It’s Tuesday, and dozens of folding banquet tables are being arranged in ICA’s first floor gallery. A big circle of them rings the floor, with more stacked on top: right side up, upside down, you name it. One even angles down from the apex like a slide.
“There’s a two on this table,” someone calls out.
“Here’s a five,” someone else says. “What table are you guys on? Twenty-four?”
We’re midway through installation for ICA’s big fall exhibition, Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, and stuff stretches everywhere: yellow ladders, circular lights, orange coils of power cord, quilted blankets, tall posts plastered with pictures, blue buckets, coffee cups, swivel chairs, and many many packing crates filled with more.
Nearly everything is neatly labeled in block letters: UNDER TABLE #9. ON TOP OF TABLE #33. SPARES. ASSHOLE.
If you think that last one is a joke, as I did at first, you’re mistaken. Or, to the extent it is a joke, it’s a joke (as my Shakespeare professor used to say) writ large. Unpacked and carefully assembled, this highly organized clutter will become The Creation Myth, a mammoth, sprawling sculpture which Jason Rhoades conceived of as a model of the artist’s brain at work. There is a digestive system too—an inflating plastic “Stomach” and a flexible Ikea tunnel “Esophagus” culminating in a big black funnel—like a giant gramophone horn—for venting gas.
The Creation Myth is one of the four major sculptures in this exhibition, which might be ICA’s most ambitious ever. Not only will ICA’s crew work on installation for weeks, experts have flown in to hang the dozens of neon lights in Untitled (from My Madinah: In pursuit of my ermitage…); to organize the continuous building and unbuilding of Sutter’s Mill (which will happen in the gallery every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday throughout the run of the show); and to wrangle the hundreds of objects that make up The Creation Myth and its more compact cousin, Garage Renovation New York (CHERRY Makita). “It’s the Ocean’s Eleven of exhibitions,” Ingrid jokes. “The top talent is flying in from all over for this one big job!”
Ingrid, ICA’s Chief Curator, is the organizer of this massive show. Today she stands amid the sea of objects that Susie and Maggie are unpacking from crates. Bubble wrap cushions all the bits and pieces that will be crammed into and scattered around this complicated sculpture of a complicated garage. Some of the bubble wrap is even helpfully labeled NOT ART—to distinguish it from other bubble wrap, which is labeled (you guessed it): ART. The bubble wrap that is art is carefully wrapped too, of course, in purely functional bubble wrap, lest it be damaged in storage or in moving.
Ingrid first got interested in Jason Rhoades in the 90s, putting a work of his in an exhibition called Deep Storage which traveled widely.In the catalogue essay for the show Ingrid anticipates this moment. Writing about the way the art world transforms sometimes worthless stuff into objects demanding extraordinary care and handling, she offers up Rhoades’s Suitcase with Past Financial Endeavors: “this slacker suitcase filled with rolls of cellophane tape, magic markers, [and] balls of aluminum foil…will travel from gallery, to museum, to collection…a Beverly Hillbilly come to high-culture.”
We move through the gallery to see how The Creation Mythis coming along. “It took a day to get the tables level,” Ingrid says. “It took another day to get the train to run.” The train, with a mounted camera, feeds live video to various monitors inside the sculptural brain. “Jason made this in ’98,” Ingrid says. “He was captivated by computers, connectivity, and the still new Internet.”
We’re peering at a section of the piece having to do with the Rhoades family dog when something floats through the air. “Oh look!” Ingrid says. “The Asshole is steaming!”
Rick and Pat, who are working on the Asshole, make some adjustments. “I think it might need to incubate a little bit,” Rick says.
A well-defined ring of smoke the size of a frisbee shoots from the funnel’s mouth, quickly followed by another. They drift slowly up toward the ceiling. “There we go,” Rick says. “They’re landing right in the sweet spot.”
“They look like ghosts,” Ingrid says.
“Every two to two-and-a-half minutes is what we want,” Rick says. “A slow trickle. You turn it off at night and on again in the morning.” Then he adds, “You know, one of Jason’s original subtitles for the piece was Yes, I Can Blow Smoke Rings Out of My Asshole.”
Before anyone can respond to this, Paul comes by and sees the smoke rings. “Holy cow, that’s beautiful!” he says.
Which, in its deeply Rhoades-ian way, it absolutely is.
Jason Rhoades, Four Roads opens September 18, 2013 and will be on view through December 29.
To stay up to date with all the smoke we’re blowing at ICA, email firstname.lastname@example.org.