An unrolled paper scroll lies on a long, narrow table, stretching across the room. Its simple wooden display stand is taller than waist height, drawing attention to the paper's surface. Glowing lights filter through the paper at irregular intervals. Moving closer, the viewer sees that the scroll is marked and that the lights are highlighting certain words. But the words are not written on the scroll; they are embossed, struck by an old typewriter without a ribbon, each letter almost piercing through the paper. The word "God" is lit from below every time it appears. The text is the HTML code that lies behind the Web page of the Wikipedia entry for God. What strange monk or twisted holy man copied out this text, painstakingly transcribing each word, each tag, pounding on the typewriter keys until the paper almost gave way, until his fingers hurt, day after day? What did he hope to accomplish with this labor?
The scroll and its stand are part of "Empirical Skeptic," Idaho artist Jason J. Ferguson's first retrospective show in the Pacific Northwest, which was on display at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History from Oct. 10 to Nov. 13, 2009. Since graduating from the University of Delaware in 2006 with a master's of fine arts, Ferguson has developed a national profile with his mysterious, humorous and sometimes disturbing art. Like many artists, Ferguson has moved away from painting, sculpture and drawing toward installations that slowly reveal complex philosophical questions. Now a professor of art at the University of Idaho, Ferguson was recently described as a "neo-conceptual absurdist" by Claudine Isé, a reviewer for NewCity Art in Chicago. This is an apt description, for it underlines the humor and the intellectual center of his art.
Absurd humor has long been a feature of conceptual art practice. As far back as the early 20th century, the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp satirized art galleries by exhibiting "readymades," ordinary objects in fine-arts settings, such as Fountain, a porcelain urinal that he signed with the false name R. Mutt. In the 1960s, the pioneering conceptual art collective Art & Language completely "dematerialized" its art, making works that existed only as ideas in the minds of their audience, such as an imaginary column of cooled air described in exaggerated detail. They turned logic, reason and viewers' expectations on their heads as part of a pointed critique of mainstream 1960s and '70s culture. Yet, as with Andy Warhol's famous Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes, the deadpan presentation of inherently absurd objects means that it is often hard to tell when the artist is joking.
Ferguson's show at LCSC, however, reveals an earnestness and a seriousness that is absent from the work of many earlier conceptual artists. Much of his work is ambiguous and could be widely interpreted either as a satire on science or as an affirmation of it. For instance, Inanimate Autopsy is a recliner that Ferguson carefully cut open as though it were a human body, displayed on a dissecting table. The video of the dissection plays on the wall above the remains of the chair; we see the artist in scrubs and a surgical mask. Similarly, Inanimate Dissection, a smaller work, is a shoe carefully vivisected with its innards pinned back, like the frogs high school students used to cut open in science class. These ordinary objects are obviously treated inappropriately. Are they jokes? How would we tell?
The key to Ferguson's art lies in the long scroll that is part of Google Searching for God, the installation in the next room. Like a medieval Christian monk or a Jewish sofer, Ferguson painstakingly copied the text, creating two scrolls that, together, extend 60 feet. Only the first half is on display. But instead of being a satire on the practice of hand-copying holy scriptures, Google Searching for God is a sincere project based on the fact that Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia, was created through the efforts of unpaid, anonymous volunteers. Thus, any entry—such as that for God—contains the voices and wisdom of dozens of amateur and professional believers. Ferguson thus took an ancient religious practice and applied it to a 21st century repository of our collective knowledge. The result is a surprisingly contemplative work, a fine paper scroll almost as precious and carefully made as an illuminated Christian manuscript. Although it is just as absurdly humorous as any of his other work, it is also a serious search for the divine through the beliefs of his fellow seekers.
Speaking at the opening of the show, Ferguson explained that his work exists first and foremost as a process. As with 1960s conceptual artists like Bruce Nauman, the actual objects or videos that Ferguson displays are merely documentation. They are not valuable in and of themselves; they are simply the remnants of his intellectual and physical labor. He presents them so that viewers can begin to understand the slow, often physically difficult work that he undertook. Ferguson indicated that he continues to refine the presentation of his art so as to better display the processual core of his practice.
His focus on process is inspired by the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard explored what it means to be human by examining our existence in the world and the encounters with objects and others that make up our daily reality. Ferguson's art shares this concern for our embodiment in the world, this intertwining of our consciousness and our physical incarnation in frail bodies prone to disease and death.
One of Ferguson's works not on display is an ongoing action that he performs every year on his birthday. He sits in front of a typewriter and obsessively types "I exist" over and over until the ribbon wears out, as though to verify his existence on this earth.
His art, therefore, is about what unites all of us, about the essence of our shared humanity. If his work is dark, mysterious, absurd or difficult to comprehend, it is because being human is also all of those things.