Warped Flow Gadget

Introduction: no case to answer?
Astriking trait of the work of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, probably the first thing most people notice as they enter a show of their work, is its curious air of detachment. This isn't art that wears its emotions on its sleeve. Quite the contrary. Their art works rebut most straight forward attempts at empathy. Instead of a clear face or posture, something with which one could readily identify, these works present themselves as a series of puzzling constructions. The works are cool and witty, sculptural installations full of allusions, to which the makers often add punning titles and ironic comments. Such cool wit can certainly be refreshing, and I would venture a guess that a good number of visitors of Maass and Nayoungim's shows have not felt the need to look any further. They may have been well satisfied with the conclusion that these are artists with a well-developed taste for bizarre combinations of design, surface and texture in commodity-like sculpture and drawing.
On top of this, Maass and Nayoungim are not averse to a little misrepresentation, feeling that the audience should be able to take a bit of teasing. While most gallery invitations show a photo of the exhibited work, they often choose to lead their audience up the garden path. For a show in Helmond, The Netherlands, in 2005, titled "Fine for a Robot", they sent out invitations with a photo of the interior of a small supermarket in Seoul, while nothing in the show was visibly related to things Korean.

[1] Similarly, for a show in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2006, titled "Have Spacesuit – Will Travel", the invitation showed an aerial photo of Manhattan. The show, of course,contained neither an aerial photo nor a spacesuit nor any reference to New York City or Manhattan. 
            And yet, however appropriate qualifications like cool, witty,distanced and absurd are, there is something in this work that does look back at the spectator and requires an empathic response. 
Dry and aloof as it is, there is also a certain stubbornness in the work, aspecific and very oblique personality that is its core. The best way to find access to this hidden and convoluted message is indirectly, by considering it against a series of diverging backgrounds.

Inside the gadget cartoon
There is a cartoon from The New Yorker, reprinted in The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons.[2] It pictures the interior of a shop, with customers looking atshelves and displays full of electronic equipment. A customer, an unassuming middle-aged man, says to a shop clerk: "All my gadgets are old. I'd like some new gadgets."
            This cartoon may be used as map of the art of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim. It helps to find a way through the maze of puns, allusions and sculptural non-sequiturs that may be found in their work. What the cartoon shows, like so many other technology cartoons, is that people enter into all-too-human relationships with the computers, mobile phones and assorted equipment with which they surround themselves. People ascribe emotions and moods to the equipment they use, they know that things can either be helpful or selfish, lovable or spiteful. Even if every scientifically trainedrationalist will gladly explain that such relationships are nothing but anthropomorphic projections, a relapse into animistic beliefs, such explanations don't make these feelings go away, quaint and one-sided as they may be. Gadgets are the most concise embodiment of the se relationships. They dress technology in winning features, add a colourful touch, give it a face that is more attractive than the regular interface, and thus form a source of small private pleasures.To say out loud, as the New Yorker cartoon does, that these pleasures are bound to grow stale, and may then be replaced wholesale, is to give away their secret. If such technological gizmo's are like pets, the cartoon reveals that they will nevertheless be rejected before they have come to grow old, as their owners will have grown tired of them.
            If the cartoon is to function as a map around the work of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, the first thing it helps to see is that Maass has drawn a series of cartoons in which his own sculptures have guest appearances. The settings for these drawings are undramatic: an open field, a sidewalk,a playground, a kitchen, another field with a radar station. Several drawings show a generic modern indoor space, a modular ceiling held up by square columns, electricity outlets scattered over the floor,monitors standing on desks and tables. It could be an airport lobby, it could be office space, it could be anywhere. The main character in these cartoon spaces is a Bézier spline, a maze of triangles. In some cartoons the spline is almost crushed by a pillar-like block, in another it carries a household appliance, in others the Bézier splinesits in front of the monitor, or it is connected via cables and unspecified electronic appliances to a plaster landscape. Maass has lifted this cartoon character from the domain of mathematics: the Bézier spline is a computational procedure that is used to render surfaces of any shape. The procedure is standard in computer rendering sof 3-dimensional shapes. As such, it is an invisible presence beneath the surface of the characters in every computer game. The bézier spline is a nonentity, but also a ready triangulation of any kind of anthropomorphic projection, any presentation of subjectivity.
The map now shows a convoluted landscape. There is, undoubtetly, something gadget-like about a good part of the sculpture of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim, and their sculpture exists both inside and outside the cartoons. They have also made and shown a plaster Bézier spline,covered with chocolate frosting. But this gadget/character, the Bézier spline, is itself only a mapping procedure. While as a mathematical procedure it is faceless, in its countless digitized applications,computer games and TV cartoons, it wears many faces and is endlessly engaging. The cartoon map becomes self-referential here, it turns backupon itself. Perhaps it is shaped like a topological Klein bottle, thethree-dimensional version of the Moebius strip, where inside andoutside are identical. Our subjective and empathic responses may befound simultaneously inside and outside the gadget.

Handmade ready mades
Against the background of art history, the work of Maass and Nayoungim is both a celebration and a re-evaluation of the ready made. The "sock dryer"they made in 2004 is the best example of this. It's a rather intricate piece of woodwork, two by two meters square, with three layers of wooden feet-shaped planks sticking out of each side. The top layer of 'feet' is wearing half-long green-and-white Nike socks. A fashion-aficionado might see this piece as a an evolution that came out of of the clothes dummy. In art history, the obvious reference is Marcel Duchamp's 1914 'Bottle Rack', a contraption that would originally have been used to dry wine bottles, made famous by Duchamp's gesture of signing it as his first ready-made. The sock dryer appears to twist the arm of the bottle rack hard enough to turn it inside out:it is overly friendly, playful, cosy and cute where Duchamp's piece bristled with metal points, and it is painstakingly handmade whereas Duchamp's was shop-bought.
            Some of Maass's early works are like recipes for Do-It-Yourself readymades, work to do in your kitchen at home: potatoes and cucumbers, carrots and zucchini,carved and dovetailed like pieces of timber, then added together to make squares and circles, even a house frame that might adorn a kitchen counter or festive dinner table. Other pieces are even more elementary: rolls of white toilet paper, carefully stacked to form towers, columns and plinths, almost a parody of architectural scale models; and arrangements of shop-bought pre-sliced toast, set on a table top, then carefully photographed. For a show at the Parisian École NationaleSupérieure des Beaux-Arts, Maass went so far as to paint 400 square meters of wall in a World War II camouflage pattern. His work appears to stretch the idea of the readymade so far that it will envelop all and everything.
            To understand this playing around with readymades, it is worth while to have a look at the wider historical background of this artistic strategy. When Pablo Picasso chose, 100 years ago, to stick a piece of real chair caning into his 1907 "Still Life with Chair Caning", he decided that the difficult artistic labor of creating a bit of trompe l'oeil in paint was superfluous, since machine-made chaircaning was perfectly functional. Duchamp's more drastic use of readymade products as art completely replaced the skilled and personal handwork of the artist by the impersonal and intellectual game of shopping and selecting. His preference for the ready-made object reflects his fascination by the machine; it has been considered as an attempt to bring art up to date with the rapidly industrializing cities of the early twentieth century, connecting it with the decisive factors that produced man's material surrounding, such as Ford's assembly line and Taylor's new regime of efficiency.
            Many later developments in art are a continuation of this search for an adequate response to industrial development. In the1960's, Robert Morris was among the artists who felt that sculpture had to move not only beyond artistic craftsmanship, but beyond objects perse. He wrote that "The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance. […] This reclamation of process refocuses art as an energy driving to change perception." And he explicitly related this to contemporary industrial developments: "An advanced, technological, urban environment is atotally manufactured one. Interaction with the environment tends more and more towards information processing in one form or another and awayfrom interactions involving transformations of matter. The very means and visibility for material transformations become more and morerecondite. Centers for production are increasingly located outside theurban environment in what are euphemistically termed "industrial parks." In these grim, remote areas the objects of daily use are produced by increasingly obscure processes, and the matter transformed is increasingly synthetic and unidentifiable. As a consequence, our immediate surroundings tend to be read as "forms" that have been punched out of unidentifiable, indestructible plastic or unfamiliar metal alloys." [3]
            A favourite artist of Nayoungim and Maass is Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, who in 1963 dropped a sponge in a bucket of water "to celebrate one million years of art", which is certainly one way to gobeyond the object. [4] A more biting example of Filiou's work is his proposal that neighbouring countries exchange their war monuments.Nayoungim, by the way, likes to tell the anecdote that Filiou worked in the same office as her father, when he worked for the United Nations in South Korea. Family history and art history meet in an appropriately unplanned way.
            If we continue to correlate the developments of industryand those of art and sculpture, we have to relate the works of Maass and Nayoungim to the "postindustrial" era, in which design, packaging,marketing and advertising are more prominent than the actual manufacturing. The term "superindustrial" would be more to the point here, since in fact more and more of life is industrialized and becomes part of what anthropologist Marc Augé calls "super modernity", in which people and goods circulate faster and faster, creating more and more places and objects that are not characterized by their belonging to aculture of a fixed time and place, places which Augé therefore calls"non-places". In those non-places, the traveller and the tourist canswitch between "the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing".[5] The Bézier splines and the gadget-sculptures of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim are the non-objectsfor these non-places. Their work is a version of Dada that is, like a sponge, saturated with supermodernity.
Non-objects for non-places: warped flow
Against the background of Augé's supermodernity, the riddling aspects of the work of Maass and Nayoungim are no longer simply idiosyncratic. When Maass uses a photo of himself on vacation, posing with a rented light motorbike somewhere in Thailand, as an invitation card to a gallery show, in supermodernity that simply demonstrates what Augé has called"the archetype of the non-place", namely the traveller's space, where attempts at cultural empathy are regularly reversed "as if the spectator in the position of a spectator were his own spectacle".[6]The puzzling shifts from Seoul to Helmond, from Manhattan to Antwerp also document the non-place.
            And if the Bézier splines in their work may be called non-objects, so may other sculptural pieces: the gold-covered architectonic structures, the electroplated aluminum cristal-like shapes, the gold-glazed chinaturds, the unruly assemblages of incongruous elements, the silhouettesof Cray supercomputers, the wooden replica of a satellite, the flea-market find of a batch of '70's pea-green barbecue plates stackedin a vaguely Swiss-cuckoo-clock-like wooden pagoda, the dumbbell with pimple and piercing. In a recent show in Lokaal 01 in Antwerp, Belgium,Maass and Nayoungim mounted seven of their gold-glazed china turds on a wall, arranged to form the constellation of Ursus Maior (the bigdipper); in other shows, in 2000 in Bremen, Germany and in 2001 in Tokyo, Japan, Maass included "Brain" from the cartoon series "Pinky and Brain", a "genetically modified super-intelligent laboratory mousewhose only function in life is to seize world dominance by a variety ofmeans".
            If , as art historian Helen Molesworth has written, Duchamp and other Dada-related artists, through their avoidance of genuineartistic handwork, or through their ironic mimicry of work, "constitutea set of management techniques for how to live, as an artist, in acritical way, amid the endless permutations, twists and turns, andbaffling contradictions of capitalism" [7], then capitalism is alsoironically mimicking art. After all, industry in consumer nations hasbecome, or strives to become, "creative" industry. [8] Perhaps the factthat Nayoungim was raised in South-Korea, and Maass in West-Germany, isrelevant: these are countries that derived a good deal of theirnational identity from forced industrialization, where place andnon-place, industry and creativity are as intertwined as it gets. Their life in recent years as travelling artists, moving between residencies in Norway, Japan, Germany, France, South Korea, Holland and Belgium certainly does hover somewhere between the existence of the labormigrant and that of the multinational top executive.
            Because their art is located at the intersection of art andindustry, it is able to register two opposing interior currents ofaesthetic feeling, two opposing forms of psychological flow. As art,made and exhibited for no other purpose than contemplation andenjoyment, it takes part in the ancient tradition of aestheticexperience, the empathic and inspirational sense of well-being thatpsychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has characterized as a state ofmental . flow. [9] But the work of Maass and Nayoungim also registersthe fact that a great part of the material culture of supermodernityproduces another kind of flow. Cultural critic Raymond Williams hasexplained the stream of programming of TV with the same term "flow".[10] Williams uses the term to describe the uninterrupted sequence ofdecontextualized stories, images, places, people and musical sound thatcharacterize TV broadcasting. Creative industry installs this flowthroughout supermodernity; every object, every space is designed,personalized, shaped for a certain effect. The concepts of the consumerindustry are more present in daily life that the concepts of advancedart: "While one does not necessarily have to have an aesthetic relationto artworks, one can very readily have aesthetic relations to entitieswhich arenotart and to the artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandisethat surrounds us on an everyday basis in particular." [11]
            The work of Maass and Nayoungim is a series of objects thathave been shaped and warped by these two opposing flows. The cutesarcasms, the gleeful childishness, the melancholy and ironicincongruities of Gregory Maass and Nayoungim combine an avantgardisticsensibility with a sensibility for this industrial flow of meanings.Their art incorporates the absurd but psychologically highly effectivenarractives of B-movies, the immortality of Elvis Presley and theproducts of the toy industry as well as the cool detachment of theartist who has learned the traumatizing lesson that personal empathicresponses are the modified and manipulated as effectively by theindustry of supermodernity as they are by an inspired artist. Theoutcome is a readyness to fall back on comedy and parody, to undermineany too official discourse, even — especially — when this underminesand frustrates the artist's own position. Asked, for example, toprovide a descriptive summary of his work, to accompany a series of hisdrawings in the magazine Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics,Maass handed in a photo of himself, with the caption "I can sing it, ifyou want me to!" The photo showed him, sitting naked in a too-smallbathtub with a wet towelette folded on his hair, the very opposite ofthe coolly contained avant-garde artist, for all the world like a soft,cute and malleable guy, like those anthropomorphic bath sponges thatare shaped like a frog or a duck. When taking part in an exhibitionwith the title "What to do when nothing happens?", Maass pushes awaythe art-historical demand to categorize the present by taking thequestion literally, giving his own contribution the title "I'll thinkabout it later, I promise". What to do when asked to explain "warpedflow"? If the term sounds like an attempt to get a grip on the aura ofsupermodernity, it also sounds like the data produced by a"flowdetector", an intergalactic gadget out of the television series"Star Trek". But in the hands of Maass and Nayoungim, time and againthe turmoil that results from opposing flows produces an overwhelmingand melancholy liberation.

Sytze Steenstra 

 NOTES
[1]      This photo, in fact, documented a work that Nayoungim executed in a department store for electronic products in Seoul, to reveal some ofthe cultural contradictions at play there. The Korean sign over thesmall shop could be read equally as referring to that shop, "만득이수퍼Manduek Super", and to "슈퍼 만득이Super-Manduek", the hero of a series of jokes who became very fashionable during the '80's in Korea. This Manduek is the rare figure who has survived with his naiveté intact, in the face ofthe increasing marginalization of those incapable of adjusting to the power and the rapid transformation of contemporary Korean society.
[2]       Robert Mankoff (ed.) The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons. Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press, 2000.
[3]       Robert Morris: "Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects". In: Continuous Project Altered DailyThe writings of Robert Morris, pp. 68-69. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.
[4]       Filliou, who had a background in French poetry, may well have alluded here to a remark by surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who in 1926 wrote: "It became apparent to me that man is as full of gods as asponge plunged into the open sky." (Louis Aragon: Paris Peasant, translated by Simon Watson Taylor. London: Picador Press, 1987, p. 130.)
[5]       Marc Augé: Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 1995. Passim; here especially p. 103.
[6]       Augé, p. 86.
[7]       Helen Molesworth: "From Dada to Neo-Dada and Back Again", October 105 (Summer 2003), pp. 177-181. Here: p. 181.
[8]       The term "creative industry" has in recent years become abuzz word in circles of economic policy makers, mainly through RichardFlorida's bestselling study The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002
[9]       Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
[10]     Raymond Williams:.Television. Technology and Cultural Form. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 (first published 1974).
[11]     Sianne Ngai: "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde", Critical Inquiry 31 (Summer 2005), pp. 811-847; here p. 812.

 BIBLIOGRAPHY
Augé, Marc. Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 1995.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Maass, Gregory S. "5 drawings (Erosion, sublime, pornography, cyborg)", Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics10/11 (April 2000), pp. 261-268.
———. Allure. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie, 2005.
———. Family Album, 1989-2005. No place: Caustic Window, 2005.
Mankoff, Robert (ed.) The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons. Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press, 2000.
Molesworth, Helen. "From Dada to Neo-Dada and Back Again", October 105 (Summer 2003), pp. 177-181.
Morris, Robert. Continuous Project Altered DailyThe writings of Robert Morris. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.
Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde", Critical Inquiry 31 (Summer 2005), pp. 811-847.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies, An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.
Williams, Raymond. Television. Technology and Cultural Form. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 (first published 1974).

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