Library of Babel: Ward Shelley’s Complex Taxonomies at Pierogi
Ward Shelley: The Felicific Calculus and The Last Library, in collaboration with Douglas Paulson, at Pierogi
April 3 to May 8, 2016
155 Suffolk Street (between Houston and Stanton streets)
New York, 646 429 9073
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in his 1942 essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” referred to a zoological taxonomy translated from a Chinese encyclopedia. The citation was in fact invented but reportedly, this system divided the animal kingdom into 14 categories, including “Those that belong to the Emperor,” “those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush,” and “those that, at a distance, resemble flies.” Borges parodies the irrationalities of classification systems, which govern biological science. In his current shows at Pierogi, “The Felicific Calculus and “The Last Library” (a collaboration with Douglas Paulson), Ward Shelley presents two bodies of work — a series of acrylic paintings on Mylar and an installation, respectively — that draw on the absurd beauty that can be found in the visualization and classification of knowledge by presenting different views of its organization.
The term “Felicific Calculus” emerged as part of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism: it was a pre-digital algorithm for determining the degree of pleasure, or greater good, a given action would cause, providing an illusion of rigor in judging the ethics of any action. This method of turning something abstract, like pleasure, into a quantifiable value predates today’s mania for “the quantified self” by about two centuries. Today, similar processes are used for “sentiment analysis,” a method of analyzing speech to get a quantifiable value of the feelings expressed in a corpus of text, albeit for marketing purposes rather than for Bentham’s “greater good.” Shelley’s “Felicific Calculus” paintings are similarly intertwined with the material history of consumerism. Work, Spend, Forget (Dissected Frog Polemic), v.1 (2013) renders a timeline of the 20th century as a dissected frog, its guts and limbs spread horizontally and labeled with political, social, and technological developments; the mass media forms its nervous system, its arteries are labeled as “mass production.” At the far right of the chart — the present day — the organs merge together to form a incomprehensible pink soup devoid of any obvious organization.
The chaos of the current moment is a recurring theme in these paintings, such as Extended Narrative (2014) — a painting that expands on and re-imagines Alfred Barr’s canonical schematic of Cubism and abstract art as a weather chart, with the ominous thunderhead of “Postmodernism” looming over the present day. Most of the charts are organized as timelines, with events illustrated in a linear fashion with historical time as its X-axis. Events are shown merging together or branching off into further nodes, but all of them are constantly moving forward. This merges the imagery of these paintings with their subject matter, a consumer culture that values such “progress,” and the profit it brings, over life itself.
The body of work that accompanies the paintings, The Last Library, takes a Borges-like view of time. Interspersed with the paintings, the walls of the gallery are lined with shelves, each filled with “books that should have been written, but have not,” according to the press release. The spines of these books all recall mid-20th century graphic design tropes, featuring muted colors, black text, and conservative typefaces. Their titles are variously absurd (I Sniffed Your Wife), anachronistic (Puppies, Kittens, and the Internet), and self-referential (The Felicitous Calculus). This body of work recalls a similar project by Agnieszka Kurant, Phantom Library (2011-12), in which non-existent books that had been mentioned in other literary works (such as a volume by Pierre Menard, described by Borges) were written, printed, bound, assigned ISBN numbers, and put on display. Unlike Kurant’s piece, The Last Library doesn’t feature actual books: any illusion is destroyed by a simple shift of the viewer’s perspective, revealing the thin strips of paper-covered wood that constitute each “book.”
Like most libraries, The Last Library is organized and categorized, but rather than using the Dewey decimal system, Shelley has opted for a scheme that recalls Borges’s Chinese taxonomy of animals. The various classifications are written on bookplates placed on the shelves: “Pointing Towards a Singular Truth,” “No Missing Pages,” “Books With 12 Chapters,” and “With Teeth Marks” are some of the categories by which the library is supposedly organized. The Last Library presents a different view of space and time than the paintings do: Shelley’s charts are representations of systems that can be drawn in two dimensions, while the Library’s idiosyncratic organization pokes fun at these methods of visualization. Each body of work provides a perspective through which the other, and the world at large, could potentially be seen.