From the Fat of the Land:
Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions

WEALTH: Filip Noterdaeme (HoMu)
POWER: Adam Zaretsky with Katherine Wright, Travis Watson, and Chase Pierson
LUXURY: Fritz Haeg
WASTE: Tavares Strachan
COMMUNION: Micaela O’Herlihy

Once upon a time, the word fat was a desired condition associated with affluence, fertility, and health. Disparaging associations with poverty, unproductivity, and weakness clustered around its opposite, thin. Fat’s current associations with blubber, flab, and obesity evoke disgust, while it is flattering to be called a beanstalk, featherweight, or scrawny.
Petroleum-based agricultural technologies are often cited as the cause of this reversal. These technologies spurred the unprecedented output of corn whose calorie-laden contents surged through manufactured food products in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Sweet and cheap calories are accumulating in hips, bellies, thighs, and chins of citizens rich and poor. But undesirable excess is not confined to human bodies. Tabulating the consumption of fossil fuels, the generation of waste, and the production of material luxuries reveals that blessed abundance might have crept across the ethical boundary into sinful overabundance.

The artists contributing to “From the Fat of the Land” diverge from the Genesis use of the term to indicate an enticing promise of abundant crops without the need for arduous labor. But they also diverge from its gloomy alternative. Their unorthodox approaches explain the show’s subtitle, “Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions.”

WEALTH: Homeless Museum

The Homeless Museum, or HoMu, is an ongoing, live-in, independent, unaccredited museum conceived as an art project by Filip Noterdaeme. Noterdaeme has a penchant for flushing foolish assumptions out of two serious cultural institutions that occupy opposite ends of the social spectrum – the art museum and the homeless population. Noterdaeme is not homeless. His small apartment in Brooklyn Heights, New York, serves as the site of the museum which is indeed a homey affair since he sets curatorial policies, arranges the budget, conducts education programs, runs membership campaigns, manages the café, conducts tours, and creates the works of art exhibited in the museum. These functions are allocated to his bed, medicine cabinet, chimney, freezer, etc. Each activity is an opportunity to expose unacknowledged absurdities and skewer them with satirical jibes.

Grand Arts has commissioned Fat Minimalism, a new work in HoMu’s collection, for its exploration of the ‘weighty’ topic. Created out of fat lodged in sedentary and overfed chickens, the elegant sculpture is both a literal and ludicrous interpretation of the theme of excess. Noterdaeme retrieves the chicken’s fat from the waste stream, renders it, forms it into pristine rectangular slabs, freezes it to harden, and then assembles the slabs into sculptures whose spare geometries are the hallmark of Minimal art. Seen through the glass door of a large refrigerator, the work combines the aesthetic of elemental forms with a medium that signals glutinous overindulgence.

Noterdaeme’s ironic wit distorts the idealized image of a land flowing with milk and honey. In his work what flows is the stuff of cellulite, liposuctions, and tummy tucks, suggesting that the privileged may be cursed by abundance just as homeless people are cursed by deprivation. In fact, the work denigrates the cult of excess and elevates temperance by linking the latter to sophistication and purity. Two minorities meet. One is super-advantaged. The other is dis-advantaged. ‘Too much’ collides with ‘too little.’

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POWER: Adam Zaretsky

Living “off the fat of the land” became apparent at the dawn of history when privileged individuals were first relieved of tasks related to providing food, constructing shelter, and raising the young. By relying upon their neighbors for their material needs, archaic priests, warriors, chiefs, and healers initiated an enduring social tradition whereby some individuals consume a disproportionate share of the resources. Since the Industrial Revolution, the volume of production has accelerated, enabling more people to amass more material goods, dump more waste, guzzle more resources, and spew more pollutants than every before. Advanced societies are reeling from an excess of excess. Obesity has replaced the ‘fat’ of the land. This inequitable distribution of material wealth is typically accompanied by a comparable inequity of power.

Adam Zaretsky addresses the fetish for power that has led humanity to pump its intellectual, mental, and physical muscles and dominate other species, earth forces, and each other. His innovative measures to reverse power-mania take the form of cultivating submissiveness. Indeed, Zaretsky craves submissiveness as others crave power. He has formulated a triad of unlikely techniques to replace aggressive power-mongering with docile obedience: organic farming, sadomasochistic sexual practices, and biotech experimentation. The first is a bizarre charade. The second is a performance spectacle. The third is lunatic science.

Organic Farming: Prior to industrial agriculture, farm animals provided a fine example of submissiveness. Beasts of burden submit to a yoke, labor in silence, and endure fatigue without complaint. Zaretsky creates opportunities for humans to emulate this ideal at his farm in Woodstock, New York. Members, students, and visitors crawl and pull ploughs, till the earth, sleep in pens, sport chains attached to the rings in their noses, and sit on eggs until they hatch. They are banished to the compost pile if they misbehave. Courses are offered through a “submission program.” Zaretsky says they are designed to “inform/deform the present day conceptions of getting back to nature.” 1
Although the farm was inactive at the time of this writing, native medicinal plants have been cultivated and marketed to manifest the positive principle of submissiveness. For example, the crops are grown by submitting to natural biodynamic processes instead of the hostile take-over of the land that characterizes industrialized and chemical-saturated agriculture. Furthermore, the tinctures made from the plants are marketed in the streets by members. Besides selling their remedies, they enact strange public rituals wearing leather regalia and pink overalls in celebration of submissiveness. Zaretsky explains that he perform a “cash-intensive minuet” to “confront the seedy side of our ‘free’ market, capital-obtrusive, and thoroughly heisted lives.”

Biotechnology: Zaretsky’s desire to free the world of the scourge of domination is also activated on the scale of DNA. He is attempting to isolate the gene for submissive behavior and thereby create a new breed of humans who are obedient and selfless.

Sadomasochism: Since masochists’ experience of submissiveness is connected to gratification, fetishism, and eroticism, Zaretsky believes they are a treasured source of genetic makeup for his DNA experiments. Gathering genetic samples from desirable organisms is not new. Selective breeding has been practiced since the dawn of agriculture. What is revolutionary is the characteristic that pFARM chooses to favor. Marketing submissiveness as a desirable state of being threatens the fundamental tenets of contemporary civilization. The excess so many people currently enjoy, as well as its damaging consequences, are the result of dominating tactics that characterize industrial farming, engineering, mining, manufacturing, and constructing. Through his insightful lunacy, Zaretsky links taboo sexuality with environmental and social reform.

Zaretsky’s multi-pronged strategies to eradicate “the fat of the land” therefore incorporate cloning, transgenics, and genomics, as well as pranks, posturing, and absurdity. A wild proposition emerges from their intersection – the time has come for humans to abandon the presumption of privileged status. Instead of a brave new world, Zaretsky strives to create a timid new world. He concludes, “We are breeding for pleasure in a world of hurt. Our children will be posthuman but not superhuman … And we are proud not to be proud.” 2

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Spurse launches its high-stakes art practice by introducing an idiosyncratic definition of ‘excess.’ Instead of dismal thoughts of bloated complacency, spurse welcomes extra capacity that does not yet perform a function but could. One compelling example of such excess is the underutilized workings of the human brain. Spurse offers an exuberant description of this potential by citing the “wondrous, complex and situated entanglement.”3 of humans with their environment, enabling us to be “part of its dynamic and continuous creation.”4

The following propositions summarize these natural entanglements:

- All actions are collective.
- Everything affects and is affected by everything else.
- All human actions in the present affect biological, technological, social, and material systems in the future.

These proclamations guide Spurse, a loose collective of approximately eighty artists, urban planners, geographers, biologists, and statisticians. Their varied expertise accounts for the range and rigor of the group’s pursuits. The spokesperson for the group is Iain Kerr who studied philosophy and architecture, but everyone is welcome to enter the fluid space of the group’s exploration. Spurse also invites the audience to activate their mental “excess” and join them in considering the total overhaul of every system on the globe.

Darwin’s theory that chance, not design, drives evolution unites this disparate bevy of creative thinkers. When chance propels change, variation increases along with the chances for an organism or a community to successfully adapt to environmental shifts. Spurse not only welcomes chance as the harbinger of hope, it propagates opportunities for chance to conduct its beneficial work.

For “From the Fat of the Land,” Spurse is constructing an interactive game designed to mutate thoughts and thereby to generate and systematize new world views adapted to a radically changing environment. Cosmological Proposition Generator consisting of several tables pieced together. The tops of the tables are cut with deep slits into which disks will be inserted. Each is inscribed with a text that addresses some broad topic such as imagined places or ecosystems. As the wheels rotate at speeds determined by vectors, they create random combinations of relationships. Each is a new potential cosmology.

Paul Bartow, another member of the group, explains that Spurse plans to further multiply possibilities for random generation by sending out a call across the internet for others to contribute and respond and experiment. They hope to trigger unintended trajectories because as people tune into the cosmological apparatus, adding their own world views, they “will act as a generator of other cosmological productions that operate as random generators themselves … It is with this activity of dialing the apparatus that one is in the production of excess, i.e., a production of cosmologies, the fat if you will.”5 Kerr sums up the project by declaring that all combinations are welcome because “any alternative to the status quo has potential. This is the future emerging.” 6

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LUXURY: Fritz Haeg

Instead of viewing the lawn as a desirable sign of wealth and privilege, Fritz Haeg perceives it as evidence of waste and destruction. Haeg comments, “most lawns are only occupied when they are being tended.” He does more than question this emblem of “the fat of the land” in a culture of luxury. His art practice includes transforming examples of the endless green carpet of conformity into diverse and productive gardens. Edible Estates are prototype gardens that he is installing in sites where suburbia and its unproductive landscaping conventions prevail.

Haeg advertises the opportunity to participate in his project by stating that he is seeking “skilled, eager and adventurous occupants of one conventional American house on a typical street of endless sprawling lawns.” He then explains that these citizens will bravely violate the “toxic uniformity” of neighborhood lawns fed on diets of chemical fertilizers and herbicides by committing to the “indefinite cultivation of fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs for all neighbors and car traffic to see.”

Haeg identifies an irony imbedded in applying the term “fat of the land” to land used for lawns. On the one hand it “signals so much bounty that we leave some land just for ornamental visual pleasure.” On the other hand, there is growing concern regarding scarcity, “We are slowly realizing that the natural resources are not as limitless as we originally assumed. My project, Edible Estates … shows that we can literally eat from the land that surrounds us.” It invites suburbanites to take advantage of the wasted ecological opportunities available wherever lawns grow. Sunshine and rain are horticultural treasures. Soil and its microorganisms in yards are miracle workers. These valuable resources arrive free of charge. Instead of growing grass, grow food.

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Lynus Young’s interpretation of the phrase “the fat of the land” provides a succinct verbal equivalent to his visual artwork, “It is biblical. I think of it in a Kansas City way. Kansas City strip steak. Living on baby fat. Where does the baby fat come from? Fat means money. Fat means abundance. Fat means America. Kansas City is the second fattest city in the U.S. What does the land offer? Is the land still fat or are we just fat?”7

These sentences rush from one glittering thought to the next. Images seem to spew from Young’s imagination. The abundance and range of his mental output raises two intriguing questions related to affluence:

- Is there a limit to the productive capacity of the human imagination?
- Can there be too much imaginative plenty?

These questions establish the context for the visually opulent artworks Young is creating for the Grand Arts exhibition. His description of them inspired another exuberant accounting. The following paragraphs relate his evocative description to imaginative plenty.

“The mirage is created through fine carved lines in a reflective surface.”8 Young’s drawings are etched or sand-blasted around stencils placed on colored glass and mirrors of different dimensions, shapes, and systems of support. He explains his choice of medium by stating, “Layers of glass are trains of thought.”9

“These primitive holograms are based on a collected history, which is random and pure chance.” Instead of documenting Kansas City history, Young creates swirling assemblages of the region’s mythos, geography, native populations, immigrant populations, industries, and business leaders, and even includes the experience of driving down Main Street. Young admits, “It’s dreamy to me. It’s a voyage. I don’t know what I’m getting in to when I start a piece…I want people to enter, to dig through the labyrinth.”.10

“…a collected history, which is random and pure chance like shuffling through a tarot deck. I am seeking a treasure or disaster. History is laced with both, a shifting puzzle face of a person trying to find its form.” Young’s exuberant formulations also encompass an ancient system of Tarot cards for divining the future. Instead of adopting traditional symbols, Young invents his own, suggesting that a spiritual force or the collective unconscious may be guiding his creativity.

Young admits, “I’m infatuated with my imagination.” He utilizes it to discover, “How far can I push the visual language?” The answer lies imbedded in these exhilarating works of art where the visual language is pushed to the brink of a hallucinatory state.

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WASTE: Tavares Stachan

Tavares Strachan gave school children in the Bahamas an experience they are not likely to ever forget. His gift was wonder. It arrived, via FedEx, along side letters and packages, from its source 3,000 miles away. The work encapsulated the implications of its title, The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (2006).

In the midst of the sweltering July heat, Strachan unpacked a 4.5 ton block of Arctic ice. The ice was installed and kept from melting within a specially constructed freezer. It maintained Arctic conditions in the blazing tropics by harnessing the sun. Solar power maintained polar conditions in a sub-tropical environment, an amusing reversal of the hot-house technologies that protect southern vegetation from harsh northern climates.

For an entire year, Strachan included a performance component in his sculptural project. It took the form of “lectures” in elementary schools throughout the Bahamas. The lectures perpetuated the oral storytelling tradition that Strachan recalls when he was growing up in Nassau. He initiated the lecture performances seven months before the arrival of the ice to prepare the tropical children for a “hyper-real” encounter with polar ice, transforming mythic wonder into a material actuality that conveys cultural and biological histories.

On the wall behind him, Strachan hung a poster with the word success printed on it. He hoped it would convey to the children that achieving something as remarkable as transporting a chunk of the Arctic to the Bahamas requires “energy to resist some force. Being passive is failure."11 He utilizes the term “hyperextension” to describe exceeding normal physical and psychological limits. In this instance, a hyper-extended physical action introduced a hyper-extended concept – that solar energy may create heat in the tropics, but it can also be harnessed to create polar cold.

This ambitious project intersects with the “Fat of the Land” when Strachan considers the large material and energetic investment required to accomplish this sculptural feat. Was his project wasteful? He responds by asserting that unused and polluting by-products may be ‘waste’ but they are not ‘wasteful.’ According to Strachan, “Any raw experiment produces some waste. The work becomes interesting when there is waste. A lot of art making is a ‘waste’ of materials and time because it is experimental. I admire waste once the stakes are high enough. The desire and goal is more important than anything else. Unusable results are not waste. They are part of the input. We must redefine waste. It is all alchemical. Two-thousand years ago, the word ‘waste’ didn’t exist. Waste is an apocalyptic concept.”

The by-products generated by creating The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want involve the long-distance transport and maintenance of exceedingly fragile materials. Phase one involved subjecting ice to sweltering heat. Phase two involves the project for Grand Arts. Strachan is creating fragile replicas of desks and chairs from every school he visited in the Bahamas. They are made with limestone chalk, a material as inherent to the Bahamas as ice is to the Arctic, not just geologically, but biologically and culturally as well. The creation myth of the Bahamas, for example, asserts that the Islands were spawned by great volcanic eruptions. They spewed the medium Strachan has chosen for these sculptures.

Strachan’s furniture is so fragile that it must be driven with an escort all the way from Connecticut to Kansas. He is confident that The Distance Between offsets its environmental cost because it addresses a crucial and timely issue. He explains, “This project channels the idea of survival as the ice withstands harsh climate change in an attempt to find equilibrium... As I experienced the freeze of the arctic and survived, the freezer will use heat as a part of its survival. Here, alternate levels of opposites ascribe resilience, as human ability is paralleled by technological adaptation.”12

Strachan concludes, “Large gestures will be witnessed. That is why I took the liberty. I love the idea that we can’t remind people about not wasting without wasting.” 13

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COMMUNION: Micaela O’Herlihy

Beasts (animals that are dangerous and uncontrollable), pets (animals that are tamed and kept as companions), cattle (animals that are domesticated and often raised for meat and dairy products), and pests (animals that are harmful or annoying), all of these categories position animals in opposition to humans. Although scientific taxonomies identify humans as animals too, Western consciousness typically suppresses animal affinities. Such distrust and hostility is reflected in the linguistic link between the words ‘animal’ and ‘animosity.’

Micaela O’Herlihy has experienced this disconnect in Wisconsin where she and many of her neighbors operate farms. She comments, “The interaction between humans and animals is intense, but there is no communication. There is hunting and extermination. It is war between animals and farmers.”14 Her handmade films highlight a different linguistic pairing. The relationship between ‘animal’ and ‘animate’ indicates that animal nature is a source of vitality and magnetism. Thus, when the characters in alone in the woods til death do I wander appear dressed in the skins of raccoons and coyotes, she says she is seeking “the spirit in the furs” to form “relationships between communities of people and people with animals.”

alone in the wood till death do I wander is a four-minute film loop that presents three characters: an Old Crone, a Wolf Boy, and an Indian maiden. O’Herlihy explains, “They are the fat. They are a part of the land, not separate takers of the land.” They bridge two worlds by walking upright in a human manner while they skulk about in the snowy landscape covered in furs. In an effort to “portray them as animals, not separate entities,” O’Herlihy accentuated their beast-like qualities by slowing the film to focus on their teeth, and capturing their furtive movements by shooting at night by the light of a glaring hunter’s lamp. She explains, “It’s hard to get a clear view of animals in the wild. There are always trees in the way. It is dark. You are moving, or they are moving, or you are scared and afraid to look them in the eye. If they are carnivorous or aggressive, this fear of them is dominating your concentration thus interfering with your ability to really see them. This is why the characters are not portrayed clearly with conventional lighting and good lenses."15

O’Herlihy is conducting a real-life experiment to develop a closer rapport with the non-human realm by reducing dependency on high-technologies. In the summers she lives beyond the reach of the electric grid in rural Wisconsin where “seasons are so intense, that when wild asparagus, morels, and milk weed ripen, there is a big celebration.” Avoidance of sophisticated technologies also dictates her relationship to her artistic medium. O’Herlihy’s films are ‘handmade,’ meaning they are processed, printed, manipulated by hand instead of a computer or a commercial laboratory. The installation of the film at Grand Arts utilizes low-tech tools. 150 feet of film form a loop that zigzags through small squeaky reels that are attached to walls and the ceiling as it is fed through a projector and ultimately appears as a 3’ x 4’ projection on the wall.

In the darkened gallery, the film evokes the mysterious world that animals inhabit and the tantalizing appeal of animal connections to sources of primal wisdom. “alone in the wood” suggests that animals and humans do not possess separate natures. They are co-inhabitants of a common world. Survival depends upon communion among all living species.

Linda Weintraub
Rhinebeck, NY
June 2007

This essay is published on the occasion of “From the Fat of the Land: Alchemies, Ecologies, Attractions” organized by Grand Arts and curated by Stacy Switzer.

1Adam Zaretsky, (February 2007).
2Adam Zaretsky, EMutagen: Viva Vivo (May 2007).
3Spurse, “Three Diagrammatic Researches and 11 Theses on Hyper-Natural Entanglements,” (May 2007).
5Paul Bartow, email to author, (5 June 2007).
6Iain Kerr, telephone interview with the author, (2 May 2007).

7Lynus Young, telephone interview with the author, (8 May 2007).
8Lynus Young, e-mail correspondence with the author, (12 May 2007).span>
9Lynus Young, telephone interview with the author, (8 May 2007).
10Lynus Young, e-mail correspondence with the author, (12 May 2007).
11Tavares Strachan, interview with the author, (11 May 2007).
12Tavares Strachan, “Conversation with Tavares Strachan and Susan Swenson” in The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (New York: Pierogi Gallery and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 2006).
13Tavares Strachan, interview with the author, (11 May 2007).

14Micaela O’Herlihy, correspondence with the author, (8 May 2007).

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