Navigating the Ruby Con:
Force Majeure and Sterling
Sterling Ruby: Damnation
Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
13.02.19 – 23.03.19
Earthquakes occupy a special place in the grim mythology of the American West, as do the wildfires, tsunamis, high-speed winds, landslides and floods that plague California. Emergency preparedness and resiliency training is recommended standard practice in the region. Grassroots initiatives such as America’s PrepareAthon!, which devised a playbook for running a role-playing game-like earthquake simulation exercise, remind the public that ‘Everyone has a role to play to prepare for a disaster. All employers and organisations – from local businesses and municipalities to schools, universities, and faith- and community-based organisations – are essential components of the community and can help people and groups to be more prepared.’1 In recognition of their unique security obligations, I would add prisons and museums to the list, especially if the latter were located on or near a geological anomaly, such as the cultural institutions that comprise Los Angeles’s Museum Row.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art ( LACMA ), for example, lies approximately 1 kilometre east of the nearest liquefaction zone ( as per the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services ‘My Hazards’ database ) and, according to a City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning Parcel Profile Report, 3.0562296 kilometres from the nearest fault zone. It is also erected on the grounds above a subterranean oil field, as evidenced by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits, placing it squarely within a methane hazard zone.
Due to fossil fuel deposits, subsurface methane concentrations are so rich in parts of Southern California that one can stick a pipe in the ground and light it for torch. Buildings without proper ventilation and monitoring equipment risk methane accumulation in rooms that ultimately blow up. To wit: on 24 March 1985 a pocket of methane exploded in a Ross Dress for Less clothing store north of LACMA. A Los Angeles Times article, published the next day, described the injured, the missing, the damaged, and the ‘fiery cracks’ in the earth that ‘spouted columns of flame’. At the time of writing, the cause of the explosion was undetermined; all anyone knew was gas, the likely culprit, ‘continued to seep to the surface – and burst into flame – in a steady progression across the parking lot’.2 Methane: deep time, unleashing modern doom.
And doom is hot right now in the popular ethos, what with the planet dying. Living in the eschaton feels sexy and exciting, like everything does and does not matter; everything is permissible, as long as the fantasy holds up that the last day will never come. This is why the conversation around ecological collapse, especially in contemporary art, is so frequently aestheticised through speculative fictions – the bones of the matter are too evocative of the fossils we will become, to heed them plainly.
A rather literal case in point is Sterling Ruby’s solo exhibition, Damnation. On display from 13 February to 23 March 2019 at Sprüth Magers, a blue-chip gallery across the street from LACMA and 3.01151544 kilometres from the nearest fault lines, it included a 2018 sculpture series entitled Skulls. The press release explained that ‘these oversized, animal-like skulls are in fact facsimiles of the underlying armatures of Hollywood special effects creatures’. Like most exposed armatures, the works are grotesque for their sheer nakedness. That they look like prehistoric remains decorated by a fourth-grader with a caffeine addiction and something to prove, only betrayed the reality that they have nothing to prove beyond a ‘fuck it, be cool’ attitude. Whatever meditations on death, waste and mass extinction Skulls might have inspired – that they might have been the allegorical faces of methane or memento mori for an entertainment industry complicit with excesses of twenty-first-century America – were lost among the arbitrary party-monster gear.
What Skulls lacked in critical integrity was made up for, albeit not without kinks, by State ( 2019 ), the only other work that was on view in Damnation. Incarceration is the theme of State, a single-channel video projection running slightly over half an hour in duration. Its subjects are the thirty-five adult state prisons of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ( CDCR ), filmed via a helicopter in the airspace above. From these aerial views, the prisons abstract into geometric shingles often indistinguishable from one another. Interspersed are moments of further abstraction, in which Californian topography rolls by as pure, barren texture, and the sound of drums is superimposed over all. The relentless, driving beat is likely what prompted some critics to find the work menacing in tone and therefore detect an illusion of skulls within the patterns on screen – although perhaps their apophenia was provoked by the sculptures already described.
Ruby’s vision of the carceral state is contingent upon the cold, distant gaze he uses to examine the prisons, and to highlight their severity, geographic isolation and quantity. This is the work’s greatest asset and greatest flaw. It is no secret the United States has the largest prison population in the world, a fact that raises serious concerns about the functional nature of its judiciary and law-enforcement agencies. Given the historic disparity between the percentage of incarcerated people of colour as compared to the number of incarcerated white people, these concerns are interlocked with crucial issues of systemic prejudice.
From the lofty perspectives offered in State, the very real, very human element of the penal system becomes wholly diminished. Following the 2019 Ridgecrest earthquakes – the strongest of which registered a 7.1 magnitude on the Richter scale – this particular shortcoming acquired new demerits, as the human element seemed further engulfed by Ruby’s monumental, alienating terrain, which had more in common with the riven Ross Dress for Less parking lot than it did with anything one might call a populated landscape.
So, what happens to incarcerated people, should force majeure come their way? Terry Thornton, Deputy Press Secretary of the CDCR Office of Public and Employee Communications, graciously fielded my question. For security reasons, she was unable to provide detailed information about emergency protocol at any given prison, least of all the California City Correctional Facility and California State Prison-Los Angeles, the two facilities closest to Ridgecrest, but she assured me the CDCR was resilient and prepared for large-scale emergencies. ‘There was no damage at those prisons because of those earthquakes, so what does that tell you?’ she asked, before confirming that employees were trained for every hazard and disaster plan and that the prisons themselves were structurally retrofitted or built to withstand a major temblor. I gathered her comments were also necessarily general, because disasters yielded unpredictable scenarios, despite expert efforts to model their outcomes. The dangers that an earthquake, a wildfire or ( for a place like San Quentin State Prison ) a tsunami might unleash are but an educated guess.
The most striking aspect of my conversation with spokes-woman Thornton was the empathy she expressed for the CDCR community, which includes employees and inmates alike. When she told me that the department was committed to preserving life, it was with a sincerity that transcended the rote standards of a media liaison officer simply doing her job.
Yet compassionate intentions do not change the fact that, as of 31 December 2016, the number of incarcerated people in California exceeded 200,000 and the number of incarcerated people in the United States was almost 2.2 million.3 Just like the good optics of donating the exhibition proceeds from State to the American Civil Liberty Union ( ACLU ) of Southern California does not change the fact that the video – valued at several hundred thousand dollars, and released in an edition of three with an artist’s proof – was made by a man with the means to actualise a personal creative vision that literally looks down on the incarcerated.
Ms. Thornton’s phrase, ‘preserving life’, turns in several registers. For her, it embodies a mission to protect communities on both sides of a security gate. It also implies containment, a confined existence in a holding pattern, i.e. a person in a cell. At its most complete, it connotes stasis, an animal suspended in pitch, evidence of an existence over and done. Had Ruby encouraged the preservation of life in his recent projects, his artistic efforts would have been a heartening contribution to urgently important debates about ecology and injustice that inform the American psyche. Sadly, he did not, so visitors like me had to take their musings elsewhere.
A stone’s throw from Sprüth Magers are the La Brea Tar Pits, most of which open to the sky. The Observation Pit, however, is housed in a small, round building. On the inside, its spiral staircase, circular skylights and observation deck resemble a panopticon. One can wind to the bottom for a closer look at the fossilised remains of animals trapped by tar, as well as bits of trash scattered by disrespectful guests. Some of the bones are situated as they were found; others, I was told, were planted for effect. Damnation, it seems, is but a construct..
1. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Prepare Your Organization for an Earthquake – Playbook, p. 1 <https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1409865580490-e83e2d1b906d35cc766477cb9459ca0e/prepareathon_playbook_earthquakes_final_090414_508a.pdf>.
2. George Ramos and Steve Harvey, ‘Gas Explosion Shatters Fairfax Store; 23 Hurt’, Los Angeles Times, 25 March 1985 <https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-03-25-mn-21303-story.html>.
3. Danielle Kaeble and Mary Cowhig, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016 ( Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice ), April 2018, p. 2 <https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus16.pdf>.
译 / 梁霄
拉布雷亚沥青坑博物馆（La Brea Tar Pits）距离斯布鲁斯客马格斯画廊仅有一箭之遥，场馆中的大部分空间是露天的。然而，观测坑却位于一座小型圆形建筑里，其内部的旋转楼梯、圆形天窗和观景甲板组合起来就像是构成了一座“全景监狱”（panopticon）。人们可以拾级而下，绕到底部去近距离观察被沥青困住的动物化石的遗迹，还有失礼的观光客们四处散落的垃圾。有些骨头就搁在它们被发现时的位置；而我被告知，其他化石的摆放则完全是为了制造效果。看来，“诅咒”只是一种编造。