Introducing _ Abrasion Studies No 2

December 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Objects of Desire – beyond knowledge @ Johns Hopkins, Homewood Campus. Home to 4,744 undergraduates in FY 2008/09

Some two and a half years ago, I posted an introductory musing on abrasion as a category and concept in cultural analysis. My basic assumption was that abrasion is a physical process which is simultaneously a means of achieving perfection (e.g. polishing surfaces) and a destructive force (e.g. erosion). The fascination grew into a random hobby of finding traces of abrasion in the material world and relating these traces back to a thick (or thin) description of their cultural significance. As a side-note to studies of material culture, abrasion can offer unique inroads to understanding processes of interaction.

Everyday Abrasion

In his small introduction to tribology – the science of studying abrasive phenomena, Mathew Mate starts out with enumerating lots of examples from everyday life. Starting from childhood, friction, abrasion and wear are part of our life as much as eating, playing, and sleeping. “Crawling as infants, we mastered the frictional forces needed to get us where we wanted to go.” Mate goes on to wonder:

Considering how much we encounter the tribological phenomena of friction, lubrication, adhesion, and wear in our daily lives and the wide extent of these phenomena in technology, one might be puzzled why these topics are only marginally covered in our current education system. (Tribology on the Small Scale, A Bottom Up Approach to Friction, Lubrication, and Wear. Oxford UP, 2007. p.1.)

Tribology is an applied science especially relevant for engineering, where extensive tests are run on different combinations of steels with varying degrees of toughness and density. The aim is to reduce wear on surfaces and hence to extend the life range of tools, materials and machines. Lubrication has become important in this respect to either cool down machinery or reduce the amount of abrasive waste. Improving the abrasive qualities of car tires makes it safer to drive at higher speeds, but increases the load of run-off rubber on streets as well. In Germany alone, 42,000 tons of rubber go down the drain simply from cars driving on the streets. Without worn-off rubber the street would lack grip, but too much waste on the surface in combination with water will inevitably create a slippery course.

Art, Abrasion and Interaction

Those temping toes … (@ Orangerie, Potsdam) Photo: Miala via Flickr

Besides this framework, abrasion is especially interesting where it relates to audience behavior and interaction with artworks. I have always wondered about this angel on the top level of Potsdam’s Orangerie, where no visitor seems to pass by without touching the shiny, protruding toe. Is it a good omen to touch the toe? Are they involved in a conservationist effort to retain the bronze underneath the tainted, aged surface? The toe is on a child’s eye level and practically the only thing within reach. Located next to a long flight of stairs, the toe is probably the first thing a child sees upon reaching the landing – or the last hand(y)rail, before the descent.

Photo: Author’s own

Abrasion and Desire

In October, the New York Times reported on a similar curiosity in the Time Warner Center. Two sculptures by Fernando Botero called “Adam and Eve” were exhibited in the lobby, but Adam outgrew Eve in getting more than affectionate attention from art lovers. This time, the point of attraction is on the level of an adult’s eye and the protrusion has attracted many shy glances and frequent photo op’s for the family album.

“Adam” by Fernando Botero (Photo: Bridget Crawford)

Artists have little control over the ways in which an artwork should touch the spectator, but vice versa certain physical traits make haptic contact more likely. When art collectors  and exhibition designers prohibit physical contact with the artwork, the effort of often enough thwarted by an audience too curious to get more than an intellectual grip. Abrasion changes the look of the piece but isn’t it also a sign that art becomes embedded in a social web of interactions, that it matters beyond the learned discourse tightly wrapped around the statue? In this example from one of the many Jain-Temple in Jaisalmer (India), generations of salvation seekers have left their inevitable mark on two of the statues.

Photo: A Mag(i)er

We should add, though, that the female statue apparently drew more attention …

Photo: A Mag(i)er

Is not the fascination here similar in its religiosity, need for contact, or even an urge to leave a mark – a collective urge of presence? Abrasion does not explain this but can serve as an indicator of collective forms of interaction. Carl Andre made sculptures of lead, steel and copper plates spread out on exhibition floors. Usually visitors should walk on these plates to hear and feel the different material qualities. But once the space is barred by red plastic tape, how is the graphic impression of lead plates supposed to substitute for the material experience? Certainly, curators like to minimize abrasion to preserve their fortunes but if an artwork can be embedded in social practice beyond letters, abrasion seems a worthy price to pay.

Carl Andre “Copper Magnesium Plain” (1969) (via: The Opposite of Tomato)

Addendum May 2012: The curators of the permanent exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum seem to have been more courageous with respect to Carl Andre’s work. Visitors can actually walk on the steel plates of “Eight Reversed Steel Corner” (1978) and hear the sudden clonking sound of the few plates which are slightly irregular. Be surprised.

Carl Andre: Eight Reversed Steel Corner (1978). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marzona

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