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On the work of Phillip Zach

Formation Processes

Those who study the work of Phillip Zach (1984) will notice how earth, space, soil, and caves seem to be recurring themes floating around his oeuvre. What could be misread as a sheer interest in materials, is more so an excavation of psychological layers and complex entanglements between living and non-living matter, unpacking their social dynamics, i.e., notions of stability, home, territory, and the violence of existence as such in the material world. Zach's interest in time and space often manifests as references to the Earth and the universe. He makes these abstract concepts tangible by translating them into objects and materials, exposing these otherwise invisible entanglements that uphold our lives.

Take his work Wormholes, which was part of the group exhibition Clouds in the Cave at Fri Art - Center d'Art De Fribourg in 2015 and manifested itself in the form of a digital intervention. A “Wormhole” is “a speculative structure linking disparate points in spacetime, and is based on a special solution of the Einstein field equations. A wormhole can be visualized as a tunnel with two ends at separate points in spacetime (i.e., different locations, or different points in time, or both).”[1] Zach draws a parallel to a peculiar institutional convention in visual art: the way in which installation photography of exhibitions circulates, especially with the advent of social media and blogs like Contemporary Art Daily. Installation photos as seen through the screen form a kind of ‘gateway tunnel’ to another place and time, far away. Art historian David Joselit writes, “because [images] emerge in an ‘information era’ where documentation is virtually inherent in the production of art, contemporary artworks typically belong to the category of documented objects.”[2] Zach underscores this artificial proximity to exhibitions by limiting his participation in the group exhibition to an invisible presence in the exhibition space: he manipulated the photographic documentation of the exhibition by adding CGI (computer generated imagery) tunnels, blobs and other structures to them, as visible Wormholes, penetrating the installation photos, oozing out of cracks, flowing freely and leading a life of their own. Merging the other artists´ works with forests, canyons and other landscapes that Zach photographed, he exposed the virtual qualities of the exhibition space, in all its clean and artificial whiteness.

Holes, gateway tunnels, and burrows: Zach relates these recurring tropes in his work to what Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) wrote in his text Postscript on the Societies of Control.[3] Building on Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) "disciplinary society,” Deleuze describes how ‘we’ move towards a “society of control”. Although the text dates from 1992, it foreshadows the digital revolution and could be read as a description of the current world. Deleuze claims that it is (or seems) possible to move freely from one institution to another, like a mole moving from one nest to another via tunnels. However, the distinction between these institutions has become more and more blurred, leaving you in a permanent state of locomotion—never at home. Zach compares this to the way a worm moves: without a (permanent) nest, always aiming to learn and to move forward.[4] Already in 2016, Zach used the worm metaphor for his solo exhibition The worm as will and representation at Freedman Fitzpatrick Gallery in Los Angeles. Here, the starting point was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) idea that everything, every atom and every particle, exists because it exhibits what Schopenhauer calls “Wille zum Leben”—a will to exist. He goes on further saying that all willingly springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Evolutionarily speaking, nematodes (worms) were the first organisms to exhibit the ability of directional movement, further expanding the-will-to-exist, by adding the-will-to-move—towards nutrients and away from light. Zach describes this as the first glimpse in the emergence of the ego.

The development of the ‘ego’ is related to the awareness of your own existence. For the series High Resolution Zach enlarged photos of his own spit which were then printed on a surface made of foam material, and thus showed the ‘bubbles’ from which spit is built. He said that the bubbles in spit occur when one is talking a lot and therefore can be read as a metaphor for “talking something into existence,” similar also to the contraction of financial spaces often referred to as bubble economies in which values emerge and disappear again.

Phillip Zach, works from the series 'High Resolution' (2013) at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

In Double Mouthed, a documentary-style work Zach made for the Istanbul Biennale 2019, he interviewed various people, among them archeologists, to portray two caves that are central to the work: the Los Angeles’ man-made Bronson Cave, barely 100 years old, and Yarımburgaz Cave in Istanbul, a ‘natural’ cave, rich in archeological and paleontological history with estimates dating it to be up to a million years old. Both caves are imprinted with all kinds of natural and cultural phenomena, for instance they both have been heavily used as film sets resulting in varying degrees of wear and destruction. Zach elaborates on the documentary style he used to portray as well as contrast these two caves: “Like folds in space, caves are relatively simple yet particular formations, inviting for various types of appropriation, all crossing and channelled in one spot, not unlike the inside of a telephone cable. I wanted to capture this density of timelines colliding and overlapping inside these spaces, but also the varying perspectives in which these are voiced, which lead to multitudes of disconnected and contradictory narratives. Since both sites have been used as backdrops for movies, the relation between history and history writing becomes emphasized, making these caves spaces of ambiguity. The novel The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (1964-2018) deals with exactly that, two planets with two different societies defining themselves in relation to and against each other. I used some parts of that novel for some fictional scenes in the video. I didn't necessarily want to take a voice myself, but I wanted to have all kinds of different voices instead, overlapping, fragmented, sometimes entangled and sometimes not at all.”

Phillip Zach, 'Double Mouthed', 2019 (film stills)

It looks as if Zach has a preference for places with no people: the caves in Double Mouthed, an abandoned house in Malibu, and the expansive emptiness of the universe in Zero G. In all those video-based works, a lot of attention is paid to the traces that people have left in those desolate places, and the meaning that others give to them. For Malibu (2019), Zach edited found footage primarily sourced from an amateur vlog of young girls who like to go “abandoned mansion hunting,” a phenomenon circulating on YouTube and Instagram, that gained in popularity in the recent years. This peculiar hobby entails teenagers breaking into abandoned houses and recording themselves doing it—the bigger and more decadent the houses, the better. The images in Malibu were made on a smartphone: you see three girls filmed from the back, moving through a left-behind mansion. The electricity is still working, the water is still running and even the refrigerator is still on. The newspapers and magazines sprawled throughout, indicate that the house has not been inhabited for about 25 years. It is fascinating to think about the former residents of the house who clearly belong to the upper echelons of society, signifying a disproportionate share of capital, political influence, and means of production. Knowing the real estate prices of Malibu beach front properties and the entailed 0.77% in annual property taxes, a mansion like this requires roughly between 100K and 200K of USD in property taxes every year. The abandoned house shows the absurdity of a world in which income inequality continues to increase. Or as Zach says, “Following these girls’ archeological investigation, more and more details and traces of former inhabitants and others passing through are unpacked, and along with that a portrait of inequality and the fascination that these Zoomers have for the barely reachable safety-net of owning a property, not to mention a luxury property like this. Of course, this is Malibu, houses like this are more likely to be found here, but it could have been in many other places as well.”

Phillip Zach, 'Zero-G', 2019

Malibu was part of Zach's solo exhibition Tremors in 2019, at Freedman Fitzpatrick Gallery in Paris. It featured collages that are square and tilted, transparent and two-sided, creating a dynamic that suggests they will spin forever, or in Zach’s words, “Each collage hangs on only one nail, gravity does the rest.” Layered between plates of acrylic glass with enclosures of various types of paint, fabrics, and organic materials like dust and hair, Zach processed different images of opposing worlds, addressing the friction between them. For example there are antique postcards showing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake next to fragments of interior magazines displaying design suggestions for children’s rooms. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (1952) describes the term friction as “[…] the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.”[5] The frictions that emerge between these images could not have been bigger: a city with all buildings collapsed and roads destroyed versus an ‘ideal’ world to grow up in. Zach undermines the illusion of a stable life both in a playful and confrontational way. He describes, “The way these interiors for children were staged as an imagination of the perfect childhood home, say a lot about the longing for protection and stability, the advent of ownership and why architecture and cities were invented in the first place. […] However, the whole exhibition deals with the ground becoming unstable and living conditions ever changing and the temporality, and the impermanence of things.”

Phillip Zach, 'Interiors (ring of fire)', 2019; Acrylic glass, printed images, acrylic paint, oil paint, dust, tape 70.70 x 70.70 x .70 cm
Phillip Zach, 'Interiors (posing)', 2019; Acrylic glass, printed images, acrylic paint, oil paint, mylar, cotton thread, dust, tape 70.70 x 70.70 x 1d cm

A year earlier, Zach was part of the group exhibition Crash Test, where he showed the second iteration of a series of sculptural works, titled Seeing Red II.[6] The exhibition’s title refers to a form of destructive research and is interesting in relation to archeology and geology. It is at this intersection that Zach's research-based work meets his material excavations. To get to know things you have to analyze them, which applies to both materials and concepts, ideas, and phenomena. The material descriptions of the Seeing Red II works are rather elaborate and contain things like ‘mummy brown,’ ‘powdered red beets,’ ‘saffron flower,’ and ‘vitamin B12’, or a strawberry that kept decaying throughout the duration of the show. The various red pigments and objects on display are related to the question of why only a few organisms, among them humans, developed the ability to see the color red. The act of seeing is thus exposed as an outward projection, or an act of distinction that takes place merely inside the brain. Zach's archeological approach to materials and phenomena is closely related to his interest in areas, borders, property and real estate. “We need to be bound to a material, a substrate. This is something inescapable, no matter where we go, even if we leave earth, we need some form of capsule—a substitute earth if you will.”

Phillip Zach, 'Seeing Red II (hugger)', 2018; saffron flower, syrian rue, annatto seeds, acacia confusa, root bark powder (DMT), venetian red vermilion, mummy brown, cochineal, powdered red beets, hemoglobin, shilajit, life strawberry, ure-thane

In 2016, Zach developed a series of works that he first showed in New York titled Untitled Properties. It is a series of biomorphic shapes from polyurethane foam that seem to crawl out of a grid structure made of powder coated steel. They seem uncontrollable, like the amount and value of real estate projects in New York. The foam that pushes through the grid has a colorful surface of pigmented sand. This makes them look pixelated when looking closer. Professor of architecture Greg Lynn (1964) wrote about “blobs,” “They do not ingest material into an interior cavity, but like a single-cell organism, [they] stick to things that are then slowly incorporated through their surface. […] The blob is all surface, not pictorial or flat, but sticky, thick, and mutable. […] Blob form is determined not only by the environment but also by movement. […] The term blob connotes a thing which is neither singular nor multiple but an intelligence that behaves as if it were singular and networked but in its form can become virtually infinitely multiplied and distributed.”[7] Zach describes his Untitled Properties as “some sort of primordial theatre in which the visible properties are key: pixelation, atomization, amalgamation, proliferation, assimilation, fusion and so on, all of which can be recognized as developments in for instance social or economic dynamics, however here they manifest almost somatically. And yet these works are fundamentally separated, cut-off from any reality other than their own materiality, they are places where nothing else matters and in which all meaning collapses.”

Phillip Zach, works from the series 'Untitled Properties', 2016-19; at Overduin & Co., Los Angeles, 2019

All different layers are intuitively decomposed by Zach, quite like an archeologist studying a formation process, a term referring to the events that created and affected an archeological site before, during, and after its occupation by humans. Zach searches for both natural and cultural things that unfold somewhere, thereby forming a place, story, object, theory, or world view. He shows that no matter how these things developed, they will keep moving forever in space and time.

Julia Mullié, July 2020

[1] Wikipedia, “Wormholes,” July 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wormhole
[2] David Joselit, After Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 12.
[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October (Vol. 59, Winter 1992), 3-7.
[4] Phillip Zach, personal conversation with Julia Mullié, July 2020. From June 2020 onwards Zach and Mullié have corresponded. All following quotes in this text derive from this correspondence.
[5] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 4.
[6] The exhibition Crash Test was curated by Nicolas Bourriaud at La Panacée, Montpellier; The first iteration of the series Seeing Red was shown in 2015 at The 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana, curated by Nicola Lees.
[7] Greg Lynn, “Blob Tectonics, or Why Tectonics Is Square and Topology Is Groovy,” in Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays, ed. Greg Lynn (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 2004), 170–72.

All pictures: Courtesy the artist

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