Marginal Utility's latest show focuses on one man's personal history.
Personal history stirs up emotions—we recall heartbreaking and euphoric memories, some recent, some fuzzier as time marches on. The feelings are highly individualized, but deeply meaningful. Unfortunately, Marc Andre Robinson’s show about his roots doesn’t evoke any feelings at all. His show, “The Diachronic,” is up now at Marginal Utility, the collective and gallery founded several months ago by Yuka Yokoyama and David Dempewolf. The exhibition places the emotional act of exploring one’s personal roots into a reserved and thoroughly unsentimental context.
Marc Andre Robinson’s artistic practice revolves around notions of history and homeliness. He often takes objects and symbols—chairs, tables, crosses—and arranges them in elaborately drawn or sculpted constructions. His installation at Marginal Utility uses many of the same motifs, though through an entirely new lens—one that is explicitly private.
Recently awarded a grant through Art Matters, Robinson will explore the South African land that previously belonged to his grandfather; it’s now a posh golf course. Until now, his only interaction with his personal history has been through his mother’s stories. His trip to Pretoria and Johannesburg is his first encounter with Afrikaner heritage. His installation at Marginal Utility is intended as a preliminary sketch for the concepts and themes he wants to explore while traveling.
A giant projection of an animated blue gorilla looms over the gallery. The gorilla represents a toy that has flickered in and out of Robinson’s life since childhood. The artist also sculpted three ceramic masklike figures of blue gorilla heads. These hang on the wall, stoically formal in installation, but adorable in composition. Their drawn-in facial features look like something a kindergartner might render: big eyes with dots for pupils and smiling mouths with huge square teeth.
Robinson juxtaposes childlike aesthetics with the proper rules of gallery installation. Hand-cut vinyl lettering for the title of the show is cute. The video about his grandfather is precious. In the video, Robinson narrates a story about his opera-singing farmer grandfather over moving satellite images of the farm from Google Earth. The video, which plays on a small television set perched atop a gigantic amp, is an intersection of the artist’s personal history with the remote and omniscient tools of technology—a joke on the notion of home videos. The slow-moving images have an awkward quality reminiscent of educational videos, choppily zooming in on the “eucalyptus tree with bees” or the “little house.”
Another work in the installation is a large black-and-white mural of a figure with his head below the surface. The symbolism is somehow both overstated and ambiguous. Is he burying his head in the sand, or is he just peering southward at the other hemisphere?
Robinson’s show is academic, careful and sober. It makes the right moves—the pieces are intelligent, cleverly assembled and aesthetically pleasing—but no matter how smart and professional the execution, the gravitational center of the show is the artist’s own history—something highly personal, but ultimately uninspiring to viewers, because they cannot relate.
Where is the empathetic point of entry between the viewer and the art? Exploring one’s own family makes for great Livejournal entries, but boring art. There is no urgency, either on the side of the artist to make the work or the audience to see it. Most importantly, there is no reward—while Robinson is able to delve into his own roots and answer personal questions, we remain unsatisfied. Though the work may pique mild curiosity, it doesn’t provoke any emotional response. Playful and self-inquisitive, “The Diachronic” is too contemplative for its own good. The theme of the show becomes its greatest stumbling block, as it refuses to elicit much of anything at all.
Marc Andre Robinson: “The Diachronic”
Calendar: April 1-8
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide