Back to the future: Miller Robinson’s “Of this body; of this earth” at the Southwest Museum, presented by Holiday

While DeLoreans may abound in modern-day Los Angeles, they are not, in fact, time machines; they may show us an image of the past along with that past’s hopes and idealizations, but the person behind the wheel is under no such delusions about breaking through the space-time continuum.

No, it is not the DeLorean that can take us backward in time, but the museum—with its double-consciousness of past and present, its old things, its signs and pamphlets, its landscape, its facade, its people—all of which contain, as Joan Didion wrote on another California-y subject “the unconscious instruments of values.” But a museum with nothing in it? It is lovely, it is sad—like a beautiful empty house, it’s a space that retains a certain sort of melancholy—the arrogance of preservation against the reality of dust, and dirt, and time, and money. That said, the empty museum offers up one unique and profound question that typically only the most elite of our society get the chance to ponder with any authenticity—what would we fill it with? “Of this body; of this earth” offers an answer to that question, at least for one artist, at one museum, in one long, dank, subterranean hallway; a place where no art goes, or at least, can ever stay.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_2
Interior view of tunnel entrance to the Southwest Museum

There are two ways to enter “Of this body; of this earth”; I mean that literally. You can drive or walk up the surprisingly lush hillside on a steep one-lane road, entering the museum by walking down a series of steps, past colorful tree-height carved totem poles, across a wide courtyard with ornate, high-backed, thick wooden benches, toward the museum’s historical marker that reads “The first museum in Los Angeles, Dedicated to the Native Peoples of the Southwest, Declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 283,” through a set of simple double doors, where you will stop at the upper landing of a staircase, to the right of which is one of three functioning exhibitions at the museum; Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery, on view since 2013. Alternately, you can start at the bottom, and enter a tunnel.

I’m sure you can picture a water-damaged tunnel in a hillside. I bet you can even picture the niches in the tunnel, and the kind of dioramas they used to display (museum signage tells us they depicted the lives of various Native cultures). You may even be able to imagine the eerie shadows cast by the clunky 1920s fixtures that once illuminated this otherworldly place—part cave, part stage, part archaeological dig; you can imagine that it would have reminded museum founder Charles Lummis, with some delight, of his own adventures—in which he took, as was the fashion of the times, other people’s belongings (see the nearby and newly installed “Making a Big Noise: The Explorations of Charles Lummis”). This tunnel, of all art spaces I have ever seen, is one thousand percent metaphor, and the irony that it now sits mostly empty may not be an irony at all, but a kind of justice.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_16
Installation view of Songs of Fire (2018) and Of this body; of this earth (2018)

The metaphor, of course, is progress—that we might enter the cave and bear witness to an older, wilder, simpler way of being as we leave the bright heat of the day—we need this tunnel, lest we mis-recognized, say, the Pueblo Pottery as the kind of artwork which needn’t be contextualized by something dim, earthly, and utterly in the past. For what it’s worth, I would argue the most interesting iteration of this tunnel space as an artwork would be the tunnel as its empty self; a gesture against the narrative of progress in art, authored more or less anonymously by time itself—maybe that could break through the space-time continuum.

Of all the artworks and all the positions artworks and their artists can take, Miller’s sits squarely within the metaphorical labor that I imagine Lummis imagined his tunnel would perform. I mean that Miller’s show, with its chalkboard drawings of apes and rocks, its soft, grey beds of ash, and its blood and hair, which of course stand in for her body, mimic what may be considered the same pseudo-anthropology that Lummis himself participated in. At first I was sure that Miller fell into Lummis’s trap; but the more I think about it, she may have beaten him at his own game.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_9
Installation view of Embryonic Abacus (2018); plaster, glass, artist’s blood, latex, and egg yolks.
13.5 x 13.15 x 1.75 in.

Let me backtrack a little. “Of this body; of this earth” is a huge show, with twenty-four discreet artworks on the checklist. My perception was that each niche in the tunnel served as a mini-gallery for what I thought of as mini-installations; these mini-installations then resided in the context of the larger installation, which I considered titled “Of this body; of this earth”; I then presumed that “Of this body; of this earth” was a site-specific installation within the context of the museum as a whole, which therefore transformed “Of this body; of this earth” from a huge show into an incomprehensibly huge show, taking up big, blobby swaths of conceptual space ranging from museum politics to the politics of indigenous belongings, to the politics of the perception and display of indigenous culture, and on and on and on.

A few weeks after I saw “Of this body; of this earth” I asked Miller to meet me at the museum. I don’t know Miller, or her work, and after a long while of pacing up and down in the tunnel, looking hard at something and then spinning around and looking hard at something else, all in relative silence, I asked Miller to give me her “shpiel”; to tell me what she tells everyone else. I don’t know how many ways I can emphasize that I am not asking artists to tell me about their work because I can’t figure it out for myself—I am just really, really interested in how artists see their own work, or what kind of relationship they have to it. In this case I would say the press release description, “Robinson aims to understand and connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence” pretty much covered it. While I appreciate the ambition of this thought, I also find it quite silly—not because all art seeks to connect those dots (though all science may!)—but because as a statement, it does that funny thing that art almost always does—which is to set a task so impossible that its inevitable failure is so painless as to be imperceptible.

Faced with the self-imposed task of writing on such a show, I asked Miller something that is both banal and insane: Was there a question that she had about her own work that perhaps, I, Georgia, could answer? Not really, she said, but there was one thing. Miller told me that during one of the many walkthroughs/meetings/visits of the show, she received the following comment: the work seemed “private.” The word “private” was tinged with a mix of resigned heartbreak and disdain; it was a horrible word—gendered and counterintuitive, especially in the context of a show in a very public space, with no guard, no barrier, no camera, nothing to stop hands from shattering fragile things, or imprinting their palms like a tracing, or simply picking up and walking away with, say, a delicate brass paint brush tipped with the artist’s own hair—hell, private did not come anywhere close to what I imagine this work is for Miller—she probably bared her fucking soul to make it—if we believe in such things.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_11
Installation view of Orichalcum Balance (2018); brass, copper, and zinc
40 x 16 x 5 in.

What I mean to say is the question of privacy led to the question of legibility. We assumed, Miller and I, that “private” meant “illegible” (though we’ll never exactly know). If that visitor meant that it was hard to read, or not clear enough to read, just exactly what it was that Miller wanted us to read, then I will have to politely agree. But this agreement would have to be predicated on the idea that Miller herself knew exactly what we were to read in the work, which would itself be predicated on the idea that artists are either responsible for and/or able to understand what is to be read within their work—and I simply do not believe such things—so I refuse to engage further with the question. Of course this is my rhetorical position, but I have a practical position, too. Instead of saying “it is legible,” “it is not legible,” let me try to read it, in specific.

Back to the sheer number of works in the show—I assumed that each niche contained a singular artwork with its own title made up of many objects (you know, like an installation); in fact, the many objects within each niche are all separate artworks with separate titles, many of which are multiples. I am perplexed by making multiples, but only displaying one, in the context of a work that is made for a specific site, as is emphasized in the press. While I’m unfamiliar with considering what displaying just one of a multiple might mean (though Sarah said duh, Joseph Beuys!), I am familiar with editions—and while Miller mostly calls her work “multiples,” not “editions,” either seems to insinuate that the work would be happy to inhabit nearly any site—or in the case of Paint Brush (2018), 22 other sites. This oddity of terms aside, I’m guessing the works are multiples as a nod to the fact that in this surveiless-space, they may well need to be replaced. But more importantly, calling them multiples tells us that these are not precious objects despite some of them literally containing matter from Miller’s body (another Beuysian nod). I find something fun and lively about this idea—like, of course there are many hair paint brushes—they practically grow themselves.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_7
Installation view of Primate’s Grip (2018); soot and bone glue. Multiple of 23. Dimensions variable. Paint Brush (2018); artist’s hair and brass. Multiple of 23. Dimensions vary. Inkstone (2018); graphite and artist’s blood. Multiple of 23 1.5 x 5 x 3 in.

As for the artworks individually—yes, they’re tools; it’s pretty evident based on what they look like—a brush, a level, a paint roller—made further evident by the drawings of apes and hands and other cliched “early man” imagery. The Charles Lummis quote on the chalkboard at the opening of the show (the show’s namesake artwork, Of this body; of this earth (2018)) takes us there, too: “[man] cracked two stones together—a spark—and [he] was armed against the weather.” Within this quote, Miller substituted “she” for “he” and added the word “casual” before man—an intervention that for me, placed at the entrance to the show, teases with the possibility of an overt or embedded feminist gesture (I’ll take either!) that never materializes.

It’s clear that materials are of the utmost importance to Miller—she told me about different combinations of metals that make each other, and how she used them in the same sculpture, as a kind of unifying alchemical factor. Blood, hair, soot, lead, egg yolks, and the more grisly “bone glue” all sound mysterious and weird, and yes, they all seem rather at home buried in the hillside beneath this beautiful but dilapidated museum. Egg (sphere, cube, pyramid) (2018) is most interesting to me when it remains unbroken—I like using my imagination to picture the shapes’ pigmented interior—but even more so, I like the thought of the child or onlooker who has read nothing about the works at all, but strokes, ever so gently, one of their surfaces, only to be shocked and impressed when the shattered object reveals that it was more than just a delicate white shape, but actually contained something. If I’d had the gall to touch that object, with even just the tip of my unsteady finger, and felt the thrill of its collapse—well, that would have been the kind of messy, surprising experience antithetical to most museums—I think it would have been something special.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_8
Installation view of three Egg(s) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary. Chalk-board for Paintbrush and Sumi (2018); plaster, sumi, and chalk. 17 x 21 x 1 in.
Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_10
Installation view of three Egg(s) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary. Chalk-board for Embryonic Abacus (2018); plaster, sumi, and chalk. 17 x 21 x 1 in.

I also found some humor in Miller’s “trinkets,” for a variety of subjective reasons; Lizard Trinket (2018) reminds me of a silver alligator pin of my grandmother’s, which I coveted intensely, and both House Trinket (2018) and Studio Trinket (2018) recall Monopoly pieces, reminding me that the context and shape of a thing defines its status. Orichalcum Balance (2018), made of brass, copper, and zinc, is a delicate scale inscribed with “unless you tell me my name”; this piece again is reminiscent of jewelry, since it’s pretty, and has an inscription—the kind of inscription I would call cheesy, and romantic, and even…private. If I try really, really hard, I can imagine the inscription means something about the materials—like the metals themselves don’t understand that they’re separate from each other, unless we “name” them as separate entities; but this doesn’t make it less romantic, and also, I’m really not sure.

Though I am not squeamish per se, (I won’t faint or throw up at the sight of blood, though I did recently accidentally unearth an entire bowl of papery dead bees and ladybugs and ran screaming from the garage, unable to return until my wife came home and swept them up), I did find Spirit Level No. 1 (2018) to be quite disturbing and provocative—the blood as a kind of spirit, and the idea of leveling as something otherworldly or ghostly—for what “levelness” do we require blood as tool for measuring? Along with Orichalcum Balance, it reminds me of the ancient Egyptian ritual where our hearts may be weighed against a feather—either way, it represents an object that performs a kind of judgement, therefore becoming animate, or spirited, as the title suggests.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_13
Installation view of Spirit Level No. 1 (2018); plaster, egg tempura, glass, and artist’s blood. Multiple of 3. 2 x 12 x 1 in.

I could go into a close read of many more artworks in the show—but legibility was the question, any my answer is that legibility is subjective, and I can only succeed in describing what is legible to me; and while it would be nice to assume that all others share my perspective, it’s likely that the opposite is true. Also, remember that something that obscures the show is its sheer size, making it difficult to evenly and rigorously apply the nuance that this show in particular demands and deserves. “Of this body; of this earth” contains so many materials and shapes, so much specific language, so many subtleties—and as a rather unsubtle person, much of it goes over my head, though I can certainly appreciate the care embedded in the meticulousness of Miller’s labor, which I will argue she uses as the bigger, broader tool of her thought. And while for me, Miller’s chalk-boards do not bring clarity to her work, as I believe they were intended to, I wouldn’t have it any other way—the more idiosyncratic, the better. Chalk-board for Paint Roller (2018) is completely lovely—I have literally no idea what it means, but in the upper left-hand corner, under the word “paintings” is a plain little outline of a figure within a frame, a thin squiggle crossing the figure’s just-legible head. The quote underneath it reads “I swallowed water”—and if it means anything at all, it’s because it defies the material complexity of the rest of the tunnel, and does something more authentically akin to a cave painting, communicating a complex thought whose meaning we will never understand, all through a few lines and a squiggle. Wow.

Earlier I said I thought Miller was trying to beat Lummis at his own game—what I mean by this is that Miller uses something sciency to cast meaning, or doubt, or fascination, or however you might feel when looking at a periodic table and a pile of rocks, onto the objects in the collection, or in Miller’s case, onto the empty spaces where objects once were. In a roundabout, or painless, nearly imperceptible way, all of Miller’s niche’s serve to question the notion of progress within the museum; and to my delight, they serve to question the notion of legibility itself.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_4
Installation view of Of this body; of this earth (2018); chalkboard, chalk, carbon-filament lightbulb, stones, charcoal, artist’s boots, and ash. Dimensions vary with installation.

I called this piece “Back to the future” because of Miller’s desire to connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence. And I do see this show as a kind of DeLorean—it’s impossible, it’s theatrical, it’s nerdy, it’s goofy—but as an artwork, it achieves that tricky thing of palpably weaving the past and the present. What’s great about Miller’s work is that it demands that we develop our own tools for understanding—and while there may be thousands of possible interpretations of  “Of this body; of this earth,” when we return to the Southwest Museum weeks or years from now, we’ll see much, much more than empty spaces where art once was; we’ll see possibility; we’ll see the future.

“Of this body; of this earth,” presented by Holiday, is on view at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, CA from May 20 to July 6, 2018. For more information on Miller Robinson, please visit her website: www.millerrobinson.net.

The featured image at the top of this post is an installation view of Egg (cube) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net