Los Angeles

Erika Suderburg

SITE Gallery

The general persuasiveness of post-Modern critiques of Modernism have tended to blind us to the complexities and philosophical richness of Enlightenment thought. Opening up a productive dialogue with Denis Diderot, author of the highly influential 18th-century Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Erika Suderburg’s complex curatorial/art project returns us respectfully—if with humor and a critical eye—to the exhaustive archival logic of the Enlightenment.

The project, an ongoing compendium of boxes that negotiate the obsessive categories of the Encyclopédie in various ways, consists at this point of 121 pieces by almost as many artists, including a number by Suderburg herself, attributed in the accompanying Index to “Sophie Volland,” Diderot’s mistress. The installations are augmented by a brilliantly conceived “anticatalogue,” a tiny cardboard box filled with a stack of paper sheets printed with pictures and quotations from the Encyclopédie interleaved with essays by a number of contributors.

Organized according to Diderot’s encyclopedic categories (“Agriculture and Rural Economy,” “Writing and Books,” etc.), which were to embrace the entire world of knowledge, the boxes, as might be expected, vary widely in technique and content, as well as in attitude, ranging from the conscientiously exploratory and materially seductive to the flippantly antiesthetic. Kelly McGehee’s two boxes are fabulously lush, as if hearkening back to the depravity of the rococo that Diderot’s orderliness intended to render obsolete: both boxes are framed by heavily lacquered, glossy black enamel to reveal three green cases containing noses nestled in a voluptuous bed of black velvet and a weird vegetable root hovering self-consciously over a dressy pucker of bright gold taffeta. “Sophie Volland” herself appeals with a decidedly erotic come-on: her French Tickler box beckons the viewer with a flashing red light and tantalizes us with a barely visible feather beneath a diaphanous white veil.

Other boxes are obliquely or aggressively polemical or conceptual. In Paula Goldman’s eerie box, Sense of Touch, a weird skinlike blob with protruding pricks is caressed by disembodied Mickey Mouse hands. In Mario Ontiveros’ (Dis)Placed Geography, the box is covered in metal and nails, its outer lips labeled with texts referencing U.S. colonialism; holding a tangle of barbed wire mounted in front of a mirror, the box disconcertingly incarcerates the viewer’s reflection, deftly linking Diderot’s compulsively exploratory project with the imperialism implicit in the Enlightenment’s enshrinement of Reason. John Goss’ goldleaf box holds a single gold Mastercard in his name and David Bunn’s simple unadorned box contains a single card for Diderot’s Dilemma from the Los Angeles Central Library card catalogue (recently rendered obsolete by the library’s shift to computerized cataloguing).

Bunn’s box, like the compact “anticatalogue” and the project as a whole, insists upon our distance from Diderot’s precybernetic milieu—a milieu in which the prospect of total knowledge seemed like a realizable fantasy, now available to us only in the form of fragments of outmoded representations (the library card, the Encyclopédie). The “dilemma” faced by Diderot—the impossibility of containing the world within categorical structures of ordering knowledge—has long been put aside, discredited for its imperialism. Suderburg’s multiauthored Diderot and the Last Luminaire, 1994, disperses Diderot’s corpus of facts across the beautiful, fetishistic, suggestive, and playful tableaux of the boxes, which speak, precisely, of the fragmentary nature of any (singularly authored) body of knowledge. This potentially infinite project seems ultimately to be a recognition of the expansion of the world of knowable things beyond the compass of the encyclopedic gaze.

Amelia Jones