How to Build Yourself a Myth, 2017

Solo exhibition by Ryan Brewer on display at ArtCenter College of Design’s Graduate Art Sculpture Project Room. The initial show ran from November 25 to December 2, 2017, with a public closing reception held on Saturday December 2.

The installation project How to Build Yourself a Myth consists of a series of sculptures, multimedia objects (including printed matter, vinyl LP records, and found videos of historic cinema), and research presented in diagrammatic form. Through the use of miniature spotlights, motorized turntables, and other mechanisms, the majority of the sculptures are both self-illuminated and kinetic and incorporate traditional woodworking (in solid birch and alder) derived from gothic revival fantasy architecture and art deco furniture design. The sculptures marry display fixture (as plinth, pedestal, table, stage) to appropriated commodities presented as fetish objects, including dolls, collectible figurines, various scientific instruments, and architectural models. These elements are used to examine, pinpoint, and put forth various moments in 20th century popular culture that the artist considers to be fragmentary evidence of nascent queer mythologies. As the artist sees it, these mythologies are nothing new per se, but are emergent nonetheless along with the rest of cultural material that survived the process of modernization and has since been forced to evolve or mutate in modernity. Still operating via subcultural coding throughout postmodernity onward, there is inherent power in the ability to create (or at least envision) one’s own narrative, one’s own history, one’s own heroes, one’s own identity, one’s own world. The work ultimately proposes an alternative political myth, basked in as much monumental fantasy and aggrandizing theatricality as it is drenched in ironic classicism and devastating historicism. Through something of a retro vision of queer futurism, the work stands as an acknowledgement of both personal and social construction, rupture, and brokenness.

One of the project’s core inquiries was in response to Mike Kelley’s The Uncanny project: if not through the accumulation of mere matter, how does one reconcile the loss of an archetype? The question of reconciliation remains mostly unanswered. With regard to the archetypal however, Judy Garland—as woman, mother, artist, gay icon, tragic figure, and ‘the world’s greatest entertainer’—is referenced heavily throughout the exhibition. Here, she is both honored, celebrated, and mourned, but is ultimately portrayed as a triumphant and supremely self-empowered figure. This is evidenced in her 1964 performance of By Myself, which was originally censored by the producers of the The Judy Garland Show, who feared that her impassioned performance would scare audiences, or that she appeared enraged and unhinged, two qualities that were presumably viewed as unbecoming of a female performer at the time and thus unfit for public broadcast. Nonetheless, Judy Garland represents two key moments (if not eras) in queer history: She played an important role in the solidification of queer—yet most closeted and certainly criminalized—cosmopolitan culture of the mid twentieth century through her innumerous performances in the concert hall, theatre, and cinema. Moreover, it is common knowledge that her devoted fan-base conspicuously consists of queer people of all varieties. Garland (and her untimely passing) is also now well-connected—though either fact or fiction, the legend still holds firm—to social rupture and queer revolution with the advent of the Stonewall riots, which uncannily transpired on the night of her funeral, June 28, 1969, in New York City. Those riots catalyzed the gay rights movement for the rest of the century and can be considered the birthplace of all modern LGBT rights movements henceforth.

The exhibition also responds to Rosalind Krauss’s conceptual framework of sculpture in the expanded field, as well as her inquiries into sculptural theatricality as explored in her 1977 essay Mechanical Ballets: Light, Motion, Theater. The work addresses these topics as literally and directly as possible, specifically through the use of stage lighting and sculptures presented upon a raised, stage-like platform. This overt theatrical presentation seeks to reconsider performativity as it relates to the canon of sculpture, as well as consumer culture, commodity-driven display aesthetics, and the current predicament that art clearly finds itself in now via globalized systems of hegemonic capital, financial and cultural alike. The ‘theatricalization’ of sculpture in this way seeks to interrogate the many values most often placed upon—and traditionally expected from—the sculptural art form (such as autonomy and preciousness, perhaps) and proposes a reevaluation of what the viewer truly values about art objects and why, pushing one toward the source of their personal tastes. But this begs the question—how truly subjective can values be within a capitalist paradigm anyway?

With regard to the socioeconomic, both socialism and capitalism are considered here through a conglomeration of monumental fantasy architecture that each has produced as apparently emblematic of their respective values: Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International represents the (failed) Socialist plot to transform the world over via technocratic utopia, and Walt Disney’s now-multinational theme park Worlds’ castles, which tower triumphantly as bastions of capital and transmitters of Eurocentric fantasies largely based on monarchic utopia. No matter the ruling regime, the specter of top-down leadership is always a fairy tale, never a dream come true.

Finally, this body of work is indebted to Donna Haraway and speaks to the political myth-making process she proposes in A Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway makes her case for the radical adoption of cyborg identities as an act of liberation from the hegemonic forces dominating the modern technocracy. For Haraway, the dissolution of illusionistic dialectical boundaries is a political tactic for blurring the lines of ‘identity,’ thus obfuscating processes of systemic domination and exploitation that have only ever been possible by maintaining these dualistic differences, such as male and female, natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines.[1] Out of these dualities’ collapse emerges the cyborg. In this way, the figure of the cyborg may simultaneously embody theories of queer existence.

Bridging the literal with the historical, How to Build Yourself a Myth also looks to early cinema for clues of nascent modern mythologies. Perhaps the most profound evidence of the birth of the cyborg is found in Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. The film’s premise is hinged on the revolutionary prowess of its Maschinenmensch,[2] crucially noted in taking the form of a gynoid, or female android (incidentally one of the first to appear in cinematic history regardless of its cybernetic gendering). However, with explicit regard to her gender assignment, the seductive powers of this “femmebot” are reduced to her uncanny mimicry of exotic dance;[3] her chicane performance ultimately instigates the disastrous uprising of the underground race (the proletariat of Metropolis), into a self-destructive furor. Moreover, her revolutionary leadership is made out to be nefarious, not heroic, and thus panders to social anxieties incited by technology as much as it threatens patriarchy’s socio-political dominance, for which a technologically advanced feminist revolution is apparently terrifying.[4] There in lies the sublime power of the cyborg, still relevant for narratives supportive of revolutionary uprise.

Under the lens of the fabulous, the tragic, the empowered, and the oppressed, How to Build Yourself a Myth indexes disparate references and inventories myriad cultural materials toward a queer reassessment of history, brazenly putting forth the ingredients of a queer mythology. In so doing, the work calls for the re-evaluation of the very malleable power of myth, thus spotlighting the benefits and dangers that any mythology may pose to civilization.


[1] A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway, Donna. Edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. The Cybercultures Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000, pp.293-294

[2] Translated from German as “machine person.”

[3] This sequence is known as the Dance of the Whore of Babylon, further eliciting biblical notions of apocalypse.

[4] Early Years: The Human Machine, Grenville, Bruce. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp, 2002, p.25

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