On Merlin Carpenter at Synagogue de Delme

— Annie Ochmanek

Merlin Carpenter, Untitled, 2020, Manitou 1440, 14m telescopic forklift, dimensions variable

Merlin Carpenter, Untitled, 2020, Manitou 1440, 14m telescopic forklift, dimensions variable

Merlin Carpenter, “archive élastique”
Centre d’art Contemporain La Synagogue de Delme
October 24–August 21, 2021

Outside Merlin Carpenter’s show at the Centre d’art Contemporain La Synagogue de Delme, a forklift was pulled up to the façade, facing its archways as if the entire building were palletized, ready to be lifted up and relocated. This prop parked outside set a slapstick tone for the show and also a sense of frustrated absurdity, in that the forklift was too large to move forward and enter the space, to access what was inside. The front door opened just clear of a wall of large cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other. The entire exhibition space (a former synagogue, which closed down in the late 1970s and was rechristened as a contemporary art venue in the early ’90s) was full practically floor to ceiling of these towers of boxes, each one palletized and aligned in a rationalized grid, with some rows left open for viewers to walk through. The straight smell of cardboard emphasized their emptiness and uniformity.

Some classic 1960s and ’70s art-historical references were immediately evident—Minimal sculpture phenomenologically addressing body and architecture; the clerical seriality or systematized data of Conceptual art; the institution critical mode of bringing the “back room” to the front. With these strategies, or sculptural predecessors such as Charlotte Posenenske’s modular cardboard units and Donald Judd’s vertical stacks in mind, the synagogue took on the feel of an inverted Dia:Beacon (the latter a former Nabisco box-printing factory turned into a museum/shrine to the art of Judd’s and Posenenske’s generation). And since they were here in the guise of a logistics warehouse, it brought to mind the coemergence of Minimal and Conceptual art and transformations brought on by the adoption of the standardized, stackable shipping container in the same era, or the postwar information technologies that also laced together disparate parts of the globe and helped to grow corporations into multinationals.

The mock warehouse of palletized boxes at Delme took as a given contemporary art’s imbrication in “globalizing” forces of capitalism. And the show had an aspect of site-specific physical comedy in this respect. “Archive élastique” acknowledged the humor in some ways of coming out to the farmland of Eastern France to see a Merlin Carpenter show. Getting to the small town of Delme from Paris, for example, takes an almost two-hour train ride plus a thirty-minute drive past sheep herds and agricultural fields. Once inside the show, one noticed that the installation’s stillness and silence, emphasizing the remoteness of location, was interrupted regularly by the Doppler effect of large trucks passing by. Delme’s seemingly sleepy main street is in fact a major thruway connecting Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Capturing this, “archive élastique” cast the out-of-town viewer in a cinematic punch line, as in: the art tourist comes to the countryside, but the countryside is a highway shoulder. This brought into the show the pervasiveness of 24/7 international commerce and the incursion of quantified calculus on so many aspects of social life. The soundtrack of passing traffic heard while standing in the company of the boxes was not only funny, but also effective in its evocation of a strange, remote connectedness that is an aftertaste of algorithmic contemporary life, sped up self-optimization, relationships turned into monetized information, or squares of talking heads on Zoom—all of this hung in the air here. The show stated it matter-of-factly: the former house of gathering and worship is now an empty fulfillment center.

The gridded and palletized boxes at La Synagogue spelled logistics, the science of managing moving parts in order to maximize profit or ensure military efficiency, a kind of expansion and extension of Taylorist logics. At this moment in history, however, they also recalled the stalling of global supply chains and derailing of just-in-time manufacturing models. Also front of mind was the juggernaut of Amazon, where workers have been pushing back against working conditions and Amazon’s “time-off-task” metrics for measuring employee performance levels, including now the unionization of Staten Island’s JFK8 facility. The out-of-proportion height of the towers evoked the type of consolidation and corporate monopolization we have seen escalating in recent years, but the lightness of the boxes made it seem like this could be toppled. The contents of this hub were primed for motion, but not going anywhere, evoking the false claim of globalization as the free movement of ideas, people, and things and gesturing toward the actuality of privatization or hoarding of wealth, services, and resources. But again the palpable stage-set nature of “archive élastique” made the towers’ cartoonlike height seem not necessarily like an authoritarian monumentality but a system that could in fact be disassembled or rearranged even by hand—a reminder that rational organization or logistics has the potential to be directed toward socialist ends.

There is still the question of what all this said in particular about art and its markets, which Carpenter works knowingly within. The Synagogue de Delme was theatrically filled to the brim, yet resolutely empty; and one could imagine some viewers felt they couldn’t see the museum for the warehouse, or can’t see the artistic gesture for the packaging. That this might be the point would be supported by Carpenter’s past self-reflexive projects. He has exhibited packing “transit” blankets on stretcher bars and hung industrial pallets on the wall, made a performative kitsch spectacle of scrawling on canvases at his own openings, or left empty shopping bags on the museum floor and worn his new YSL bought with the production budget to the reception (for the ICA Philadelphia’s exhibition “Make Your Own Life”). In these and other shows,
Carpenter worked through and with the cyclical redundancy of artistic critique, a motion literalized in something like his inclusion of treadmills in the art gallery facing paintings that replicated his former work (for 1990 Repainted 1–20, 2010). His work tends to begin from a place of understanding that any artistic gesture, critical or not, will come to serve as packaging—
it will be commodified once the work enters the varied circuits of the art market and its institutions. But counter to something like classic Pop depthless surfaces or the self-parodying “commodity sculptures” of the ’80s (as in Haim Steinbach’s rows of cereal boxes on a shelf), the boxes at Delme were deliberately of the anonymous or generic type and were sitting on palettes, pointing less to celebrity and brand fetish (emphasizing less that this is a “Merlin Carpenter show,” or a “crap Reena Spaulings show” to quote the artist’s own 2007 painting) and more toward the notion of a totality in a Marxian sense, asking whether and how art might represent capitalism (or its unrepresentability). Carpenter’s recent paintings and drawings of abstract circuitry are engaged in a similar problem. These shift away from works Carpenter did in the context of discourses about “networked painting” in the 2000s and 2010s, when talk of immaterial labor, the fate of creativity under neoliberal conditions, and the ways in which individuals are turned into entrepreneurs of the self preoccupied much thinking about the social limits of art. Those prior works grappled with ideas about value being created via the social networking of the artist themselves, while more recent projects reflect Carpenter’s revised understanding of the material conditions of art-making. This shift is tracked in his own writings, from his essay “The Tail That Wags the Dog”[1] (2007–8) to his text “The Outside Can’t Go Outside”[2] (2015–18).

The exaggerated accumulations or hollow networking figured in “archive élastique” may not be collapsible to anyone, clean decoding. But if attempting to read it as a metaphor for contemporary art’s relations to capital we might say it pictures the artwork as storage, and pictures the business of art as managed information. Storage, as in storage units for the collector class, since artworks are vessels for surplus capital that needs a place to sit. And information, as in information for curators, dealers, and art advisers to collate, sort, parse, manage, and render legible for the collecting class—an activity around which much of the contemporary art market functions. But art is not reduced to such cargo either. This mute hall of boxes-upon-boxes pointed outward to broader existing conditions and dominant profit-driven logics, their readymade absurdities and unsustainability.

  1. [1] Merlin Carpenter, “The Tail that Wags the Dog,” in Careers and Canvases Today, Criticism and its Market, ed. Isabelle Graw (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008).
  2. [2] Cf. Merlin Carpenter, The Outside Can’t Go Outside (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018). (The essay was later published as a book).