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Walead Beshty: A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future at Barbican Center

In 1979 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, American avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton gave a lecture devoted to the origins of film and the utility of defunct technologies. Toward the end, Frampton paused to vaguely describe a work of art composed of the accumulating detritus, by-products, and disparate actions piling up in his studio, which he called A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future: Helter-Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying at Random All Over the Workbench. Despite Frampton’s decision to name and then publically announce his piece, it is a work that was nonetheless never made and never begun—a work that hangs in the air of the filmmaker’s oeuvre: absurd, poetic, unrealized. That is, until Walead Beshty (a self-confessed fan of Frampton’s work) decided to breathe new life into the filmmaker’s project for his recent commission for the Barbican Center’s Curve Gallery by appropriating the title and promise of the unfulfilled piece.

1.Walead Beshty. A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future: Helter-Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying Around at Random All Over the Workbench. 2013-2014. The Curve Gallery, Barbican Centre, London, UK. Photo: Alexei Tylevich.

Walead Beshty. A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future: Helter-Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying Around at Random All Over the Workbench; 2013-2014. The Curve Gallery, Barbican Centre, London, UK. Photo: Alexei Tylevich.

Made of over 12,000 cyanotype prints and photograms carefully placed and pinned to the undulating curve of the gallery wall, the work documents fourteen months in the material and relational life of Beshty’s Los Angeles studio.[1] Thus, every item used, broken, or exhausted in the process of the work’s creation found its way into the work, either as the material matter of the installation itself or as the object photographed. As a representation of an artist’s practice, the work finds a way to acknowledge and render visible the aesthetic compost that is often kept out of sight when objects are placed within the clean white walls of an exhibition space. For Beshty, it is this waste that signals the work of the “work of art”—the constellation of decisions, actions, labor, institutional interventions, and mistakes that inform how objects and projects manifest themselves in dialogue with the world around them.

2.Walead Beshty. Installation Shot of A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future: Helter-Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying Around at Random All Over the Workbench. 2013-2014. Wall Installation Made of Cyanotypes. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Jackson.

Walead Beshty. A Partial Disassembling of an Invention Without a Future: Helter-Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying Around at Random All Over the Workbench; 2013-2014; installation view of wall installation made of cyanotypes. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Jackson.

The discrete separateness of each object invites the viewer to meander between passive and active forms of engagement where classification and contemplation work together, one informing the other, turning the reading of the work into a game of seek and find. Traces of research and creation can be spotted in the photograms of studio equipment, industrial tools, newspapers, and art journals, while strains of Beshty’s personal life and management role can be seen in the empty food containers, employee contracts, exhibition invitations, thank-you notes, and cinema tickets that ripple across the surface of the wall. Adding to the admixture are the more mysterious objects obscured during the cyanotype process that resist the process of naming (and thus significance)—a reminder of art’s resistance to quantitative procedures of data collation and progressive outcomes. Careful to attend to the personal as well as banal aspects of accumulated trash, Beshty is able to pluck at the idiosyncrasies and curiosities exposed in the act of assemblage, where happy accidents and compelling choices are difficult to distinguish within the artist’s paper-blue ecology of purposeful waste.

Like much of Beshty’s work, the Barbican piece is deeply concerned with the dialectical nature of a work’s becoming—its groundedness within a particular historical context, and its openness to the contingencies of time and history—and the material and relational by-products produced within the duration of the creative process. By foregrounding the acts of gathering, assembling, and archiving within this work, Beshty is able to attend to problems of presenting the visible and invisible forces at play in the creation, distribution, and exhibition of his artworks: “I thought of the studio as one big machine…a machine for making a kind of picture…the sum total of all of this is one depiction, is one picture, and in that sense, it’s a transparent picture.”[2]

Walead Beshty. FedEx Large Box.  2008. Included in The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2008 Whitney Biennial: Signs of the Time (New York City, NY). Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art.

Walead Beshty. FedEx Large Box; 2008; installation view at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2008 Whitney Biennial: Signs of the Time (New York City, NY). Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art.

It is this desire to demystify process that provides a point of connection between Beshty’s practice and the recent demand for political, state, and corporate transparency. After making his mark in the 2008 Whitney Biennial with an assortment of shatterproof glass cubes made to the standards of FedEx shipping boxes—a gesture that pointed toward the illusion of autonomy in minimalist sculpture, and to the systems of corporate transport and capital that tend to cover over and regulate the processes that deliver objects to your doorstep—Beshty has continued to find ways to acknowledge and create representations of the repression of materiality in contemporary aesthetic production. Similar to the FedEx sculpture series that bears the accumulations of time and travel (marks, cracks, handprints) onto the surfaces of the work, A Partial Disassembling employs the indexical impression of the cyanotype process and the waste of the artist’s studio in order to acknowledge his work’s circulation and complicity within powerful networks of technological, institutional, and social relations.

[1] Only 7,000 of the 12,000 items made it to the Curve Gallery wall. Accompanying the exhibition is a 41-volume book archive that reproduces all 12,000 pieces of the work in its totality.

[2]See Beshty’s interview with the internet television art project VernissageTV on October 31, 2014. The interview can be found on the station’s YouTube channel in the segment, “Walead Beshty at The Curve, Barbican Center, London.” Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LO_o7os4Hs

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