Michael R. Allen
Arriving in the doorway to the Currents Gallery at the Saint Louis Art Museum that currently houses Christina Shmigel's installation The Logic of Attachment, I was overwhelmed with a sense of displacement. Displaced in that I could not find this place in which I stood in the network of pipes and tanks that disturb the room. I could define my position in terms of the doorway, in terms of the four walls as I began walking in the room, but not once could I determine where I was in the sculpture. As I inspected the intersections of the sculpture, I realized that on my first visit such a complete understanding would be impossible.
Shmigel (http://www.shmigel.com), a professor of art at Webster University in Saint Louis, has created a network of parts in which there is no recognized liminal point. There is no one place to begin the process of making meaning. Contrary to the title of the installation, there is no apparent logic to the work other than the simple logic of binding pipes together to make a connected system of functional-looking pieces.
That simple logic is formidable, though. I never recovered from my initial displacement. I wandered through the pipes, stunned at the accessibility of the work (I could walk through it) and at its continuous thwarting of the utility suggested by its appearance. Yes, the tanks were odd to see, but the network of metal looked like one of the patched-together plumbing networks that are all too common in the old industrial buildings of Saint Louis. I inspected joints carefully, hoping to see something in the craft that would determine purpose. I examined the rude pipes that seem to pieces through the neat gallery floor, as well as the pipes that emerge from the walls.
Surely Shmigel's sculpture would lead me from displacement to a simple correspondence with something old and real, and I would begin to recall in its sparseness patterns familiar from the old city buildings I have visited. Perhaps Shmigel lifted her design from several clumsy actual plans, maybe even from the Art Museum's old plumbing. Such site specific detail would be appropriate, considering that the installation is the most honest and insightful work of art reflecting upon the contemporary Saint Louis built environment.
The installation is also one of the relatively few prominent works of art by a local artist that the Saint Louis Art Museum has displayed in the last decade. The installation's embrace of the local is wonderfully unconventional in this museum, which is handicapped by a lack of appreciation for its place in this city at this time. Shmigel's work is timeless and local in that it demands an immediate experience, something that most other works at the museum eschew in favor of a bland evocation of greater museums and greater cultures. The humility of The Logic of Attachment could perhaps undo the museum's aversion to representing its local urban culture -- its own home. Odd that a work that so thoroughly disorients musuem-goers can also make them aware of the beauty of the unexplored in their home city. Perhaps here is a glimpse of a quality of great twenty-first century art: an awareness of the particular locality that is not ironic, degrading, nostalgic or easily understood.
Still, no simple correspondence between The Logic of Attachment and particular Saint Louis untilities makes itself known; only something new and profound. The Logic of Attachment offers nothing in the way of an orienting purpose or plan that would explain itself. It certainly evokes building innards but it is not building innards. The installation represents nothing. Like the greatest art of this era, Shmigel's sculptural maze appears at first to be a clever representation and proceeds to give pains to those people who try to figure out what it represents. The pipes are pipes (beautiful pipes). The material is arranged in ways suggested by the sturdy, common plumbing that keeps this city's buildings operative even in their near-decay. Yet never does the material attempt to imitate that plumbing. The evocation of the somewhat familiar in Shmigel's work can lead the beholder to a maddening discomfort, or a haunting contemplation.
Think about how the pipes would actually carry water into the tanks and through the room's walls and floors. When I visited, I thought about thinking that but did not dare do so. Such a thought is likely to consume days of experiencing the installation, for a multiplicity of possibilities must exist.
Thus Shmigel's work suggests that there is powerful meaning resting in the common material of our lives: behind walls, in ceilings and under floors. This suggestion is paradoxical, because pipefitters and plumbers, like Shmigel, have an elite skill that few of us can ever attain. Yet the unskilled are needed to give meaning to the complexities created by such fine craftspersons. Our interaction with material on a daily basis gives it its meaning. While I couldn't shower under the pipes emerging from the wall at the Saint Louis Art Museum, I stood there and wondered what distinguishes these pipes from those at home. I also realized that I don't really know the pipes at home, hidden behind tiles and plaster, as well as Shmigel's. A liminal point, this realization...
Michael R. Allen edits The Ampersand (www.mprsnd.org), a literary journal, as well as inter-action saint louis: a journal of a particular urban ecology. He serves on the editorial board of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought (www.greens.org/s-r/).