Written by Ayesha Hameed
Kim Huynh’s UNLESS compels the viewer to contemplate at several registers the issues of containment, effacement, authority and how they coalesce in inanimate objects.
This installation has three main components: large metal frames in the shape of horses’ saddles placed in the middle of the room; briefcases made of cast sugar in resin placed on low platforms around the room and finally metal buckets, both large and small arranged on the floor around the metal saddles.
It is the constellation of saddles that strikes one most immediately and dramatically in this piece. Immense in scale they tower over the other elements. However, it is not only the size of the saddles that is striking. The saddles are made of metal and are grid like: evoking architectural scaffolding in big cities more than the rural landscape that one would normally associate with a saddle. More enigmatic is a series of top hats that are suspended or hung around the saddle. The urbane top hats themselves are patterned: etched with a militaristic camouflage design. This juxtaposition generates a crashing together of signs: the top hat as nostalgic, urbane, a product of civil society, while the camouflage pattern calls to mind the seemingly opposite topography of war and strategic conquest.
This combination of signs and metaphors confronts the viewer with a series of associations: of the landscape and the demarcation of the urban and rural; of disjunction: the camouflage pattern on the top hat, the saddle made of metal; and finally, of the saddle as an object without its subject (the horse) – dovetailing neatly into the hats that ride the saddle. The hats and the saddles conjoin without any intermediary bodies (either equine or human).
This is where the other two elements of this installation come into play. The buckets and the suitcases crystallize the questions that arise from the semiotic play performed by the saddles and the hats.
First the briefcases. Made of cast sugar, they are installed around the room close to the floor on short platforms. To look at them you have to bend close to the floor. But the briefcases are uncomfortable objects for a more significant reason. The resin briefcases are warped and have lost their shape, with roughened surfaces. Both the sugar and resin briefcases confront the viewer with the incongruousness of the materials they are made of. The materials are unavoidable though: for they transform the briefcases and their utility, most dramatically with the resin pieces that are of course warped and ‘use’ less. Huynh ups the ante even more for the briefcases are cast or are solid. They cannot be cases as they cannot contain anything but themselves, their own material, the material they are made of.
So what does containment turn into in this instance? In some ways it evokes the horseless saddles and the headless hats in the first element of the installation. Both the saddles and the briefcases call attention to the relationship between containers and what they contain. The various forms of these objects also produce within them a non-functionality as they lack their object or complement. The hats and saddles lack agents to use them, the briefcases lack what they need most: an ability to contain. From this vantage point, the saddles and the hats too can be seen as containers that have no objects to contain that would confer upon them a real world utility and function.
The buckets extend the thematic of containment, as in this instance they are able to perform their containing function. Each bucket contains a different kind of sugar: pellets, refined, powdered, unrefined etc. The buckets are not measured in any metric (or other) system though. Each bucket is labelled with a different set of terms: labour, robotics, informatics, genetics and hysteria/immunology (health). And each bucket/set of terms contains a different kind of sugar. These terms coalesce to form a taxonomy of histories of modernity. The obvious question is that how in this instance do the sugar and the terms of modernity interrelate? I think that there are no exhaustive answers to this, but I would suggest that there is a structure to how one might answer this question that points back to the other elements of this installation.
The different kinds of sugar take on the role of indices to measure the terms painted in the bucket. For example the processed sugar is in the bucket that contains terms relating to robotics. Is there a parallel between refined, more processed sugar and robotic technology? The sugar then is not measured by the markings on the bucket, but rather, the function of measurement is reversed and the possible parallels are innumerable.
Alternately, sugar relates more literally to the history of modernity signified by the labels and markings on the bucket. As Eric Williams argues in Capitalism and Slavery, the production of sugar in conjunction with the traffic of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean formed the basis of modernity. The wealth produced by what he calls the triangular trade is the force that fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe, seen as the starting point of modernity as a world system. Paul Gilroy, Timothy Morton and others call attention to how the official history of modernity involves a systematic suppression of the complicity of modernity with slavery, and consequently products of the triangular trade, like sugar become divorced from the labour of the bodies that produced it. As luxury goods, commodities like sugar acquire a pristine quality. As a blank slate whose context of production has been erased, sugar becomes a free-floating site of fantasy.
The erasure of slaves’ bodies in the narrative of modernity and the consumption of sugar is what Karl Marx would call the creation of commodity fetishism. Commodities take on a new, unnatural agency and subjectivity when their links to the labour that created them have been suppressed, effaced. The effacement that the sugar in the buckets point to, lead us back to the hats and saddles.
From this perspective, the drama of the hats and saddles lies in the bodies that are rendered invisible. And yet in this instance, it is this erasure of bodies that enables an understanding of the disjunction of signs that the hats and saddles produce. If the history of modernity reveals that the seeming disjunction between the sugar and the labels is actually a history of complicity that has been hidden, then the disjunctions produced by the hats and saddles reveal a complicity as well. The thematic of containers then sharpens into something more specific: containment, suppression and authority.
The evocation of both rural and urban landscapes in the saddle finds a counterpart in the topographic imagery of the camouflage pattern that is on the hats. And the hats themselves: both urbane and militaristic, then flag a complicity between European civility and military power. Which is the triangular trade, which is colonialism, which is modernity.
Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2000, p.15.
Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume I. Introduced by Ernest Mandel and Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
Timothy Morton. The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Eric Williams. Capitalism and Slavery. Introduction by D.W. Brogan. London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1964.