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Looking Back at Infinite Futures

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The methodical fabrication… has made possible the interrogation and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile than the future.
—Jorge Luis Borges,
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940)

 

“You will never see this place again,” said TLaloC, urging viewers to document the ominously wonderous inner chambers of the North Avenue Market. On the final tour of the Baltimore artist’s latest solo show, Orbis Tertius: Hlaer to Jangr, a small group of us stood in the dark, abandoned bowels of the historic building. Caged stalls, electrical meters, and thick padlocked doors framed two of TLaloC’s fantastical sculptures: vibrant inflatable pieces that filled the space from floor to ceiling, gleaming like alien objects, their purpose and meaning inscrutable.

We had begun in your typical gallery space: white walls, framed images, sculptures enclosed in vitrines, and a digital projection for good measure. Though upon reflection, the vines that hung scroll-like over the white walls were a tipoff that traditional boundaries would be blurred.

Since 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Baltimore had operated that L-shaped gallery space in a section of the city’s historic North Avenue Market. The building first opened in 1928, boasting twelve retail stores on the ground floor and a bowling alley above. The market was destroyed by fire in 1968, and though various restoration projects and repurposing efforts have taken place, the building was never again reopened in its entirety, leaving large parts of the industrial space sealed like a time capsule.

Now, with the market undergoing transformation yet again, TLaloC’s Orbis Tertius: Hlaer to Jangr was ICA’s last show in the space. The show was also the first to make use of these abandoned rooms and corridors, space that many—including Eduardo Corral, aka TLaloC—never knew existed. In an economic and political environment where artists are accustomed to scarcity, the notion of excess space is indeed otherworldly. The fact that ICA had been allowed to operate that gallery space rent-free thanks to building co-owner Mike Schecter also seems a fiction in these times.

 

What does it mean to open up an abandoned space for artistic use?
Laurence Ross

The title of TLaloC’s show comes from a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. In the story, the narrator and a friend discover an encyclopedia entry on Uqbar, a country that doesn’t seem to exist. The narrator then inherits a book titled A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr. Tlön is a mythical world of Uqbar, the seemingly fictional country, layering one phantom realm upon another. Though the story reveals these texts as the elaborate multi-generational ruse of a secret hermetic society, the objects of Tlön begin to appear in the real world nonetheless, collapsing the boundary between fiction and reality.

This idea that an imagined world, when allowed to grow, can eventually manifest in our real one is a central pillar of TLaloC’s project. This idea also mirrors the creative process of any artist or curator, which is to conceive of a project and then work to make that dream come true. Orbis Tertius: Hlaer to Jangr magnified this process, in part by the sheer scope of the site-specific installation, which included 95 individual pieces spanning four distinct areas, three floors, and about 40,000 square feet. As we were led from room to room through smoke and rubble, ominous sounds and sweet smells, haunting lights and sharp objects, humid air and loose floorboards, the symbolic tropes of Orbis Tertius: Hlaer to Jangr were everywhere.

In “Extruders,” 36 wood sculptures, painted with a bright array of colors, hung in orderly rows on a white wall in the front gallery. These symbols were arranged as text might be, written in characters in an unfamiliar language. They call to mind astrological glyphs, Nordic runes, or the Hebrew alphabet in the context of Kabbalah; they are ciphers standing for concepts we can feel but not comprehend. The number of these symbols also resonates with the esoteric, as the Zodiac calendar can be broken into 36 decans, which have also been referred to as faces or secrets.

The idea that writing (or art) can reveal the mysteries of the world is alluring, and TLaloC’s language of objects alludes to a depth beyond what we can initially perceive. Shapes repeat from 2D print to 3D sculpture, varying in size and angle and color, amassing weight through repetition, the experience layered and multiplied like déjà vu. Small spined objects that resemble the metal stars one grabs in a game of jacks are first seen in screen print, then digital drawing, then small resin sculpture. Walk through a door, peer through the fog, and the same object now towers overhead in inflatable vinyl, a monstrous sculpture named “The Pig.” The impact of these mysterious objects depends upon the context in which we see them, a truth that translates easily from Borges to TLaloC, or from the historic North Avenue Market to the futuristic Orbis Tertius.

As with any alphabet or language, combinations of letters and words are infinite. We have an endless appetite for narratives of love and loss, faith and doubt, or failure and redemption—and we keep finding new ways to tell them. (The North Avenue Market itself is one of Baltimore’s stories of failure and redemption, still very much in medias res.) Thinking of narratives in this way, we live in excess. There are more ways to describe or represent an experience than there is time in any given life to live those same experiences. Amidst such excess, words and symbols, knowledge and names fall out of use until they are forgotten outside of the dusty catalogue of dictionaries, encyclopedias, or blueprints. But what would it mean to resurrect a word—or a world—from obscurity? What does it mean to open up an abandoned space for artistic use?

 

Left unused for 50 years, it took the vision of a group of artists to imagine and manifest a reality in which the neglected spaces within the North Avenue Market have their purpose renewed. Artists are often drawn to these spaces because they are cheap or free, forgotten or ignored, in a state of decay or danger, helping to ensure that artists are left to their own devices. Abandoned space is often accessible to the artist because its value is invisible. These spaces may exist on the margins, unpoliced, or literally underground. The dark, interior room of Orbis Tertius: Hlaer to Jangr—with neon sculptures glowing through fog, mop buckets, traffic cones, and box fans, and a soundtrack of booming industrial groans (composed by Mexican jazz drummer and composer Miguel Soto)—felt half house of horrors, half delinquent rave venue. The ruins of one past became fertile ground for a radically different future.

Now that the value of this space within the North Avenue Market is once again visible, the owners have a new vision. Construction on a family-focused entertainment space is in the works. However, this narrative isn’t your typical gentrification-and-eviction story. Schecter, a supporter of the arts, had generously given artists free run of the space for the past three years. He also knows the ICA is well on its way to finding a new home in the neighborhood with the help of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. and the Central Baltimore Partnership. The CBP secured funding for the ICA, navigated a flexible lease with discounted rent, and helped to develop a plan to make the arts organization financially sustainable. They hope the ICA and the success of Station North as an arts district becomes a model for the city, enabling other arts districts such as Bromo and the Black Arts District to grow. This story is one that is closer to the collaborative world-building that Borges wrote about over 80 years ago, a story that (thankfully) has no real ending.

 

One of TLaloC’s digital prints, titled “El Zahir” (also the title of another Borges story), shows a figure reaching their hand toward an object set on a pedestal in the middle of what looks like a futuristic theme park or a modern-day sculpture garden. The figure is surrounded by a cosmos of objects the viewer does not know but will come to recognize throughout the exhibition realized in various forms and materials. The head of the figure is not a human face but one of these objects we later see named as a Philox.

Though what exactly a Philox is or does will remain a mystery, when we see the shape cast as an aluminum sculpture, concrete ripples outward from where the object rests, communicating not meaning exactly but certainly weight. Certainly resonance. Certainly the ability of the imaginary object to influence the concrete world, which, in the end, is an optimistic prospect.

Wouldn’t we all like to believe the artistic mind continues to create a tangible impact? That art isn’t limited by the boundaries of a gallery but can exert influence on the outside world? Wouldn’t we all like to believe there is more for us out there, beyond the chaos we can see, and that this more might indeed be infinite?

 

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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