It feels warm in the gallery hosting Reparation Hardware, a solo show from multidisciplinary artist Ilana Harris-Babou, but it has nothing to do with the temperature. Inside Larrie, NYC, a relatively new spot started by Becky Elmquist and co-run by friends in the biz’, the walls are painted a sagey-beige known as “Plantation Tan.” The color gives off a luxury cabin-in-the-woods vibe when Harris-Babou flicks the switch on the tungsten bulbs overhead. The space at once feels more like a high-end interior decor storefront, which would not be out of place in the Lower East Side neighborhood where it resides.
“Depending on what light you look at it in, it’ll look brown or green,” Harris-Babou told me of the exhibition-specific paint job. “The kind of thing where it’s a showroom that’s a fake living room; something that’s supposed to be homey or unobtrusive.” It’s perfect for Reparation Hardware, a subtle evisceration of the upscale design philosophy that gilds the homewares company from which the show takes its name. “I started looking at Restoration Hardware and what it is about that impulse to take, say, wood from an old barn and bring it into your house tastefully, and maybe in so doing, naming the past as a success, not a failure,” the artist explained. “I was doing a play on words and started thinking about restoration, reparations. Reparations maybe as being so terrifying because they’re an admission of failure, right? Maybe specifically saying this American Dream didn’t succeed in its goal.”
Her investigations take the form of mixed-media sculptures. They're hefty amalgamations of lumpy but glossy ceramics and polished furnishings. She's also made two videos: Red Sourcebook and Reparation Hardware. Red Sourcebook juxtaposes the racist ethos of “redlining” practices against crisp HD footage of a Restoration Hardware design guide getting marked up in red Sharpie. And Reparation Hardware is mock ad for the exhibition that stars an abandoned New England barn, a field of urinating cows, and a wry Harris-Babou herself as the Reparation Hardware spokesperson. The show conjures a feeling more than a thesis. It's about being outside of time and looking in, with free reign to mix and match objects new and old for the express purpose of curating a nondescript yet distinctively “cultured” sensibility.
VICE: How did this show come about?
Ilana Harris-Babou: The video came first. I initially created it as a commission for the Dis.Art platform. I work across a bunch of different disciplines, but each body of work I have centers around a new video piece. I look at a lot of aspirational forms of entertainment, video, and things we watch often that we don’t think about ourselves watching. Cooking shows, home improvement TV, these kinds of formats that promise a more idealized life, a perfect life where you can form your identity based on the objects that you surround yourself with. I was thinking about what kinds of dreams are thwarted and what it would mean to repair those dreams.
So what’s up with the barn in the Reparation Hardware video?
I’ve been living up in Western Massachusetts, like in the Berkshires. Some of my workmates, on their land there’s this cow barn that was abandoned for 30 years. I had already been watching these videos specifically for the Salvaged Wood Collection from RH, where there’s this British man who’s talking about de-nailing wood to make these $2,000 tables. So that barn seemed like the perfect place to shoot. Also, these Americana fantasies, this sort of blue-state version of “Make America Great Again,” has to do with some kind of purity or “going back to the land.” I feel like so many New England barns are left just so, to look perfectly disheveled or fallen apart. So I shot part of the video in there, and part of it in my studio.
Is your studio in New England as well?
Yeah, my studio’s up in Williamstown, MA. I’m teaching at Williams College, so I’m out there for work. I had to learn how to drive, because I’m from East Flatbush. No one in my family drives. Shooting this video was a pretty good excuse to drive around searching for cows and stuff, and just figure out what’s going on in that landscape.
A lot of the stuff that’d been brewing around in my head became so much more real in that environment—this manifest destiny impulse, spreading out over land, owning land, all of that. After I shot in there, I brought all of the bits and pieces from the barn back to the studio, and I was torn by exactly what it was I would pair with the words [in the video]. The script is almost entirely from actual Restoration Hardware catalogs and Reconstruction-era tracts, like Sherman’s field notes, the ones about giving 40 acres to freed slaves.
How did it all come together?
The way I work is, I’ll shoot a whole bunch of footage and see how it makes sense in the editing process. And I’ll go back and forth, and then the script forms around the images. I had this wood [taken from the barn] and I was playing around with it while also making my ceramics. The ceramic hammers had been on my mind for awhile as these tools that undo themselves from their own use, and how the tools of the American Project might have a similar kind of vulnerability built into them.
They’re tools that would break if you tried to use them.
I started making those this past summer. I was an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle, working 40 hours a week. While I was there, I had been making these dysfunctional ceramics, tools that would force you to question their utility. I thought it was super fun because folks who stopped by wouldn’t know who I was, and would think I was an extension of the gift shop or something. So they’d pick up all my stuff and touch it. And it has that kind of look, right? In a lot of ways, quite intentionally. I’d been making these ceramic hammers, and it was just so fun to see how people would interact with them. People would always want to pick them up and fake-hit their spouses with them. It was super weird to see all these psychodramas play out. So that’s when I started making the ceramic hammers, thinking about them quite literally: ceramic that is dysfunctional.
What about the larger sculptures?
These are the first bigger ones I’ve made. I started making these specifically about this space and what it would look like to make Reparation Hardware, the store, happen in real life, and what camouflaging would occur—even on this block. There’s someone else installing a show right there [across the street], but there’s also a pencil store, so I was thinking that oftentimes [the show] would have an array of little things.
There are two impulses at work in a high-end furniture store: There’s a minimalist impulse that’s the fetishization of smooth surfaces and stuff, and then there’s the nostalgia part. I was thinking about Brancusi and ridiculous modernist stuff when I started cycling through the fake products in that video [Reparation Hardware], and how would I translate those things into something that would look both convincing, as if it could perform a function that maybe spoke about something Brancusi’s doing but failed miserably. Feeling super mushy and inelegant but still having some of that seductive surface.
The whole space feels like a den, but it’s also a store.
That’s what I’m going for. I like to think of these familiar forms as a Trojan horse, something familiar or easy to digest that, once it’s in your line of sight, lets in weird other sorts of content. With [Reparation Hardware], for example, it seems straightforward, but then it starts to unravel. This similarly can be seen like a den or a store, but then also it’s maybe neither of those things—you have to triangulate it against all the other stuff that’s happening. That’s the hope, at least. Some of the smaller objects will look like a wall hook with a function, and some of them have a more un-nameable functionality.
Just like stuff they sell at Restoration Hardware.
There was this thing [at RH] that was this ball with these pokey things, and that’s why I made the sculptures with nails in them. There’s this thing where it’s like, you could spend money on it, or you could find some pinecones outside, but you spend the money because it already comes from this preordained world of taste. So you trust that it’s the right weird-collection to have.
What can you tell me about Red Sourcebook ?
The idea of this part is redlining. There are two texts in this one: a 1930s federal document for home loans about what to avoid in order to keep property values up in the places you give loans to. Basically if there’s one black person in there, get out. Or go up by the edge of a mountain to block the “wrong elements” from moving in. And then [the other text is] things that the spokesman for Restoration Hardware says at the opening of the catalogs, about what they’re going for this season. He had these quotes from Steve Jobs about ratcheting up our species through taste. He’s like, “I hope you appreciate our decision to curate the very best people, objects, and ideas that humanity has to offer.” And in that issue, they have these chandeliers made from beads made by South African women, and the designer is posing in a long silk robe with a South African woman. They’re like, “Buy this chandelier and you provide life-changing income to these women,” not, “Buy this chandelier and we got this labor for cheap.” So they seem to have so many overlaps, but I like the idea of outlining or planning.
The catalog you used seems to photograph really well, like painted backdrops from film sets.
Yeah, it does, because I guess that’s all it wants to do: photograph well and make you think about photographing yourself well. It’s like that cropping we’re used to from Instagram, too. Where you get just enough of a photo to give you a whole vibe or mood or something, without having the thing itself. They don’t give you the instructions on how to assemble the furniture, or how to make enough [money] to get a mansion with a palm tree, but you get little snippets of it. I like to use HD cameras and really nice lenses just because of that instant seduction that happens with the surface, which we don’t even question. The seductiveness of surface and how we ascribe value to that. You could light a turd beautifully, and it would seem delicious with the right camera equipment.
You’re in the video as the Reparation Hardware spokesperson. Do you get into character when you work?
Yeah! I like to think about the tropes of the artist flinging around paint in their studio, the cooking show host with the lovely home, the genius designer who goes out and finds inspiration everywhere. In these terms, what kinds of labor are mundane, which ones are revered, and why? What happens when these different archetypes get flattened out? It’s confusing if I’m just a messy artist playing around with clay, or a not-genius home designer, or something like that.
Every time I worked on this piece and that piece and the sculptures, I have this denim button-up shirt that I put on to work—the one I was wearing in that video I’m shooting in. Part of it is shooting in costume, and part is the state of mind of making this sort of work.
So do you plan on running the gallery as if it were a real store?
I’m gonna be back and forth because I have to go back for my teaching job, but when I’m down here, yeah I’m interested. I’m not gonna ask these folks [the gallery owners/attendants] to perform as not-themselves when they’re here, but I like the idea of this measured capacity to be ironic in terms of how I talk about social inequities or race. I feel like oftentimes as a black woman making video art, to have my body on the screen, people expect me to be describing the work with a lot of sincerity, in terms of its own oppression, like explaining why it’s there in the first place… Maybe the moral of the story is just around the corner. I like adopting this end of the lens built into the piece. This capacity to also have a level of self-deprecation, that’s one brand of really true freedom: When you have the chance to make fun of yourself. We see so often how reified power mocks itself, almost to affirm its power. So sometimes I think, How can I put the images I want to see in the world out into the world via the work? My mom quite often in her life never felt like she had the chance, or opportunity, or space to be frivolous.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
Ilana Harris-Babou: Reparation Hardware runs at Larrie, NYC through March 11, 2018.
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