Entering Liam Drain‘s If You Were Asking the Right Questions You Would Know the Answer in Advance at the Manuel Izquierdo Gallery at PNCA is as if entering the smallest of museums stocked with antiquities of strange and familiar purpose. All of the objects are funereally black or close. And all are gathered in small groupings. There are various wheel-thrown ceramic vessels and pedestals, candleholders and pitcher-like objects all under the watch of authority’s crown in the center of the room. And among a number of the groupings there are models of small buildings flying black flags at half-mast.
Offer and refusal wrapped into one, I like the way their uniform shadow-like appearances let the viewer focus on their curving forms, but that they’re installed in such a way to confound the consideration of any one of the forms in isolation. Some are even stacked, some on ceramic platforms, rather than singularly displayed. And I like the way some of these dark objects defamiliarize the lot of them. Is this a pedestal with a stopper, an elaborate goblet, or something else? They ask what we know about any ancient object’s use (I recently read about the Smithsonian asking the public for help in establishing the use of some of the more unusual not-so-ancient objects in its collection). And they speak to the craft-based object’s modern trajectory away from use to the fine art sphere of no-use.
The pictograms that appear on the crown and elsewhere are “explained” in a set of three cryptic manuals (beautifully printed in charcoal ink and hand-bound) on a side table. Each is opened out flat inside a ceramic holder that both aids and prevents reading. Bars hold the book open, yes, but they also prevent the turning of pages.
I take these holders as metaphor for the exhibition itself that offers and withholds information in equal measure, as does an unfamiliar artifact, a defamiliarized glyph, the flag flying at half-mast for we-know-not-whom. Further, I take them as metaphor for critical issues of transparency in the Platonic cave of our democracy. Sure we see shadows dancing on the wall, but do we even know enough to ask what’s casting them?
The manuals describe function or give instruction in spare one-liners. “This is a conduit for pouring gravel.” “This machine makes wax taste like animal fat.” They are poetic: “Hold this vessel next to your shell-like ear.” And clearly not at all straightforward: “This compass points at guilt.” My favorite was mention of “a machine for making fire that runs on fire.” Do we know much more about either the objects of the object makers after reading?
Drain said in his announcement for the show, “This exhibition’s title paraphrases a Soviet commissar’s response to a journalist whose questions began to exceed the limits of acceptable inquiry.” “If You Were Asking the Right Questions You Would Know the Answer in Advance” is the kind of convoluted nonsense knot a rational man can tie in an irrational system. The fragments in these manuals could be just such nonsense. Or maybe we just don’t know the right questions to ask.
“These weights measure disbelief.”