The important thing, says Michael O’Malley when quizzed about his artistic intentions, is “resonance, rather than meaning.” Indeed, the disparate components of O’Malley’s installation are reticent as well as undeniably resonant. They are pieces of a philosophical puzzle that do not yield easily to interpretation. A thick wall of packed dirt fronts the installation, its segments gapped as if by brief grammatical interludes—air hyphens. Passing through the walls, one can see immediately the source of the dirt: a giant, square hole in the floor, about eight feet deep.
Protruding slightly above the lip of the pit is a giant ceramic silo, open at the top, whose interior concave space is the shape of a lipstick missile poised to launch from its inverted launching pad into the earth. Beyond all this, the gallery’s back wall is studded with small, neat shelves, evenly distributed but not in straight rows, each containing a translucent brick of amber resin that looks rather like a photo frame. The bricks, which vary slightly in dimension, each contain a small, suspended object: a faded four-leaf clover, a hotel key, a “pre-Columbian” miniature mask from Mexico, a feather.
Perhaps the first association to materialize from the room’s almost palpable resonant vibrations is that of an anthropological dig. The pit—in this case, the Pit of Obscurity—has been excavated, and the detritus of, we imagine, one humble life has been separated and displayed on the Wall of Omniscience. The chunks of memory are not classified or ordered, but they are minutely encyclopedic nonetheless, no more privileged among each other than alphabetized entries in a book. Of course, each souvenir possesses a resonance of its own, a story. The key to the hotel room, for example, unlocks a whole chapter of imagined biography. At the same time, the objects are bizarrely generic. They tell us almost nothing about their owner: a Catholic, an American, a man. This person’s past is everyone’s past, really; each of us could manufacture a childhood from these “memories.”
If a souvenir, as critic Susan Stewart writes, allows us to convert a historical narrative into a personal narrative (not just “The Eiffel Tower was constructed for the World’s Fair in 1889,” but “I was at the Eiffel Tower, which…”), then these objects allow us to convert a personal memory into a collective narrative. For instance, we can remember the first time we each found a feather. Suspended in amber, these souvenirs become specimens, different in fingerprint from our own representative objects, but similar in type. And, more importantly, similar in their distance from their original context. Without the authenticity of our own individual imprint, these objects give us yearning for the past, but through a cinematic removal. Against this backdrop of connect-the-dot nostalgia rises the mystery of the white silo. A cylindrical tower from the outside and a “female” receptacle on the inside, this structure consists of perfect igloo-style, porcelain “bricks” specially made to accommodate the straight exterior and curved interior. The placement of the whole affair, smooth inside yet outwardly bristling with dentata-like shims jutting from between the bricks, inside the pit is inexplicable. It could not have been found there. It rises above the lip of the pit by half a foot or so—yet how else, within the logic of the installation, did it get there?
The silo resonates in a co-sine to the sine of the manufactured, souvenir objects. While those objects are personal, yet as a totality impersonal, the silo is impersonal and highly polished, yet somehow completely singular. It is made, after all, from clay, and what other material so evokes the humble human hand? In scale it is inhospitable, yet the interior well is sized to cradle a single, upright man.
It was constructed in an industrial setting, yet it is the brainchild of an artist with an exacting aesthetic, who makes a point of the construction’s imperfections by refusing to trim the wooden shims that level it out at the top. This construction, then, replaces the detritus of collected objects with the fantasy of the created object, the true if unlikely evidence of the artist’s hand and mind.
On the wall, some omniscient narrator has arranged objects with no author. The objects are either manufactured junk or collected nature. Not only, Susan Stewart would say, have these objects lost the authenticity of lived experience, they have lost the authenticity of authorial voice as well. Their very lack, their beauty together with their very disconnection from “real life,” creates desire; in this case the movie house desire of identification with someone else’s memories. Yet in this installation, do the collected objects furnish the narrative? The objects appear to sketch out a personal history, but they are not nearly as personal as the porcelain silo, with the “firsthand knowledge” to which it leads us. The silo, along with the packed dirt walls, invoke pure labor and lead us back to the moment of production, and therefore creation. Like the souvenirs, it is devoid of use value, and thus flush with aesthetic (and not sentimental) value. And herein lies O’Malley’s most resonant lesson: it is art, and not the trapped detritus of life, that leads us to the present moment.
Shaila Dewan is a writer and art critic in Houston, TX.