Madison Bycroft’s “Gong Farmer, Shit Stirrer and the Maiden of Grief”

Vivian Ziherl

February 20, 2019
1646, The Hague
January 25–February 24, 2019

On a recent episode of The Astrology Podcast, astrologer Chris Brennan and his guests reflected on the United Astrology Conference, held in Chicago in 2018, and noted a pronounced generational shift. “The Pluto-in-Scorpio generation has landed,” remarked occultist and astrologer Austin Coppock, referring to the surge of conference attendees born between November 1983 and November 1995. Visiting Madison Bycroft’s semiotically maximalist show “Gong Farmer, Shit Stirrer and the Maiden of Grief”—with its immersive fields of sculpture and smoke, furniture and video, combining the mundane and the mythic—I wonder whether the Pluto-in-Scorpios have landed in contemporary art as well.

Pluto is the event-horizon of the zodiac. The third of the non-visible planets—a “dwarf planet,” according to NASA—Pluto makes its way around the ecliptic once in about 250 years, and leads transformation through bracing encounters with totality: with all that is present but unseen. Generationally, the 1980s and ’90s installation art of the Pluto-in-Virgo cohort (born between 1958 and 1971) constructed space with a nod to mediality, editing down ever more finely what differentiates “painting” from “sculpture,” for instance. Bycroft’s work, by comparison, is intent to manifest audiences in or as painting and sculpture. At 1646, viewers are ushered into an exhibition-world in which a life-size sloth slumps in a corner, the floor is covered in purple felt, plush, fringed couches have splintered off into factional units, and videos play on multiple screens.

What is convivial in Bycroft’s show is wholly different from the “social practice” art of the Pluto-in-Libras (born between 1971 and 1984) that was prominent in the early 2000s and 2010s, when the relational reigned supreme and galleries were filled with experiments in assembling, deliberating, and agonistic virtue. Sociality, as it appears in Bycroft’s artistic cosmos, rears its head in mythic form. The social is a ghost, or a demon, or a hummed pop tune. It is the creepily sharp teeth of an alien-head-like sculpture that hangs knee-high off the floor, suspended from a rope. Whereas the authors of choice for the Pluto-in-Libra generation included Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe, Bycroft’s exhibition cites a heady mix of psychoanalytic feminism, medieval bestiaries, and Heraclitus. Text in the Pluto-in-Scorpio approach is less “theory” and more “literature,” less prescription and more source material.

To the Pluto-in-Scorpio generation that planet’s transit has added significance: Scorpio is Pluto’s favored home among the stars. Zodiacally speaking, Scorpio is the existential celestial mansion, signifying sex, death, and all manner of dark matter. In popular astrology columns, the Pluto-in-Scorpio generation has been touted as a mystic rebranding of millennials, with social-media immersion recast as a drive to integration, to the synthesis of the plenum. What this means for art is a type of practice that could be dubbed “epic concretion”—“epic” in its reach across the largest scales of signification, and “concrete” in its drive to render such scale within the mundane detail of roughly cast plaster, stained carpet, inexplicable dripping liquid, and so on. Born in 1987, Bycroft is squarely within Scorpio-in-Pluto range. Her art is generously expressive of the epic concretion style, which, at 1646, is dispersed through a truly prodigious volume of objects, videos, and materials. Did I mention the spooky owl fresco nursing a miniature screen in its plaster wing? Or the roughly sewn textural drapes? Or the flesh-pink vinyl viewing mattress?

Following planetary motion through the zodiac, epic concretion arrives as art after Libran harmony. It is driven to the transgression of boundaries. And behold—in case viewers are distracted by the giant papier-mâché Minotaur’s head lurking in the ceiling-corner—Bycroft’s 60-minute video ˈʤɒli ˈrəʊʤər ænd frɛndz (Jolly Roger & Friends) (2018) will explain all, with a group of pirates (played by the artist’s friends and collaborators) that have sailed into international waters. Except, of course, the video is as unruly as the space one watches it in. Characters, costumes, and scripts tumble together in cacophonic surplus. The protagonists, a pair of eighteenth-century female pirates named Anne Bonny and Mary Reed, hold no narrative center. The trick seems to be a redistribution of attention—to watch it and to experience being in the exhibition-world at the same time.

Although born in January 1981, a shade prior to the transit from Libra to Scorpio, an artist who has perhaps been a forerunner of epic concretion is Ryan Trecartin. Often, when encountering Trecartin’s over-the-top video smack-downs, viewers are positioned within an environment lifted from the work itself, projecting them into the action. At last year’s Berlin Biennale X, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016), an epically concrete work by Dineo Seshee Bopape (b. 1981), encompassed the entire main hall of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. The work rendered foreground/background and form/content radically indistinct. Water dripped rhythmically into a bucket, and as it filled viewers were no longer looking at the work, they were in the work. And as much as “feelings” flowed from footage of Nina Simone in concert and through viewers’ hearts, one may well have been also a part of the work’s manifold parts that included also contributions by Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, and Robert Rhee.

While the art of epic concretion may appear “too crazy” from the perspective of Pluto-in-Virgo, or “too manipulative” according to Pluto-in-Libra, from the perspective of Pluto-in-Scorpio these earlier art epochs were “too neat” (installation) and “too boring” (social practice) respectively. Personally, with major centaurian placements, I’m fascinated to know what’s next around the corner with Pluto-in-Sagittarius—art-as-theology? For now, and for those willing to get on board, the Pluto-in-Scorpio era in art should be a fun and visceral ride.

Installation, Sculpture, Feminism
Video Art

Vivian Ziherl is a curator and writer from Australia, working in Amsterdam. She is Research and Programs Manager at Kunstinstituut Melly, as well as Curatorial Advisor to the 24th Biennale of Sydney “Ten Thousand Suns.”

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February 20, 2019

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