Black Jack or The Horror of Aluminum

by Stephen Squibb

There is paper, there is plastic, and then there is aluminum. Three great contemporary waste materials: the first two are cadaverous, made from dead trees and dead animals. Aluminum has been on planet earth from the beginning. Today it embodies the horror of single-use metals. A state of horror emerges, David Peak writes, when consciousness coincides with “an inescapable corporeal reality.”1 Something about consciousness makes us revolt against materiality. We ought to be either conscious or embodied but, to our horror, we are both. Our relationship to waste metals receives and rehearses this horror. We think of metals as expensive and energy intensive – and they are. Yet our consciousness of this metallic economy takes place within a body that, it seems, cannot help but destroy its own conditions of existence by wasting precious resources. We consume, we excrete, but unlike the archaic voiding practiced by our ancestors, our contemporary excrement remains as garbage, as base material that will persist on planet earth long after our bones have vanished. Nothing grows from this metallic shit, which, unlike dead trees or dead animals, takes up space at the expense of future life. Throwing away aluminum concentrates the isolated, lonely expenditures that characterize excess in the early twenty-first century. Aluminum is a material that can be trashed but not sacrificed.

Anna Fasshauer’s Black Jack is a looming, lilting black rectangular aluminum prism and it reflects our fondness for this idiomatic, inclement waste product. More than a meter tall, it is the truth behind the silent, perfect black monolith in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke’s 2001. Kubrick is fantasy shit; Black Jack is the real shit. We imagine ourselves participating in the apocalypse, contributing in our own little way to the onrushing destruction of the planet. In truth, our world is menaced not by our fondness for aluminum foil but by two hundred or so large-scale transnational institutions. But ragged, degenerating fossil capitals – no matter how large – are an embarrassing, unflattering nemesis. Sad pasty men in suits destroying the world in search of a faster car. We’d rather feel powerful and complicit than rebellious and threatened by these visionless apparatchiks. Better to throw away a perfectly good piece of aluminum and feel guilty and capable than smash trans-national fossil fuel conglomerates and waste as much foil as we like.

Talulah Rhapsody or The Nervous Deity

Recently there was a movement to give up plastic straws. They were damaging animals in the ocean. What would replace them? Some tried paper. Some tried uncooked pieces of tubular pasta. And some tried reusable metal straws. These fell out of favor when several unfortunate people slipped, their steel straw piercing them through the eye or some similarly soft opening. Metal penetrates us, splitting our cells and pushing our bodies aside. Fasshauer’s metal is subtler, it infiltrates us like the aluminum we rub on our flesh to keep it from sweating. Unlike an antiperspirant, which is thought to cause Alzheimer’s disease, Fasshauer’s sculptures sharpen and engage our minds rather than dulling and degrading them. Everyone is familiar with the experience of crinkling up a plastic straw when they are finished using it. We twist it or bend it or roll it into a ball out of anxiety or distraction or both. Fasshauer’s Talulah Rhapsody and Straw-le-Willi appear to be the crumpled straws of an anxious god confronting an uncertain future.

When George Bataille hymned the potlach as a solution to the problem of overaccumulation he was celebrating the tradition of vast, communitarian and decidedly public sacrifice. He was not thinking of aluminum. Bataille’s faith in the redemptive power of expenditure was reflected in a lurid prose style that demonstrated indulgence as well as advocating for it. Elsewhere, John Maynard Keynes made the same point in the more desiccated harmonies of the anglophone university. Both writers saw danger in the miserly mindset inherited from previous eras of scarcity. Too much puritan guilt has the effect of pulling resources out of circulation and creating an artificial shortage that leads to crisis. The solution is to publicly destroy energy intensive things, which clears the way for new things to be made. Feasts and holidays let everyone participate in the consumption of the past and raise conscious excitement for the future. Left unaddressed, overaccumulation leads to war, which is another way of publicly annihilating precious things: people in this case, instead of goods. But the private consumption of expensive materials like aluminum combines the worst of both worlds. It is neither expensive enough to solve the problem, nor public enough to bring the community together. No wonder god is anxious. She has given her pets everything, but they would rather hoard and metastasize their fear then consume what is free and be happy. Fasshauer’s twisted aluminums grant this evaporated aspect of everyday life the possibility of recognition. She would have us feast our eyes on material destruction painted as brightly as a victim awaiting the knife. 

Souvenirs of an Aluminum Age

For the past five years, Fasshauer’s work has originated as new, clean, flat sheets and straight rods of aluminum, fresh from the factory. “In a process of destruction,” Fasshauer writes, “I work this material into sculptures. The destruction is taking place by ruining the original state of its flatness and straightness, by bending, bumping, denting, rolling.” It is the industrial equivalent of balling up fresh sheets of aluminum foil and putting them on display. Like paper or plastic, aluminum is something we bunch up when we are finished using it. We do not crumple steel or iron, even when we sometimes throw them away, but aluminum is soft, ductile, and non-magnetic. It hovers on the border between metal and something else. Mighty Carlo is obviously metal and painted like a car, but it has received more of the artist’s everyday idiosyncrasy than metal sculpture typically does. It is both more personal and less particular.

Another way of saying the same thing: Fasshauer’s aluminum sculptures look like aluminum. This feat is rarer than one might imagine, given that aluminum is the second most produced metal on earth, after iron. Jeff Koons used aluminum to look like play-doh. Liam Gillick uses it to look like steel. Claes Oldenburg uses it to look like whatever it was Oldenburg was thinking about that day. Each of these artists values aluminum the way we all do, as a substitute for heavier, less durable materials. Fasshauer, especially in works like Krawattenknoten and Antenne im Funkloch instead draws our attention to the metal itself, in its marvelous, ubiquitous pliability. 

Archeology has long oriented itself around different metals. Stone, bronze, iron – each of these have an age, a period of millennia when they organized the ancient mode of production. After iron comes… something different. But also: aluminum. Aluminum is the most important metal to come along since the metallic character of society was eclipsed. We don’t speak of an aluminum age like we do the iron age or the bronze age because we aren’t that kind of age anymore. Though, in fairness to aluminum, it has had as large an impact as bronze or iron did before it. Just ask the aviation industry. Cheeko is a kind of monument in aluminum to the unnamed aluminum age. It is possible, I think, to love this metal for its anonymous modesty. We recover, in the unarticulated secret of its influence, something of the original power and potential of metal itself. Iron is synonymous with disenchantment – somewhat ridiculously, given its association with mystical accounts of discipline and authority. Not so aluminum, which is still largely free from meta-historical determination.

The Man of Aluminum, a burlesque

On her website Fasshauer posts figure drawings, like the Statue of Liberty – that copper goddess – struggling to use her phone – (October 31, 2020). Or a couple standing before Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children (May 27, 2020); a cartoon portrait of our era observing Goya observing the age of tyrants in ancient Greece. Wily Zeus – that prototypical tyrant – defeated Daddy Saturn and the casual, intra-familial cannibalism that characterized the Bronze Age, ushering in a slightly more exogamic cruelty. Still, even Zeus can’t do without the divine metalworker Hephaestus. The new patriarchs love metal as much as – or more than – the old ones. Steel, Stalin called himself, just like Superman, that comic book ubermensch, that man of steel. So much of critical theory is located in this same overwrought vernacular, suturing the labor relations of textile manufacturing to the Wagnerian sturm and drang of metallurgy. Considering aluminum frustrates this marriage. Like iron, it is soft. Unlike iron, it is light and flexible. Fasshauer writes:

“In my drawings I like to give a slapstick-y character to the figures, which I also try to get into sculpture when searching for and developing its form. I like slapstick because of its exaggerated body language, its crudeness, its moral indifference and anarchic energy. It does not transmit values, neither does it lecture. It has buffoonery and charlatanism, and stands in the tradition of the commedia dell‘arte where masks and types are presented rather than individuals and their development.”

We can see in works like Crusz and Fearless Luigi the buffoon charlatan of an aluminum age. Here is the lumbering, aging spirit of metal as such, at once so much more useful and so much less dangerous than it used to be. The monumental tradition of sculpture itself is a kind of slapstick with its exaggerated body language, its crudeness, its fondness for types. Previously, artists – often male – found themselves locked in a struggle to the death with the decaying monuments of a previous age. “All revolutionaries,” Camus quipped, “want to kill god and build a church.” To destroy one monument is to set up another monument to its destruction. Fasshauer steps out of this cycle. Working alongside it so as to avoid prolonging it, she does not kill the monumental tradition: she lets it die by doing slapstick instead. “Be careful of battling monuments,” Nietzsche might have said, “lest you become a monument.” Fasshauer is that rare artist who can heed this warning and make art anyway.

In Hellevua Hustle, Luny Cherries, and Shorty-Harris, Fasshauer’s lines move back and forth between figure and form, setting the monumental in motion, falling forward through time like Pantaloon, that archetypal old fool of Commedia. It is hard not to think of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase #2, another meta-comedic effort to replace the iconic with the dynamic. This kind of intervention into the epic history of sculpture is only possible in aluminum. Or rather: aluminum makes it possible. But only Fasshauer’s aluminums are interested in operating in the space opened by the material itself. “I am not interested in material I come across,” Fasshauer has said, “I am interested in material that comes across me.” But it would be a mistake to imagine that she is some outsider artist, pretending to operate untouched by influence. She is too smart for such easily defeated pretensions, which are the surest route to sentimental unoriginality. Instead she builds otherwise, writing of her influences:

“Meuser uses found metal. He makes a choice, but there is the element of serendipity in the forms of his sculptures. Franz West starts from scratch for his metal sculptures (as far as I know). There I see the connection to Wittgenstein, who, before starting to use words in order to philosophize, strips the words to their bare essence. The words are clearly defined, mathematical, exact, the sentence with logical stringency, like flat sheets of metal and straight rods. I am not sure if this metaphor works, or if it is crooked.”

What does it mean to ‘start from scratch’? Surely it is to start from the line scratched in the dirt or on the page. The Ishango Bone, from 9000 BCE, includes many crooked scratch marks that may or may not indicate the prime numbers, which are the elements from which all other counting numbers are assembled. Fasshauer’s Morgenappell similarly lingers in the twilight dawn of legible intentionality, somewhere between the elemental and something constructed from elements. We can see the straightness of the rod even as it is bent, as surely as we can see both 1 and 7 in the Arabic numeral 17. The reference to mathematics and philosophy recalls, of course, Bataille’s definition of “L’informe” or the formless:

“In my drawings I like to give a slapstick-y character to the figures, which I also try to get into sculpture when searching for and developing its form. I like slapstick because of its exaggerated body language, its crudeness, its moral indifference and anarchic energy. It does not transmit values, neither does it lecture. It has buffoonery and charlatanism, and stands in the tradition of the commedia dell‘arte where masks and types are presented rather than individuals and their development.”A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit. [emphasis mine]”2

Bataille reveals himself as a product of his time when he imagines earthworms and spiders as things that are “squashed everywhere.” One has to be looking at a very narrow slice of experience to imagine that this is the case. In fact both species are doing quite well. Formlessness is too. It is neither an exception nor a rule, but an element from which both exceptions and rules are composed. Bottrop could be a barrel or it could be a tube, but it is definitely a center for coal production in West Germany. What if formlessness was like coal – something culture must burn to keep itself moving? Is the formless cleaner than coal? Or do the forms wafting from its flaming corpse poison the air that we breathe? Is Bataille advocating that we keep formlessness in the ground, the way contemporary environmentalists encourage us to leave coal below the surface? Or is it that, given that we must burn something, it is better to burn formlessness than fossils? Is a frock coat for formlessness better than a plastic straw? Fasshauer’s Flag is like the national frock coat given the form of the wave. Flags wave, chauvinism comes in waves, but waves are neither fascist nor flags. The future takes shape like the sea approaching the beach. We are not required to drown. Waves are here, now, and will be here when we are finished, like spiders, like earthworms, like our glorious aluminum spit. 

  1. David Peak, The Spectacle of the Void, Schism Press, 2014. ↩︎

  2. Georges Bataille: “Formless,” in: Visions of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. and with an introduction by Allan Stoeckl, transl. by ead. with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 31. ↩︎