What level of framing and formal manipulation is necessary that will allow the viewer to see everyday things—not just as art, but to see them at all?*
From the sprawling mass of everyday things, Lan Tuazon sees ordinary objects as meaningful; she treats consumer waste as a geologist may handle organic material. Through an extended process of observation and selection, Tuazon transforms empty containers into the “future fossils” of our society. The result is a rhythmic document of man-made products in different stages of fossilization. In one sense, Tuazon’s work reflects the interconnectedness of all things and suggests that systems of classification falsely conceptualize humankind as distinct from nature. In another, by presenting the debris of society on a geological scale, Tuazon’s Future Fossils series offers a glimpse at a massive problem.
Starting in 2015, Tuazon collected hundreds of containers that she bought or found in thrift stores, recycling centers, her own home, and off the street. She organized the empty containers into a working collection of future fossils: plastic, glass, ceramic, and metal containers that she cut open and sorted into groups of varying sizes before laying them inside one another. To prepare her nesting objects, Tuazon cleaned them out and removed their labels. She then divided each object with a band saw, rotary tool, or hand saw to expose their otherwise invisible interiors. Once split open, the artist sanded and buffed the exterior and interior surfaces and fused the hollow shells in place. The resulting assemblages mirror one another in profile with alternating bands of color and texture that conjure associations with cross-sectional models.
No Nouns Left Whole makes up the initial stage of the project, in which future fossils have the potential to hold, or be held within, another vessel with a similar shape or functional design. As the collection of future fossils expanded, thematic subcategories emerged from Tuazon’s living library. The artist grouped the objects in Liquid Commodities according to function, such as empty liquor bottles, water jugs, and oil and gas cans. False Fruits features “empty metaphors for sweet fruit”—objects that resemble nature’s own containers. Here, a plastic pineapple and a set of ceramic salt and pepper shakers disguised as mushrooms and pears find themselves in the company of empty bottles of syrup and tartar sauce. With Death’s Souvenir: After James Luna, Tuazon shifted the focus of her fieldwork from mass-produced containers to anthropomorphic objects that include a set of wooden glove forms, doll hands, and plastic skeleton bones. Core Samples are prototypes for the third and final stage of fossilization, which the artist prepared by suspending thin slices of future fossils in a translucent resin amalgamate.
The metamorphosis of each object, from container to curiosity, echoes an organic phenomenon discovered by geologists in 2006 called plastiglomerates. Thought to be a marker of human activity and its ecological impact on Earth, plastiglomerates form when materials such as sand, wood, and shells fuse with melted plastic. Just as the plastiglomerates evidence the impact of recent human activity on our environment, the future fossils operate, according to Tuazon, as “documentary sculpture.” Through each phase of their transformation, the future fossils inscribe the cluttered scenery of our everyday lives into the historical record. These documents thereby register a complicated message about the by-products of human culture—the persistence of materiality, its burden on life, and a potential future in which as yet wasted supply becomes repurposed.
As with her future fossils, Tuazon nests the titles of her work. In her study on order, Core Samples, False Fruits, and Liquid Commodities are contained within Future Fossils, the larger series that grew out of the ongoing, archival process presented in No Nouns Left Whole. In turn, Future Fossils: SUM is the culmination of Anthropogenic Matter (2015–ongoing), the third part of her trilogy, A Shift in the Order of Things (2010–20). For the first part of this trilogy, Tuazon worked with a variety of fencing to demonstrate how architectural elements create class divisions. In the second stage of her study on order, Tuazon created a monument of vitrines and pedestals out of display cases from museum storage. The installation highlighted the role museums and cultural institutions play in determining the value of objects. Through each of these projects, Tuazon unpacked the conventions of containment through their manifestations in society, manipulating and reframing everyday objects to draw attention to the exclusions inherent in socially and culturally constructed orders.
Tuazon’s examination of the concept of order was initially inspired by French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, first published in 1966. Foucault posited that if modern scientific disciplines—such as linguistics, biology, and economics—were forged in seventeenth-century Europe, then they also reflect the unconscious assumptions of the age. As man-made systems of knowledge, the human sciences were the product of a narrow worldview held by mostly men with a similar education and socioeconomic background. Therefore, the underlying unity that their rigid systems of classification offer depend on the belief that certain concepts are fixed truths instead of subjective constructions of reality. If Foucault’s work questions the relative conditions of knowledge, Tuazon extends the project by collapsing the imagined differences between organic and artificial matter through the formal language of geology, anatomy, and archaeology.
To return now to the opening question: “What level of framing and formal manipulation is necessary that will allow the viewer to see everyday things—not just as art, but to see them at all?” Trash, once bound to obscurity, fuels Tuazon’s expanding archive. Through each phase of transformation, the future fossils diagram the cluttered scenery of our everyday lives, from the products we use to the culture we consume. By highlighting the near permanence of these discarded containers, Tuazon emphasizes the parallels between the disposable objects left behind by contemporary consumers and the archaeological artifacts made to stand the test of time—jars, cartons, and aerosol cans preserved along with bridges, temples, and tombs. In this curious landscape, Tuazon conflates the visual representation of evolution with its deterministic language, while presenting the ephemera of human civilization as its relevant and stubborn artifacts.
*This essay is a revised version of text published in conjunction with the exhibition Lan Tuazon: In the Land of Real Shadows at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, September 21–December 7, 2018. All quotes are from Lan Tuazon in conversation in preparation for this exhibition.