy ink on canvas, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

How much energy does it take to drive? According to a new work by Michael Joo, it takes 0.0532067 calories every second. What about to sleep? Or to wait? The answers we can find punched into a series of used aluminium baking trays, photographed, digitally flipped, then inked and silvered. There in the simultaneously murky and shiny, highly physical yet somehow seemingly abstract, results w can find the answers: 0.024223313 and 0.0605055 calories per second, respectively. So far so seemingly straightforward. (But to wait for what, you might ask? Wait for an appointment? Wait at a table? This ambiguity, as it turns out, is entirely germane.)

But what if we were to ask: how many calories does it take to reach enlightenment? The question seems to trespass, now, into zones quite other. The very idea produces a kind of diagonal line of thought, slightly askew from what we might think of as its proper purpose.

I was reminded, whilst looking at the ‘caloric paintings’ of Michael Joo currently on display at Blain|Southern in Mayfair, of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. The efficiency drive spearheaded by Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management in the early twentieth century set out to precisely quantify the expenditure of time and effort in every element of a work cycle. When I suggest to Joo that his work seems to evince a like desire to calculate and quantify, albeit taken to some absurdist nth degree, he is at once amused and somewhat taken aback.

“Taylorism was really more about eliminating the unknown,” he protests, “and kind of trying to nullify the idea of waste. In a way my process is the inverse of that. It examines waste.”

Warm and generous in conversation, softly spoken with a pronounced east coast burr, Michael Joo was born in Ithaca, New York in 1966 to recently immigrated South Korean parents, both graduate students at Cornell University. But it wasn’t until 1991 that he received his MFA at Yale School of Art, having initially studied biology. From his first solo exhibition, at Nordenstad-Skarstedt Gallery, the following year onwards, he would become a prominent member of the 1990s generation of artists, hanging out and playing pool with the likes of Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst, exhibiting at the White Cube and the Gwangju Biennale.

But the caloric paintings of the present show seem to relate right back to his first major work at Nordenstadt-Skarstedt in 1992. His Saltiness of Greatness, a scupture which sought to demonstrate, measured in blocks of compressed salt and vats of synthetic sweat, the relative energetic consumption and expenditure of iconic historical figures like Genghis Khan and Mao Tse-Tung.

“Everything is speculative in a way,” he stresses when I ask how he arrives at the calculations expressed in these new works. “Calories are still a measure of energy expenditure without context. So in a way there’s a speculative nature to that anyway. But ultimately my figures come from a base rate of measured human action that’s been recorded.” In a way, the very prior existence of such a “lexicon of actions”, as Joo calls it, points already to a kind of societal hypertrophy of the scientific method Joo once (it would seem, semi-reluctantly) studied.

Michael Joo, Untitled (Radiohalo 1), Untitled (Radiohalo 2), Untitled (Radiohalo 3), installation view, 2016, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern, Photo Peter Mallet

For the past nine years, Joo has occupied a post-industrial studio space in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Once the world’s busiest freight port, by 1990 Red Hook was dubbed by Life magazine as the “crack capital of America.” Today, the district is notable chiefly as the location of the city’s only branch of Ikea. Joo’s own building was once used for lead casting, later a warehouse, a furniture manufacturing plant. “It’s probably had four or five different identities,” he says. In the three works occupying the gallery’s east side, Joo sought to make a kind of cast of this history. The process of doing so sounds laborious in the extreme.

“It takes maybe a month,” Joo says, from preparing the materials and the ground, to pulling an epoxy-based ink across the studio floor, heating it up for it cure and set, and then finally applying a layer of silver nitrate and fixing that with a protective resinous layer used in the marine industry to prevent the corrosion of metal from salt water. But Joo relishes such durations for the sense of “detachment” it allows him from the process itself.

He speaks of avoiding “subjectivity” in his methods, which he likens rather to “setting a ball rolling and allowing it to take its course.” The process of producing the work then telescopes the wider historical timelines recorded in the surface of the floor and transferred to the work itself, with results unpredictable and unknowable in advance. Previously unnoticed, the marks in the floor, both caused by his own activity and every preceding activity in that space, are then revealed in what he calls “a map”, but a map less of space than of time. The result, with its rich, glistening hues and dramatic shapes, is strangely aesthetic but for Joo the point is to present “a physical experience, rather than an image-based experience.”

As with all these works, there is something here which alludes to a process only temporarily arrested, a kind of snapshot which continues to gesture both towards its own past and to the possibility of its own continuance. In each case the works, the method, their process of production, as he says, “bear evidence that it is ongoing.”

Michael Joo, Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut), 2014-2015, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

The gallery at Blain|Southern is dominated by a great marble and steel sculpture, superhuman in scale at some three metres high and just as much across. Entitled Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut), the main bulk of the thing is made of a huge slab of metamorphic rock extracted from a mountain quarry in Vermont, along the suture fault known as Cameron’s Line, which runs through the Bronx, Staten Island, and New Jersey.

“I’ve been looking at the line and how it crops up in the urban landscape,” Joo tells me. “Following this line, I found this quarry, which has been mined since the 19th century, and slowly they’ve been tunnelling the earth of this marble mountain. They’re about a mile and a half in now, extracting blocks of this” A great deal of the East Coast’s signature architecture has been hewn from the marble in this quarry, Joo tells me, specifically such great edifices as Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven.

“I was interested in the idea of displacing a section of this subsurface landscape, ao I asked them to extract a ten by ten block. So in extracting this block, they typically cut it in slices for use commercially. I asked them to take the contiguous sides of the block, which is something that is against their normal industrial process. That’s when the problems started.” The marble cracked – a fault line within a fault line, if you like. Joo had the engineers patch it up with massive steel clamps, much as they would any other piece of unstable rock deep in the mine. “I tried to use a similar language,” he says, “but it really wasn’t about trying to make an aesthetic decision. It was more of a functional and efficient course.”

The results are impressive, imposing, veined with the marks of vast geological processes. In the context of the gallery, it comes across as at once sculpture and in a way landscape painting – perhaps, with its coating on the back side with the silver nitrate chemical used in early photographic printing, a kind of photograph, too. Like the casting of his studio floor, it seems to arrest time for a moment, in order to take a snapshot, as it hovers, tentatively frozen in bullet time. But for Joo, it’s also a kind of “billboard”.

But if it’s a billboard, I ask, what is it advertising?

“Perhaps it’s showing something of our past and our present and on the rear, it might be something about the future.”

A billboard for the future, I suggest. It sounds like the World’s Fair or something…

Joo laughs at this. “That’s interesting,” he says “It would be a post-apocalyptic version of the World’s Fair, proposing a bright future that came and passed.”