Pulling my car up the gravel driveway of SE Cooper Contemporary, my expectations were already upended. Knowing that the gallery’s owner, Derek Franklin, was once a co-director of Soloway Gallery in Brooklyn, I had imagined a sleek warehouse space, set within the sprawl of southeast Portland. Instead, I found myself in a compound of sorts, a fairyland of lush trees and outbuildings—one of which housed the exhibition Taryn Tomasello: As Long As It Doesn’t Spread.
Entering the space, I was greeted with a paint bucket of long-stemmed pink carnations, titled Please Take One (2020), so I did. Holding the knobby stem in my hand, the carnation felt fragile and ephemeral. As its owner, I was now uncomfortably tasked with determining how long I would allow this humble flower to live. This carnation sharpened my awareness of what became a larger meditation on caretaking, invisible labor, and obligation.
Across the room, a tapestry of stained towels hung limply on the wall, repeating the titular phrase, A Property Not For Sale (2020). I later learned this work is made of used institutional hospital towels specifically for non-commercial circulation, towels that have wiped countless brows and asses, and have mopped up unspeakable human messes. Thinking of the oft-repeated phrase “front line workers,” here the towels occupied the hallowed space of art, asserting the importance of a thousand unseen hands caring for sick bodies. Suddenly, the carnation in my hand seemed like a lot less work.
These two pieces acted as a prelude to the focal point of the exhibition: an installation of ten tall glass cylinders posed atop large blocks of weathered Styrofoam, the crumbling foundations of decommissioned houseboats. At first, the composition felt like some sort of ancient architecture seen from an aerial viewpoint, monoliths spurting from the ruins of an old civilization. Upon closer examination, I read the date ranges handwritten on the sides of the cylinders, and I began to identify the detritus of everyday life within them.
The cylinders chronicled a life spent during the pandemic. They held everything from used at-home COVID test swabs to hydroponic clay beads, tags for sportswear from Old Navy, and a plastic spork—all layered amidst dust and debris. To fill the cylinders, Tomasello kept her floor sweepings from discrete periods of time and sealed the waste with wax. The artist began each collection period following what she calls “a precipitating event”—housing a friend and her daughter during the poorest air quality ever recorded in Portland during the unprecedented wildfire season in 2020, the loss of a portion of her beehives, an accident in the kitchen resulting in the destruction of her most beloved family heirlooms.
Each cylinder is a record of the artist’s labor. Sweeping a floor—and housework—is specifically a gendered domestic labor, as a mother, as a partner; yet, perched atop the literal ruins of a former home, they also serve as monuments to her grief during the pandemic, becoming a means for the viewer to see themselves within the debris of the everyday. Tomasello has created time capsules of the most intimate discarded by-products of her family’s life. At once macro- and microcosmic, the cylinders reminded me of ice core samples or sedimentary layers, records of life on earth. Looking more closely, I was deeply moved by the tiniest details, remembering the many months I too vacuumed my floors and wept, thinking about how we can never return to a time like before, and how my labor also went unnoticed.
The archive is an inherently narrative space where the story of history is told through the preservation of the materials of the present. Pre-COVID and pre-Trump, we had a much simpler relationship with truth, reality, safety, and community. Headlines lamented how digital technology increasingly isolates people, especially kids, but that loneliness can’t compare to repeated, months-long lockdowns. Yet, to tell the story of our present time, a time of isolation, fear, and unequivocal mortal threat, requires a renewed, more empathetic approach. 1,000 years from now, how will humans make sense of what happened?
Tomasello’s work refreshes the conversation about archives for the pandemic era. Her choice to archive the domestic is a political one. How do we make sense of life on earth now that we see how fragile we really are? How do we catalog our existence if it could be imminently under threat? Who are these records for? Tomasello’s cylinders, a record of time spent indoors, offers the archive as a repository for grieving, an artifact for an alternate history, an Alexandrian library of caretakers’ labor that allowed daily life to feel approximate to normal during a great trauma.
Taryn Tomasello: As Long As It Doesn’t Spread
SE Cooper Contemporary, Portland, OR
December 18, 2021–January 21, 2022
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