by Jaimie Baron
Nostalgia does not distinguish between the tacky and tasteful, having its own poetics authored exclusively by time. Josh Faught’s current exhibition, Look Across the Water, Into the Darkness, Look for the Fog, at CCA’s Wattis Institute, explores how obsolete media and half-forgotten souvenirs are woven into the fabric of memory, especially within queer communities. The show’s title comes from a line of dialogue in John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film The Fog, that, when recontextualized, becomes an invitation to search these works for something not precisely visible. Pushing the limits of what counts as textile, Faught has woven objects and threads into evocative miniature archives that are simultaneously personal and collective. His multimedia sculptures, which eschew symmetry or obvious harmonies, nevertheless reveal the poetry latent in the most quotidian remnants.
The show will likely resonate in distinct ways for visitors of different ages since every generation has had its dominant media, the visual and sonic qualities of which have shaped our memories. The near-obsolete material and audiovisual culture of the 1980s and 1990s is threaded throughout: VHS tapes with handwritten labels listing shows, movies, or news segments taped off broadcast television; screens playing various episodes of Murder, She Wrote; and a found, queer re-edit of Days of Our Lives. The susurrant soundscape – layers of dialogue and background music from many small screens – recalls the experience of listening to a television playing a daytime soap opera in another room. The Proustian quality of the exhibition is further enhanced by a basket of individually wrapped Werther’s candies, which visitors are encouraged to sample.
There is melancholy here, of course. The show opens with Eternal Flame, a large hand-woven tapestry based on the image of a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims from Stephen Stewart’s 1985 book Positive Image: A Portrait of Gay America. In this photograph of mourning, there is sadness but also community. By magnifying and transposing the image into cloth (weaving for 8 hours a day during the early pandemic lockdown), Faught has created a single monument of individual threads, echoing the array of many handheld candles. Yet, even here, popular culture is insistently present; a VHS box set of the David Attenborough series Trials of Life is woven into one corner like a punctuation mark. Moreover, the reverse wall serves as the back of the work where we find wooden shelving, DVD cases, and screens displaying endless scenes from Murder, She Wrote. On one side, the spectacle of collective grief; on the other, daily death as entertainment. Yet, both may evoke nostalgia – not for the AIDS crisis — but for a shared moment of both political activism and transgressive queer spectatorship.
The exhibition refuses established orders of things, proposing alternative categories for organizing objects and knowledge. Bereaved on a Budget is a woven list of seemingly unconnected objects in alphabetical order: doll furniture, dresses, driver’s licenses, feather boas. All are, in fact, materials used in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Meanwhile, the entire rear wall of the gallery is papered with a mirrored image of Liza Minnelli’s childhood home, which fell into disrepair and became home to squatters during a protracted legal battle over the property. In a show about remembrance, this backdrop, titled
Did the Glass Bricks Come With the House or Were You Trying to Make a Statement?, acts as a metaphor for memory — not as an organized library but as a space strewn with broken bits of experience. Likewise, the compositions of the smaller wall-mounted sculptures are messy, with clashing patterns, jarring colors, incongruous shapes and irreconcilable textures. For instance, Keep the Home Fries Burning is made of crocheted hemp, spray enamel, sequin trim, apin, rubber onion rings, DVDs, and a video monitor on stretched linen. Faught also leaves loose threads hanging in these pieces, furthering the sense of incoherence and unravelling, literal and metaphoric, that pervades the show. Whether this connotes everything falling apart or the possibility of new configurations still being stitched together remains indeterminate.
Sculptures arrayed on pedestals across the gallery floor further articulate a queer sensibility. Faught obtained many of them from queer archives, internet sellers and Palm Springs thrift shops. A porcelain lapdog, a cat-shaped backscratcher and a “seasonal plaque” bearing the word WINTER all display a kitsch sensibility. Others, like a poorly lit photograph, a scrap of paper bearing a name and phone number, a dated stack of obituaries saved by the artist’s mother from the St. Louis Jewish Light, might be considered garbage. Yet, as part of Faught’s assemblages, into which these objects fit, these otherwise worthless items become auratic signifiers of a previous, irrecoverable moment. Each becomes what Ann Cvetkovich has called an “archive of feeling.”
Faught, however, does not fetishize the past. While nostalgia has sometimes been understood as a reactionary desire to (re)create an idealized past, it may also be a conscious, self-reflexive engagement with history. Many of the objects Faught deploys in his works belonged to a previous generation of gay men to whose culture Faught has an ambivalent relationship. These works, he says, are, in part, his attempt to bridge the gap between his time and theirs. By incorporating traces of earlier generations into his sculptures, he preserves the otherness of the past and acknowledges its continuing presence.
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Josh Faught: “Look Across the Water into the Darkness, Look For the Fog” @ CCA Wattis Institute through March 4, 2022.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.