When you enter the main installation, Hedonic Reversal, for Rodrigo Valenzuela's new exhibit, Future Ruins, at the Frye Art Museum, you will feel a little uneasy. At least I did. And I spent the day wondering why. Night came, and I went to sleep. Morning arrived, and I awoke from a strange dream about my father's house being demolished. This was not his real house, of course, but the house I return to in my dreams. I have several such places in what can only be described as my unconscious city. Homes, apartments, factories, classrooms I revisit, where I interact with the dead and the living. I have been returning to one such factory (it produces bedsprings) since 1988, and to my father's house (which is not really a house but more a cottage at the back of one) since 2010. But the night after I walked through Hedonic Reversal and absorbed its beautifully stark images, alien graffiti, and surrounding scaffolds, the dream house was gone, and all that remained was rubble and a ground covered with the tracks of massive trucks and bulldozers. What had happened? Was this the end of my period of grieving? My father has been dead for five years.
It eventually occurred to me that Valenzuela's installation represents a site of destruction and construction. Something has been torn down—a tower or perhaps a whole city—and something new is being built. All that's missing from the installation are the tracks of boots and heavy-duty vehicles. Weirdly enough, the construction of the human world requires machinery and activities that are much larger, much more powerful than ordinary humans. Monsters appear to make our apartments, offices, and garages. This is the feeling one gets whenever passing one of the many construction sites on Capitol Hill or South Lake Union. All of that loud banging, building, bulldozing could crush you in an instant. It's not hard to imagine an accidental chunk of concrete falling and making mincemeat of your head, or the sudden blast of a welder's torch making toast of your clothes, or the boom of an excavator swinging the wrong way and its iron shovel making a pancake of your flesh and bones. We walk under scaffolds in the hope they do not collapse on us. And later, when the buildings are complete and the scaffolds are gone, the politics of construction become invisible.
The American Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson once pointed out that the 19th-century German philosopher Hegel was obsessed with what Hegel called "externalization"—human activity in the form of labor. I see the same obsession in the work of Valenzuela, who was born in Chile in 1982, was raised in a working-class family, entered the US illegally nine years ago, graduated with an MFA from the University of Washington in 2012, won a Stranger Genius Award for art in 2013, got a huge grant ($25,000) from Artist Trust in 2014, and is in the middle of a two-year residency at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Future Ruins is his first major exhibit in our city). In photograph after photograph, and film after film, we see humans altering their environment. The metabolic and imaginative interaction between humans and nature is Valenzuela's zone of inquiry. This is why his art can only be political. Work is always done for something, and certain kinds of work are only done by certain kinds of people. Also, in the US, many humans have no other status than their jobs. This is the class of workers who occupy his little cinema. They are not citizens but what I call inhabitants. Citizens have rights, can vote, receive assistance from the government, and so on. But inhabitants have nothing but a low-wage job. And yet, the inhabitants we see in the video El Sisifo (humans cleaning a football stadium) or Maria TV (maids paid to perform a soap opera they have written) are more political than the average citizen, even without state representation.
"The scaffolds are the buildings that the worker really experiences," Valenzuela tells me. "They are as big as the one that is being built. Without any engineering knowledge, the scaffolding has a weird relationship between those who build it and who will eventually live in the 'real' building. They also support the life of those who are building. We put so much trust in scaffolds, but look at who makes them. They're paid very little and are soon forgotten." We are sitting at a table in the Frye's cafeteria. Winter light is falling through the window. He is explaining the importance of the scaffolds in Hedonic Reversal, his boldest work to date. (The title means a pain that becomes pleasurable.)
It was not easy for art curators to find scaffolds in this city. They are in high demand because we are in the midst of the biggest construction boom in Seattle's history (or at least since the entire city was rebuilt after the fire of 1889). They're also not cheap—the ones in the exhibit are said to have cost $7,000 to rent—and a lot of work went into setting them up. I think this is the key to Hedonic Reversal (its images, its wonderful chaos of marks and signs, its network of iron bars): The show is not just about work, it's also the product of work.