Sam Lewitt | The System Of Capitalism Has Become A System Of Art

It is an understatement that American artist Sam Lewitt likes to take things apart. Specifically, consumer electronic products that aren’t meant to be dismantled are done so on the one hand to satisfy our aesthetic and intellectual needs but more importantly, by dismantling and reconfiguring these components in the realm of art, they shed light on the inter-dependence of the sustainability of these systems and the sustainability of our lives.

Fluid Employment (2012) Sam Lewitt
Fluid Employment (2012) Sam Lewitt

In Fluid Employment (2012), Ferrofluid, which is a lubricant invented by NASA for use in outer space, is used along with magnets and fans to create spikey gelatinous forms with spikes fanning out on top that move around to the changing air currents. Gravity holds fluids together in a tidy volume that can be placed in a tank. The problem encountered in space with machines that need to be lubricated by oil, where there is no gravity, was overcome with ferrofluid which can be ‘held’ by magnetic waves.

Instead of staying out of sight, lubricating ball bearings in outer space, here the ferrofluid is laid out on a plastic sheet, held together by magnets and allowed to ‘express themselves’ which is the shape of the magnetic waves.

Fluid Employment (2012) Sam Lewitt
Fluid Employment (2012) Sam Lewitt

Weak Local Left Turn Lineament (2014)
Weak Local Left Turn Lineament (2014)

In Screen Test Lineaments (2014) panels of acid-etched grids that make up the back panels of LED lighting are dismantled from their housings and exposed to oxidation in the air for different periods of time. The result is an ‘oxidation painting’ of the edges and across the surfaces of these panels. That they are arranged like Rothko’s paintings further makes the point; that this is a new process for painting.

Screen Test Lineaments (2014) Sam Lewitt
Screen Test Lineaments (2014) Sam Lewitt
Screen Test Lineaments (2014) Sam Lewitt
Screen Test Lineaments (2014) Sam Lewitt

The More Heat Less Light exhibition reflects upon the infrastructure of capitalism, that is, the circulation of capital and information, and the components which make this system work, and makes an intervention in an art exhibiting space to comment upon this phenomenon.

More Heat Than Light (2015) At CCA Wattis Institute
More Heat Than Light (2015) At CCA Wattis Institute

In Weak Local Lineament (MHTL) (2016) a Volkswagen engine block is draped over with an ultra-thin, copper-clad plastic flexible heating circuit, which in a more miniaturized size keeps most of our electronic gadgets heated to an optimal, stable working temperature. But here they hijack they electrical needs from the gallery’s lighting grid, depriving the space of its usual light source to heat the space up.

Weak Local Lineament (MHTL) (2016) Sam Lewitt
Weak Local Lineament (MHTL) (2016) Sam Lewitt

Highly sensitive sensors are also installed to display minor fluctuations in the temperature, such as when someone comes through the curtains at back entrance, bringing in a gust of outside air.

Weak Local Lineament (MHTL) (2016) Detail
Weak Local Lineament (MHTL) (2016) Detail

Would such an elaborate set up be only to demonstrate that one could make heat at the expense of light? And why would it be draped over a VW engine block, which heats itself up? In spite of the ambiguity of whether the heating circuit is heating up the engine block or is shielding the outside from its heat, there is no doubt the gallery space is being transformed into the sort of closed environment much like the inside of a mobile phone or a gadget which uses these kind of heating circuits.

But what does all this have to do with art? In a way, gallery spaces are just like the insides of a mobile phone; although one is white and the other is usually black, they are both ‘hermetically sealed’ from the outside. Seen in this way, the visitors become the currency (those who donate), the information flow and even the heat flow itself (depending on how fast one walks around) to the system.

A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016) Detail
A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016) Detail

As one walks around the centre of a city nowadays, one becomes acutely aware of the flow of capital and information from electronic billboards that show adverts and real-time financial information. The elements that power this system of capitalism are clearly seen. But with the roles being reversed in the gallery here, the system of art, of having a carefully and brightly lit gallery space to view art is now disrupted. Here as one walks around the gallery, one wonders if he or she has become the financial and informational current to this system. And since there are no components to benefit from the heat generated, if one has in fact unknowingly become the art itself. The system of capitalism has become a system of art.

A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016)
A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016)
A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016) Detail
A Weak Local Lexicon (MHTL) (2016) Detail