Formal Complaints: On Park McArthur's Critical Minimalism

 

Essay

Published in Metropolis M, No. 4, 2021

August 2021

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Park McArthur, Fantasies, 2020 

‘I want a place where care providers and care receivers are supported in the work they do.’ [1] — Park McArthur

 

In 2014, two years prior to uttering the above statement, artist Park McArthur delivered Ramps at Essex Street in New York—an exhibition that ‘didn’t start out as an art project but as an attempt to participate in art, as an artist, in a very inaccessible city.’ [2] The exhibition included a collection of access ramps belonging to art institutions, all varying in sophistication and all made, at one point or another, specifically for McArthur. This collection of ramps—on loan for the occasion from institutions with which McArthur had worked in varying capacities from artist, to resident, to lecturer—is an instance of sculpture that can be looked at in many ways.

 

Formally speaking, non-slip adhesives frame many of the ramps, immediately bringing to mind a certain safety of movement for a set of wheels—as applies to McArthur, who uses a wheelchair. Others are glaringly DIY, with one made of wood and sprayed haphazardly in fluorescent orange paint. Now faded and far less alarming, this ramp was not built to withstand the elements. But amidst the array of options, one rather modest ramp stands out to me most, not because of its ingenuity or aesthetic prowess but precisely because of its uncanny likeness to the blackened, aged and flaking plywood I pulled from dumpsters at art school, desperate to frugally reconstitute it as some kind of surface on which to paint. In this context however, while again a piece of discarded ply standing in as art, original use-value evacuated, it stands as a glaring example of the vastly discrepant standards we hold when it comes to access needs and the institutions within which we work.

 

McArthur further speaks to this through two additional textual elements that comprised the exhibition alongside the collection of ramps. The first was a series of labels that stood in the place of the ramps at their original institutional locations and which noted their removal and the second was the application of a website URL to the wall of the gallery, which if followed directed viewers to the Wikipedia page McArthur started for disability rights activist Marta Russell. In laying bare these minor histories—the labels acting as plaques in the absence o the ramps and Russell's previously unrecognised work (as far as the Wikipedia encyclopaedia goes)—McArthur applies the conceptualism of institutional critique to make known the interdependent network of relations existing between the very institutions in question. [3]

 

Yet it is a disservice to McArthur to limit the reading of her work to only that of disability advocacy, especially given what she has contributed to minimalism—or rather, a redefinition of it—over the past decade. For one, each of the ramps were made according to the one-to-one access needs of McArthur, emphasising the on-the-run way by which the majority of institutions engage with questions of access but also, going further than this, returning the figure of the artist (and their own navigation of space) to the frame of minimalist practice. In this way, McArthur merges minimalism’s formal proclivities with the appraisal of institutional critique to construct a language that is distinctly her own; one that lays bare the politics of access through the physical navigation of sculptural matter.

 

Ramps aside, other works of McArthur’s, like Fantasies (2020), so immediately and obviously invert the quest for autonomy present in minimalism and other modernist movements by centring the dynamic of dependency sitting at the heart of the relationship between those who give and receive care. This is an important point: in remaining committed to form in an almost archetypal way, McArthur’s blend of institutional critique doesn’t revert to the usual trope of presenting documentation of a process that happened elsewhere.  Instead, (restrictions to) the body’s negotiation of space—a trademark of minimalism—becomes itself the space of critique. In Fantasies, twelve used plastic ventilator filters—which McArthur employs at night to assist with breathing—are stacked one on top of the other. This minimalist column made of industrially-produced items loyally holds up tradition at first sight, yet upon contextual investigation the so-called ‘removal of the artist’s hand’ is undone by a largely invisible material that redefines the work entirely: the residue of her own breath.

 

This lightness of touch seems to be symptomatic of McArthur’s practice, which often sees materials change their conceptual composition through encounters with invisible and reconstituting forces: like with the ramps and her own biography, or in the application of a linguistic interpretation to a piece of polyurethane foam, as with Poly (2016). In an artist conversation about the latter work, which was presented at Chisenhale in London, McArthur begins by reciting a text with conversation partner Mason Leaver-Yap. The recitation is punctuated by a number of riddles about larger societal questions and later in the more freewheeling segment of the conversation McArthur comments that she thinks of the massive polyurethane sculptures as literal stand-ins for these riddles: just like a riddle, they are ‘very large and fairly heavy and also light, so there is a way in which you can’t move them by yourself. But [because they are foam] they are in your head light objects. And there might be questions of societal change or organising that are equally as riddled.’ [4] Materially speaking, the foam used in the exhibition is high-density acoustic polyurethane foam, meaning that it can absorb sound and impact—another instance of a work becoming something else through what it can invisibly bear. It feels as though there is a flirtation with the threshold of what a body can take in McArthur’s work, one that manifests in the subtle shifts of various material registers and which, through their invisibility, draw attention to those that carry the constantly accumulating weight of a world that only caters to the able-bodied.

 

Something I appreciate in McArthur is an alternative to the definition of care as it has come to be fetishised in contemporary art. Rather than the countless curators who write in misguided epiphanies that it is no coincidence the word ‘curating’ comes from the Latin word for ‘care’, McArthur insists that ‘when care is access, access is made to be a communal effort and constitutive goal of personal and group care.’ [5] The communal effort of her own care was formalised in Passive Vibration Isolation (2014), her follow-up exhibition to Ramps held at Gallery Lars Friedrich, which was composed of, in part, the pyjama pants McArthur wore while friends and family lifted her in and out of bed. Literally worn from the friction of movement, the pants hung from metal armatures as a delicate amalgamation of the shared labour of McArthur’s care.

 

McArthur’s day-to-day life is made possible through the support of a care group, one composed of nine friends who assist her on a rotational basis. On this ‘care collective’, McArthur writes: ‘my friends’ received goodness, their decision to help me without pay, sits inside an ethical expansiveness generated by an ontology of care that finds reproductive labour everywhere. It is true my friends are not only incredible, they are the best people alive, but it is care’s everywhere-ness, care’s everyminute-ness that is ecological, not moral.’ [6]

 

The reminder of the constitutive and ecological ways through which institutions can better provide care is an important one in a field so deeply invested in speculation. While still engaging in aesthetic practice with incredible formal astuteness, McArthur doesn’t come from a speculative position, actually, not even a theoretical one: she speaks from the absence of a basic need and right, one that if present would make it possible for her to work in the field that she has chosen in a way that doesn’t only accommodate her on the occasion of her temporary employment. For McArthur, as it should be for us all,  

 

…accommodation is such an insufficient concept. So much of structural access, be that an elevator, or a ramp, or signage in braille, or affirmative action, or a loan, is a minimal relational proposition: a ramp can get a person in and out of a place, but what about what happens inside? I don’t want to be accommodated, I want to help change the very systems and structures that view my presence as an act of accommodation. [7]

 

In the midst of a pandemic that brought with it many new relational obstacles, McArthur’s most recent exhibition at Essex Street—which Fantasies (2020) was a part—addressed the much-needed structural changes she refers to above by propping the door of the gallery open at all times while additionally making the exhibition completely viewable online. In the online version, a video documents the view of the exhibition as if from McArthur’s perspective. A voice describes the details as we enter the space via the wheelchair lift, shifting the standard perspective of exhibition viewing and in turn not accommodating McArthur but instead reminding viewers of their own expectations of constant, undisrupted access—even with a pandemic permitting.

 

Considering this, perhaps my opening sentence should be slightly reconfigured. McArthur didn’t start her lecture with a statement: she waged a demand. And it is a demand waged within her practice regularly, continually offering us—those who work within and with institutions—a much-needed education about our own limitations. McArthur once noted that her work is ‘often produced by what is necessary,’ [8] a rule of thumb we could all benefit from adopting—especially given that the very thing that is currently necessary when it comes to access is McArthur’s work itself.

[1] Park McArthur, “Critical Issues in Contemporary Art Practice Lecture Series: Park McArthur” (University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design, March 10, 2016). See: https://vimeo.com/159085350.  

[2] Stephen Whitty, “Park McArthur Inspires Young Artists as Rutgers' Tepper Chair,” Rutgers University, February 18, 2020, https://www.rutgers.edu/news/park-mcarthur-inspires-young-artists-rutgers-tepper-chair.

[3] Further aligning herself with the history of conceptual art, McArthur’s removal of the ramps and their replacement with signs noting the move referenced John Knight’s 1998 exhibition Identity Capital at American Fine Arts, which saw him loan bouquets of flowers from the hotspots of the New York art scene, exhibit them at the gallery and subsequently note their relocation by putting a card in their place at the restaurants and bars they were taken from.

[4] Chisenhale Gallery, “Exhibition Event: Park McArthur in conversation with Mason Leaver-Yap,” March 2, 2015, https://vimeo.com/155656717.

[5] Park McArthur, “Sort of Like a Hug: Notes on Collectivity, Conviviality, and Care,” in The Happy Hypocrite, Issue No. 7, ed. Mason Leaver-Yap (London: Bookworks, 2014), 52.

[6] Ibid., 56–57.

[7] Jennifer Burris, “Park McArthur Interviewed by Jennifer Burris,” Bomb Magazine, February 19, 2014, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/park-mcarthur/.

[8] Daniel S. Palmer, “Against Accommodation: Park McArthur,” Mousse, Issue 47 (February–March 2015).