Sunday, July 25, 2010

Brian Jungen's Hyperobjects

In the closing pages of The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton introduces the “hyperobject,” something that “appears more real than reality” and which will, Morton warns, form “our lasting legacy.” Hyperobjects – plutonium, Styrofoam, polystyrene – “do not burn without themselves burning” (131), do not break down without doing so to themselves. Those disposable and convenient Dunkin Doughnuts coffee cups –symbols of the seemingly infinite transience of hypercapitalist culture – will not only form the fossil record of our existence, but will also be perfectly fit for the use of any living being discovering our traces in ten thousand years. And because “hyperobjects [will] outlast us all,” it is the task of ecological thought “to think the future of these objects.”
 Visual artist Brian Jungen’s 2002 Cetology thinks the ecological thought by re-fabricating polystyrene chairs into a life-sized replica of a museumified whale skeleton. Locating his arresting piece at the intersection of numerous historical vectors, Jorgen seems to answer Morton’s question of the future of hyperobjects, claiming that our future record will not be our fossilized remains (the very physicality of our living being’s past presence, as with the whale fossil Jungen evokes), but the indestructible objects we will leave behind. Jungen says, disturbingly, that if some future “natural history” museum were to exist, we would be present there only indirectly, our actual existence reduced and displaced onto our ubiquitous objects of inexpensive and infinite convenience. What we once believed to be the lasting trace of our non-mortal remains of mortal being (our skeletons) will have, Cetology argues, been superseded by a new trace unique to our contemporary condition: the hyperobject.
     To some degree, fossilized human objects forming a more lasting non-mortal trace of mortal life is nothing new. After all, isn’t that what most archeology sifts through, the buildings and pots of fallen empires? Yet the hyperobject-as-archeological trace explodes any previous historical scale. While the Etruscan tombs have brooded north of Rome for three thousand years, their once vivid murals have lost not only luster but their very “force” (their "use," namely, signification). A hyperobject will never face such a threat of diminution. In three thousand years the configurations of Jungen's Cetology will have de-composed, thus the “content” of the work will be lost; the work’s materials, polystyrene chairs, will not, however, have lost their force. They will not only remain chairs, easily reassembled and returned to proper use; their very materiality will remain as chemically potent as the day they were extruded. Expanding the historical scale will change nothing. Even once we become as extinct as the faux fossilized whale to which Cetology alludes, its unadulterated materiality will remain suspended in a permanence Keats never imagined for his Grecian figures and Ivan Igor lusted after with each wax-entombed corpse (Mystery of the Wax Museum).

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