A smelly refrigerator? A chipped dinner plate? A t-shirt that is so last season? Are we to just throw them away and acquire new ones? Sure, nothing lasts forever. This is especially true for consumer products. Between the end of their life cycle and the time they return to the earth, however, there is an interminable span in which these products become wastes and remain so. Presenting in Nature in 2013, Daniel Hoornweg reports that in 2010, an estimated 3.5 million tonnes (nearly 7,800,000,000 pounds) of solid waste was produced globally every day. He suggests that by 2100, the number will rise to 11 million tonnes (roughly 24,300,000,000 pounds).
In this culture, which obsesses over the new and unabashedly plans obsoletion without regard for sustainability, Elonda Billera Norris invites us to reconsider our relationship with objects we consume. Through her tender sculptures and engaging installations, she builds bridges that once again connect us to these things — and to the world — in a thoughtful and caring manner.
Working primarily with secondhand and found household materials, such as an egg carton and a bed backboard, Norris puts together intimate assemblages and precariously balanced sculptural installations. Works like This Limitation Leads Me to Myself. Cascade and After Will Have Been Before (No. 2) bring to mind Sarah Sze’s elaborate installations, which boast the complexity rivaling a metropolitan infrastructure, and muscular, exploding abstract sculptures by Nancy Rubins. Norris’ works are, however, without any of their grand spectacles.
She instead stages a home away from home, using things that once resided within. These domestic items are often littered around a floor or stacked on top of each other, as seen in “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” and Proposal for Social Movement I. They take on the likeness of Tracy Emin’s My Bed. Even so, while only the artist’s body, and the absence thereof, is ultimately what matters in Emin’s work, all objects hold a meaning for Norris. Each bears its own history, though a detail mostly remains a mystery. The retired objects are recycled. A new life is endowed. A renewed meaning is bestowed.
Whether simply repurposed in Duration of Potential or boldly transformed for “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.”, Norris’ objects gently and yet firmly echo a Duchampian thought that “an ordinary object [can be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Despite the fact that this notion is nearly hundred years old, it is still relevant. It also continues to be provocative and contentious, especially for ordinary Americans.
Norris contributes a kind of maternal compassion to this ongoing discourse. She likens the joy of finding abandoned objects for her work during a routine neighborhood walk to adopting a child, “Oh, I didn’t even make you but here you are.” This capacity to actively seek out and love the things that are not hers, which she did not make, and that have been rejected is critical in understanding and appreciating her work.
According to a behavioral study conducted by Dan Ariely using origami, the participants are less inclined to fancy a folded paper craft when they take no part in its production. We are now so removed from making of almost any object, so much so that we mindlessly purchase, consume just a fraction, get bored quickly, and easily throw away.
This mode of consumption also applies to our food. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports in 2012 that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten and wasted. Norris humorously alludes to the issue in her work, albeit perhaps unwittingly, as multiple loaves of bread are baked simultaneously in Duration of Potential, only to be left untouched until they turn bone dry. Even though not at all as involved and theatrical as communal cooking performances by Rikrit Tiravanija, Norris’ work is performative and relational. Perhaps viewers will partake in the breaking of a bread next time around.
For Reversing the Mother Mold, an empty egg carton is partially cast in bronze, calling into question the fate of the missing eggs. In Pies Keep on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’ into the Future, perfectly good pies are slotted into a dishwasher wire rack. Slowly they lose shape and slip away. Although alarming 14 percent of US households are said to struggle with food insecurity by USDA’s 2014 account, for the majority of us, an access to food is at the least convenient. When it is as easy as touching a button, we lose touch with the reality of what food is, how it is grown or raised, and how integral it is to our survival and well-being.
There is a lot to take in. Nonetheless, Norris approaches us with a kind heart. She does not shout down orders. She sends us an invitation to engage and explore. That foul fridge? Clean it. That no-longer perfect china? Serve it until it shatters. And the t-shirt? Just wear it with pride and don’t forget to wash it from time to time.
Originally written to accompany Elonda Billera Norris’ solo exhibition RESIST CONVENIENCE: a return curated by Macha Suzuki, which is on view at Azusa Pacific University Duke Gallery through October 23, 2015.
All images courtesy of artist.