Contemporary Reactions: The Delicate Line Between Nourishment and Destruction

Nestled in a corner of the Main Gallery is UMOCA’s A-I-R Space, an area specially devoted to showcasing UMOCA’s artists-in-residence. Entering the gallery almost feels like entering a secret world, partitioned off and hidden behind encompassing walls. Yet while physically contained in a small space, the A-I-R Space’s current exhibition, Scott Horsley’s I Learned It From Watching You, is anything but subdued—in fact, explosively thought-provoking would be a better way to describe it.

I Learned It From Watching You considers the connections between nourishment and destruction, specifically how, as Horsley describes, “The tools that nourish also destroy.” Three objects inform the project: The Anarchist Cookbook, which contains instructions on the creation of various weapons; spear-tips, the first tools used among humans; and the pressure cooker. In fact, a lone pressure cooker greets the visitor entering the exhibition, foreshadowing the pile of pressure cookers that decorate a corner of the A-I-R Space. The pressure cooker, infamously used in the Boston Marathon bombings, perhaps serves as the most explicit reminder of the ways in which nourishment and destruction coincide. But this theme pervades the entire exhibit, from the monochrome renderings of pages in The Anarchist Cookbook to the vibrant, neon-colored paintings of spear tips.

The intentionality and care placed into the exhibition draws many visitors. Most are quick to compliment Horsley for his attention to detail, noting his efforts to realistically draw the image and contents of an opened Anarchist Cookbook. “You can literally read the pages from the books if you want to,” one visitor says.

Others praise the placement of the art pieces. Beyond the installation of the pressure cookers, I Learned It From Watching You alternates displaying paintings of The Anarchist Cookbook and those of spear tips. As the visitor progresses through the exhibition, the images of The Anarchist Cookbook become splattered with heavy purple streaks, while the pictures of the spears are switched for those of YouTube and Pinterest searches on making pressure cookers. The juxtaposition creates a dialogue between different human tools and the concept of destruction—one that causes many visitors to linger in the A-I-R Space as they attempt to derive some conclusion.

“When it comes down to it, a pressure cooker is a pressure cooker,” says a museum-goer. “It’s the people that make it something else.” 

IMG_6609“I can tell [the exhibit] was thoughtfully put together,” one such visitor says. He spends half-an-hour with his girlfriend, inspecting every single detail in the exhibition and theorizing the purpose of each piece. He points to two paintings of The Anarchist Cookbook—one unblemished, the other splotched with paint—and registers that the two depict the exact same two pages. He wonders aloud why Horsley made such a decision: “All the other paintings of the book are not unique,” he explains, before turning his attention to the canvases displaying the spear tips and YouTube tutorials. “Are we supposed to see it as a one-to-one correlation?” he asks, referring to the parallel in color schematics between the paintings despite the supposedly different subject matter.

While the visitor left with more questions than answers, a teenager, browsing through UMOCA with a group of friends, shares her interpretation of Horsley’s exhibit: “There’s always a fine line between things,” she says. “When it comes down to it, a pressure cooker is a pressure cooker. It’s the people that make it something else.” One parent who was accompanying her says, “It’s not the things that are bad or good; it’s how we use them.” Such observations are not unique for this exhibition; in fact, they have become the norm within the A-I-R Space since the opening of I Learned It From Watching You—a testament to the lasting impact and provocative nature of Horsley’s work.

­–Ha Le