“The material I work with is the system, the social systems that we all move through,” Jon Rubin said last Saturday afternoon in his talk for the annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art.
Walking into Lawrence Auditorium in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), the audience already saw what Rubin sees, immediately confronted with a video projected against a large screen. The camera drifts through upper-middle-class homes, slow-moving and contemplative, starting with the artist’s own house (the feet of his 10-year-old daughter protrude endearingly from the edge of the frame) and ending, a mile and half away and 50 homes later, at his exhibition space.
Titled “HERETHEREHERE,” the piece literally moves through the network of domestic units between his home and his work. And when Rubin first stepped onto the WCMA stage, amid applause, he acknowledged his own association with the institution of a university – he’s an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Penn. – and then proclaimed that he’s framed the lecture at the College with that in mind.
This unusual awareness – a consideration for the environment in which he’s contained – shapes much of Rubin’s work as an interdisciplinary artist. A day earlier, when the two of us sat in conversation at a sunlit picnic table, he referred to himself as “partly parasitic,” in that his work often involves inserting his pieces into existing systems and incorporating the works into the fabric of the surrounding ecosystem. His project “Conflict Kitchen,” for instance, is a restaurant that serves food exclusively from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. On one hand, it’s an art piece – but Conflict Kitchen is also a largely self-sustaining restaurant that’s been in operation for years, one that has itself become an integral part of the landscape in its Pittsburgh community.
But beyond the will to integrate organically into an existing system is the desire to challenge such systems, to explore what he refers to as “the distance between” – between physical locations, between cultures, between people – and perhaps to reduce that distance. On the wrappers of meals packaged by the Conflict Kitchen is information and transcripts of interviews about the country of focus; a weekly program called “The Foreigner,” in addition, provides customers the opportunity to converse with a person from that same country through the medium of Conflict Kitchen employee, who wears headphones and relays what she hears to the community participant. “You can have your lunch with this person through this human avatar,” Rubin said. “She’s local and familiar – not only is distance confused, but race [and] even, sometimes, gender.”
Rubin’s work seems crafted out of this ambiguous space, of this “distance between.” In “The Lovasik Estate Sale,” Rubin specifically sought out the estate sale of a multi-generational Pittsburgh family, bought every single object, and transported and reconstructed the sale, room-for-room, in Shanghai, with its original pricing. The installation, lasting three months, essentially dissolved with time, as each object was brought home to mix with the possessions of the purchaser – a sewing machine refurbished for a home business, a family picture placed on the bookshelf alongside the family picture of the buyer. Pittsburgh, the original site of the estate, is the city with the second-highest population of elderly in the United States; the slow disintegration of the installation is a sort of representation of a larger, more tragic phenomenon.
Rubin’s work inhabits a decidedly human sphere, one that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of art.
“Museums are a space for a specific subsection of the population,” he said, and often people leave such spaces without taking anything with them. In his “Thinking About Flying,” a work hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Colo., though, patrons literally bring a piece of the work back with them – homing pigeons that are then let go.
The act of caring for the pigeons highlights the relationships between the visitors, the artwork and the institution. In Rubin’s view, the space of the museum itself then expands. All other pigeons in the city – “and pigeons are very much the species we pay least attention to,” as Rubin put it – are implicated as possible participants.
Similarly, “The Last Billboard,” a work that takes the form of a public billboard at a busy intersection in Pittsburgh, displays text submissions that vary from profound to poetic to banal. “Sry text keep ducking up / ducking / duck / duck / nevermind,” reads one. “Put it up for a month,” Rubin said, “and it becomes a kind of monument to that small moment.”