A ritual of making (non)sense of things: George Long’s “Sorts”
If you know a passionate collector, chances are you also know a storyteller who can tell an anecdote for every piece of their collection. A shelf of treasured objects has much in common with a book of short stories. Yet the impulse to imbue objects with the power of our own histories plays out on a spectrum that can range from sentimentality to disability. If you’ve seen a few episodes of the television show “Hoarders,” you’ve witnessed the powerful connections people can make between experiences and belongings, and how that connection, when obsessive, can become debilitating. Trauma, loss, and depravation have been linked to the impulse to hoard, as if keeping things could act as an antidote to loss.
Organization and tidiness are often asserted as expressions of mental and emotional wellness. This idea has been reinforced most powerfully in the past few years via Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on decluttering and organization, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In this extremely popular and particularly philosophical take on letting go, Kondo writes, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Things, objects, stuff… they have value beyond their utility largely because we believe they can hold memories, and holding on to them can stop or rewind time.
George Long’s work often occupies a drowsy space of memory. Linear renderings of figures move and gesture with ghosts of the moments before trailing just behind. Scenes of a simple action take on poetic gravity and the feeling of discovering something new in a moment of déjà vu. Long’s work feels concerned, in part, with recuperating the often-dismissed spaces of sentimentality and nostalgia for their generative potential. He took on this terrain with poignancy and humor for Flux Projects through a sequential wheat paste mural and animated projection installation titled Sorts. The complex and large-scale work appeared in its earliest stages in mid-November, and over the next month it evolved into a complex multi-media performance. Some attention to the process is warranted because the total work cannot be separated from the performance of its making.
Sorts operated within three separate, but interlocking temporal modes. First, the active production of the stop-motion animation using wheat-paste to adhere and move drawings around the wall. This was done by Long himself, often buckled into an industrial lift, while an assistant managed the time-lapsed photography that would become the animation. The active production mode was characterized by Long’s presence, working during the hours when no shadows cast on the surface of the wall. He often had interactions with inquisitive people passing by on the street. Folks would stop, take photos, watch the process, and sometimes ask questions or make guesses about what was going on — either with the process itself or the changing imagery. The works’ evolution over many days/weeks allowed conversations to take place as the sequential pictorial space unfolded. The most elusive aspect of the process was most legible to casual observation at these times, though it still remained mysterious enough to maintain a sense of discovery in the nighttime projections.
The pictures began with a figure wearing a high-visibility vest and wielding a leaf blower, and then dollar bills (fake ones, of course) pasted in a fluttering, expanding leaf-like cloud. The figure multiplied and moved across the wall’s frame, blowing money all over the place. Then came more literal piles, recognizable objects falling from above and building up from below: rings drop and accumulate; hats appear: including a dunce cap, top hat, and a bright orange “A$$” hat; coins stack up; hatchets heap up and combust; disembodied mouths grin and grimace with teeth bared; eyes roll; speakers stack up and vibrate. Are these things being collected or discarded? Are they precious or superfluous? There is a persistent ambiguity that allowed for both possibilities.
In the second temporal mode, the evolving image appeared as a static mural during the times when Long was not on-site. This was possibly the least affective way to encounter the work, underscoring the importance of action and interaction. An interpretation of the work as static and, potentially, visually confusing was reinforced by its location, a wall typically occupied by conventional murals. In contrast, in the third temporal space of Sorts, activation of the image through the projection of its making – the accumulated wheat-pasted elements in their final configurations – figuratively and literally animated the work. The result defied categorization by medium, duration, or process, though it was simultaneously defined by the interplay between them. In this space of culmination, the purpose of the process was gratifyingly revealed.
The projected animation blurred the lines between the physical drawings that had been there, that had been erased, and what remained. Sorting things, piling them up, and animating them in this way breathed life into them, gave them personalities and a madcap sense of agency. This dynamism was even more affective when musician Danny Bailey performed a live, improvised soundtrack on a Javanese Bonang during the final evenings of the projection.
In the process of making the work, Long invited multiple publics into his emotional storage, an act of exposure that felt relatable and approachable. The pictures were familiarly quotidian, and his open and friendly interactions allowed the non-art initiated to feel empowered to interpret and respond. Long’s lightheartedness suggested that this terrain is serious, but it isn’t, but it is. The accumulation and disappearance of meaningful histories were presented with gravity, but also with a wink, a smirk, and a shrug.
The site for the work rose to the occasion in delightful ways. The heart of the rapidly changing Ponce de Leon corridor, a historically transitional space between traditionally white and black neighborhoods has long been a kind of eccentric liminal space within Atlanta’s landscape. That liminality, now dissolving as the development of Ponce City Market, the Beltline, and new luxury housing and retail spaces reconfigure the demographics of the neighborhood. The wall is adjacent to 8 ARM, a restaurant and bar catering to a hip, artsy crowd at a price point designed for the newest local residents. A critical success and an instantly beloved darling of in-town nightlife, 8 ARM made for an appropriately liminal space to revel while taking in the projection performances. Long himself designed and built much of the venue’s interior and outdoor bar areas.
It is tempting to ask, to whom is Long directing his gaze while delivering the punchlines? He describes the Mylanta bottles that march across the upper left of the wall as a reference to a now-lost to time Atlanta: “my ‘lanta.” What long-time resident of Atlanta hasn’t felt some indigestion watching the unique character of in-town neighborhoods washed away under the guise of improvement? There are other clues as well, but Long never fully shows his hand. Are the eyes that tumble across the image rolling at the high-end lofts across the street? At the stumbling revelers walking from Ponce City Market to the bars a few blocks away? Or at us, the more artsy viewers, for trying to make too much sense of it all?
Sorts was a ritual of keeping and letting go; of making sense and embracing a little nonsense. Whether it’s past experiences, people, or the idea of a place that’s disappearing, Sorts asserted the therapeutic power of making sense through sorting. The result is a momentary monument to a personal process, but one rooted in a community and shared with generosity. The things we keep, sort and let pass out of our lives; the money we blow; the promises broken or forgotten; in the end, maybe it all amounts to nothing, but isn’t that still something?
In keeping with what has become a signature of Flux Projects productions, Sorts is monumental in scale and the effort required to make it possible. Monuments are forms of remembering that follow a logic similar to collecting. The object is believed to hold history firmly in its form, preserving it for future access, and asserting its veracity. Of course, this form of memorialization is a relic of the past. Making a monument to ways we remember, what we remember, and the inescapability of forgetting, however, feels like one way to reimagine the form. By restoring the “momentary” to remembering, Sorts accepts it for what it is: irresistible, but flawed.
The philosopher Henri Bergson described the perception of the present moment as an act of instant remembering. Therefore, memory of the past is a process of reconstructing a new, but degraded, version of what was only ever remembered in the first place. In this philosophy of memory, everything we can recall is a copy of a copy of a copy. If we can’t truly remember, then the perhaps the things we keep represent our hope for a more reliable vessel. Long seems to grapple with that possibility in Sorts. He seems to want to let the viewers, ahem, sort it out for themselves.
Like other brief events, it happened and then it was over. There were no souvenirs, save the promotional postcard. I brought it home and added it to a drawer full of other exhibition announcements and brochures. I’ve amassed quite a collection amount of these mementos over the years, each one from an exhibition I attended and wanted to remember. One day I’ll have to sort through them all.
Sarah Higgins is curator at the Zuckerman Museum of Art.