New York

Ilana Harris-Babou

“Home decor corrals time,” Ilana Harris-Babou writes in her artist’s statement for “Reparation Hardware.” Through the delicate and strategic acquisition and display of objects, “we can conjure a perfect past and fold it into an aspirational future.” The show’s eponymous video parodied the slick, desirous collection videos of the upmarket home-furnishings retailer Restoration Hardware, juxtaposing the company’s breathless appeals to timeless quality and artisanal craft with the political demand for the delivery of reparations to African Americans in recognition of the stolen labor of their enslaved ancestors. Urbanely outfitted in a chambray button-down and round tortoiseshell glasses, Harris-Babou plays the chimerical character of the Reconstructor, part social-policy maker, part lifestyle influencer. “Reparations,” she announces, “will be our most ambitious project yet. We’re going back to the source, with rugged, splintery, slippery materials. I find inspiration everywhere, and I take this inspiration with me back to the studio.” In a glassy deadpan, the artist mimics the marketing cant of the millennial creative class and its shibboleths of authenticity, entrepreneurialism, and self-expression via mindful consumption. Dreamy close-ups of salvaged woods and bathetic shots of urinating cows are interposed with footage of Harris-Babou pensively gazing through a barn window, nailing a wooden beam with a flaccid clay hammer, and filling her sketchbook with the phrase “40 ACRES AND A MULE”—an invocation of Union General William T. Sherman’s unfulfilled promise to redistribute property to formerly enslaved farmers. “Their liberation was handcrafted,” she intones before an antiqued sepia photograph of herself posing with a rake in front of a dilapidated farmhouse appears on-screen. The juxtaposition—like the four-minute video as a whole—is arch and ironic, yet nonetheless hints at the atavistic, perhaps softly revanchist, fantasies latent in the nostalgia-coated artisanalism that supplies rootless urban creatives with invented histories and class signifiers.

Her send-up of post-hipster aesthetics, with its fetishes of process, materials, and unalienated labor, was amplified in the wordless video Red Sourcebook, 2018. The camera pans covetously across the pages of Restoration Hardware’s summer catalogue, lingering on sun-drenched stories with titles such as “Majorca in Grey All-Weather Wicker.” Beneath sumptuous images of infinity pools and “plantation grown, sustainably harvested” teak deck furniture, crawling text splices language from the catalogue’s introductory essay, written by Restoration Hardware’s CEO, and from the Federal Housing Administration’s 1936 Underwriting Manual, a document that enshrined racist and discriminatory mortgage-lending policies known as “redlining.” Literally taking up the practice with a red Sharpie, Harris-Babou outlines particularly seductive products and landscape elements, yielding an analogy between the catalogue’s discerning curation of quality wares and the FHA’s partitioning of space along color and class lines.

Ultimately, the insight of “Reparation Hardware” owed less to its gleeful satire of petit bourgeois “good taste” or its Benjaminian prompt that all “documents of civilization” are—with varying degrees of mediation—“documents of barbarism” than to the intellectual contest between reparation and restoration and their competing claims on history. In the artist’s own words, “[T]he restoration of old furniture takes something stale and makes it sleek. The reparation of lost wealth takes the smooth, seamless inevitability of the American Dream and makes it rusty.” Harris-Babou’s odd ceramic objects and desk lamps—the artist’s answer to Restoration Hardware’s nouveau heirlooms—were displayed on mounted shelves and on a reclaimed-wood table. While emphatically handcrafted, these aberrant housewares—gloopy, splenic agglutinations of epoxy clay, acrylic paint, and ceramic—flout the design ethics of functionality and skilled craftsmanship. Rather than conjure an idealized past or an aspirational future, they inhabit an imminent, acutely unresolved and contested present.

Chloe Wyma