Michael Asher

Joe Scanlan, 1990

To prepare for this exhibition, Los Angeles conceptual artist Michael Asher spent a year researching the University of Chicago’s renowned Department of Sociology, and the radical social agendas and remedies its professors prescribed in the first decade of the 20th century. He selected and re-presented fragments of published writings by University of Chicago Extension Lecturer John Graham Brooks, moral philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey, University chaplain Charles Richmond Henderson, Sociology Department Assistant Professor Ira Howerth, Laboratory School Principal Wilbur Jackman, Sociology Department chairman Albion Small, English literature instructor Oscar Lovell Triggs, political economist Thorstein Veblen, and Sociology Department Professor Charles Zueblin.

Their concern for the dehumanizing brutality of machines and the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the human body and psyche inspired a wide range of theoretical “social remedies.” The practical application of these remedies in Chicago at that time took form in University of Chicago extension courses on such topics as home economics, hygiene, and woodworking offered at Jane Addam’s Hull House, one of the first social welfare settlement houses; and the industrial arts and nature study classes at the University of Chicago’s “Lab School.” Such socially responsible organizations as The Consumers’ League, a factory production watchdog group, and the Simple Lifers, a group which advocated a “return to nature” style of living were also formed.

These prescriptions had a profound impact on the understanding of the Industrial Revolution’s political and psychological ramifications, most notably the effects of machinery on human creativity and consciousness, the “dilemma” of widespread working class leisure, and the perceived social and psychological “need” for productive activities conducive to nurturing and refining those human qualities most threatened by factory production: individuality, craftsmanship, creativity, and respect for nature.

Asher is not an object-making artist in the traditional sense, meaning that he does not pre-conceive and execute artworks for exhibition at later dates. Instead he generates unique and site-specific installations for each of his projects, all of which define art as a form of insightful information rather than a material object. Asher has stated: “Inspecting a gallery space and taking notes [is] an essential part of my method, since my work never consist[s] of simply adding preconceived or completed objects for exhibition purposes.” Consequently the information in his installations very often exposes the people, money, and ideas that are behind and support art institutions, and enrich and alter our understanding of their social “function” and the artworks they contain.