From White Cube to Big Box: Three Exurban Themes in the Work of Kim Adams

[originally published in 2002 Biennale of Sydney: (the world may be) fantastic]

Kim Adams, Minnow Lure

“Non-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified…by totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called ‘means of transport’ (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks.” –Marc Augé

In a recent solo-exhibition at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, Kim Adams’s large, colourful sculptures were displayed on heavy-duty warehouse shelving that lined several walls of that gallery’s vast central space, permitting a rotating display of his works to occupy the floor. This industrial-commercial display strategy was not only entirely consistent with Adams’s practice of ad hoc appropriation –his sculptures are assembled from consumer goods– but was also very effective at transforming the cultural geography of the gallery space, temporarily converting an urban art gallery (itself, interestingly, a converted industrial building) into its very antithesis: a “big box” warehouse store of the sort that can be found on the sprawling fringes of cities the world over.

The work of Kim Adams is very much about place. In particular, it is about the non-place of contemporary “exurbia.” Kim Adams addresses the aesthetics of the changing, dynamic zone at the edge of the contemporary city; the space of agri-business, “new” tract-houses, shopping malls, warehouse stores, automobile dealerships, industry, trucking depots, new and improved roads, recreational parks, as well as landfill sites and garbage dumps; the space of both dreams and derision. It is this geographic transition zone between the rural and the suburban –and the human values that are invested in it– that forms the critical subject of Adams’s work. I would like to discuss three exurban themes that resonate in Adams’s work: populism, automobility and utopia.

“Many people like suburbia.” –Robert Venturi

Suburbia, the condition that has given rise to the exurb, is the common referent of North America; its popular voice and the base of its populism. Kim Adams understands this populism: he celebrates DIY culture, invites active participation, and employs the stratagem of the decoy as a vehicle for people to access his work.

DIY culture thrives in exurbia. On farms, doing-it-yourself is a necessity, while in suburban neighbourhoods it is a widely practiced hobby. Rural and suburban houses are typically stand-alone structures constructed of “stick-frame”, lending themselves particularly well to self-modification, while driveways, farm sheds and garages offer ideal spaces for those who are mechanically inclined to modify vehicles. DIY itself represents an independence from the aesthetic dictates of urbanity. In addition to comprising a form of bricolage itself, Adams’s work is also largely inspired by his ongoing research into popular bricolage. He has built up an exhaustive collection of “research slides” documenting “ordinary” street remakes of vehicles, trailers and homes.

Adams has also experimented extensively with installations and vehicles that invite viewers to participate in his work. In early works such as Mini Ride (1984) and Toaster Ride (1985), he constructs roller-coasters outside and inside the gallery respectively, inviting the public to ride them with himself present as Carney. Other sculptures, such as Gift Machine (1988), which hands out gifts to passers-by, are conceived to occupy streets and other public places, and instigate conversations. Interestingly, when the question “is this art?” is inevitably posed, Adams does not reply in the affirmative because, as he puts it, “then the conversation just ends right then and there.” Adams presents himself precisely as an “ordinary person” and not as an artist in order to engage, rather than alienate, an exurban sensibility that is often hostile to contemporary art.

Familiarity is present in Adams’s work as well, functioning also as a vehicle for popular engagement. His sculptures are assembled from ordinary objects of the sort one finds in “big-box” warehouse stores; anything from car and truck parts and industrial hardware to patio furniture, gardening equipment, sports gear, and children’s toys. With their familiar logos, bright colours, and oftentimes seamless assembly, Adams’s sculptures resemble, at first glance, a new line of consumer products, thereby acting as “decoys” that lure shoppers into the world of art.

“That’s what a house is: it’s where you keep your stuff while you run around getting more stuff.” –George Carlin

The automobile is to the suburban house what the elevator is to the skyscraper: it is the mechanical invention that is necessary in order to make the building type inhabitable. Yet while both the house and the car represent the most important purchases of a typical suburban family, aesthetically, the automobile is inversely related to the house. The suburban tract house is typically conservative and conformist, while contemporary automobiles are works of cutting-edge design. A car expresses a great deal more about the aesthetic predisposition, taste, and personality of its owner than does a house, which must always display a polite facade. Indeed, for many the house represents a solid financial investment while the car is seen as a disposable toy. The house is expected to accrue in value while the car depreciates rapidly, placing the two in a compensatory relationship.

Works such as Chameleon Unit (1988) and Two Headed Lizard With a Single Shot (1986) appear to hybridize vehicle and home. Both of these works are on wheels –as are indeed most of Adams’s works– yet both also make reference to domestic architecture by means of garden sheds, recalling the suburban house’s lesser cousin, the mobile home. Interestingly, trailer parks with mobile homes –communities often disparaged as “trailer trash”– are often the first kind of residential architecture we encounter when we approach a city, representing the suburban dream of living between city and countryside par excellence.

The trailer is the leitmotif of Adams’s work. Earth Wagons (1989-91), for example, in addition to being a trailer itself, also plays host to a number of reduced-scale models of trailers. Symbolizing automobility par excellence, usually for escaping the city, trailers are the very embodiment of modernist-utopian values such as modularity, standardization, flexibility, freedom of movement and living in proximity to nature.

“The whole of French soil should be turned into a superb English park, adorned with all that the fine arts can add to the beauties of nature.” –Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon

Exurbia has been the subject of much utopian thinking. From Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City through the recent “New Urbanist” experiments of Seaside and Celebration –all sited well away from pre-existing cities– finding an ideal synthesis between town and country has long preoccupied utopian thinkers.

It is in Adams’s miniaturized scenarios that he most directly addresses utopian ex-urbanism. Adams works with reduced-scale similarly to “real” or full-scale: he buys ready-to-assemble kits that are mass-produced and available commercially, then joins the parts in unorthodox ways. What is significant here about the use of the reduced scale-model, however, is that it provokes more than a passive gaze; inviting the viewer to actually dominate over it. It is for this reason that reduced-scale models, from museum dioramas to architects’ models and model train sets, have long been objects of popular fascination. A model is no more than a representation of something real or imagined, but, whether it is an art object, a means for visualizing a three-dimensional design or a toy, a model is also an idealization of that which it represents; something more perfect than the “real” thing. In fact, a scale-model is utopian, since it is placeless and free from contingency. Models are other, alternate worlds upon which real impulses, including those of mastery and domination, can be projected.

Adams’s miniaturized works, like their full-scale counterparts, also act as decoys, concealing something behind the attractive appearance of a consumer product –in this case that of a model train set– in order to lure the viewer. The expectation of models is that they are perfect, harmonious places, and it is this very expectation that makes the scenarios played out in Adams’ models effective. In Earth Wagons (1989), for example, leisurists and tourists –modern nomads– can be seen happily playing in a landscape that has been devastated by the very infrastructure of tourism and consumerism: by an excess of roads carrying excessive traffic, factories spilling chemicals, and garbage dumps full of discarded products. The landscape, though exaggeratedly dense, is nevertheless ex-urban. As with every utopia, we realize that a promising appearance conceals, in fact, a nightmare; that it contains its very opposite.

By way of its exurban nature, then, Kim Adams’s work can be seen within the art world as iconoclastic. The art world is highly urbanized: its capital is New York City, the densest, most urban environment in the world. Its biennials, such as this one, happen in major urban centres. Contemporary art is, moreover, highly differentiated from the more traditional, folkloric and craft-based art-forms that are more typically based in rural regions. In this regard, Adams is clearly an urbanite, but one who brings ex-urban culture into the city and secularizes its most sacred spaces. The work of Kim Adams bridges not only high and low, but also centre and periphery.


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