May 18 – June 24, 2018
Beautiful was the first word to enter my mind. The second, decay. Beautiful Decay. A very fitting way to describe the work in On the One, Marianne Vitale’s solo show at Invisible-Exports, composed entirely of reclaimed steel from railroad tracks almost a century old. About five tons of steel, in fact. Quite a bit of weight, and I certainly felt it. Standing in the space, in the midst of the oxidized steel Totems and Masks, I couldn’t help the feeling that I was just as much on display for the art as it was for me. As the masks gazed at me from every angle with a blank, dead stare, the gravitas of the upright totems challenged my very presence in the space.
The main features of the show were seven sculptures which the artist calls “totems” standing in the center of the room at various heights ranging from three to seven feet. Made of weathered railroad ties from the 19th century, the height and evident weight of the totems projected an air of wisdom —for having survived into the present —which was also haunting. Constructed from flangeway blocks, which sat beneath the tracks and remained unseen, the totems act to memorialize the often overlooked brutality and inhumanity that went into the building of America’s railroads. Further, the masks on the walls were constructed from guard plates, braces, switch clips, and guide brackets; small yet essential parts of the railroad which now stared back at me unquestioningly.
For me, the real gravity of this show lay in the implicit meaning of constructing icons such as “Totems” and “Masks” from materials which were so historically involved in the destruction of the very cultures that created such icons to begin with. The word totem itself comes from Ojibwa, and is therefore impossible to fully separate from American Indian cultural connotations. The raw power of creating such a symbol out of that which made manifest destiny, American imperialism, and the decimation of native peoples possible brought the violence inherent in America’s history profoundly into focus. Standing in the space, the masks appeared to silently appraise my reaction as I considered the implications of this powerful juxtaposition. There was something quite unsettling in the idea of memorializing or mourning America’s infrastructure in such a way. The pieces can be seen as the embodiment of the guilt which is implicit in all of the achievements we as Americans have accomplished at the expense of native peoples. Yet it feels like a futile attempt to reconstruct something that we destroyed with what can still be salvaged, like trying to take back a statement uttered and immediately regretted. The tragedy of the work is precisely that the statement can’t be taken back, so that ultimately, all we are left with is sentiment.