Imagine you arrive at the dentist's office to learn your appointment is canceled. Instead of giving you a cleaning or a root canal, the dentist demonstrates the tools she uses inside a person’s mouth: operative burs, excavators, dental forceps, drills, probes and torque wrenches. You sit in the chair with your mouth pried open as the masked and gloved dentist turns the gleaming instruments in front of your eyes.
This is what it feels like to view Mechanisms at the Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art, a profound and discomfiting gathering of artworks that plumb the facelessness of our current machine age.
Every major scientific and technological advance has artistic repercussions. Mechanisms explores this era’s repercussions in an airy, deceivingly large show of about 30 artists and almost 100 works. Curator Anthony Huberman opts for new or unfamiliar works over established masterpieces. The selection sheds light on a technology-filled world that is as social and psychological as it is visual, if not more so.
For example, Cameron Rowland’s piece Disgorgements, according to the wall text, consists entirely of “Reparations Purpose Trust and Aetna Shares.” The work is modest in appearance: two large black frames, one containing all 19 pages of a trust agreement outlining the acquisition and administration of shares in Aetna, Inc.
Despite its visual banality, Disgorgements evokes the lucrative financial mechanisms undergirding slavery in antebellum America. Prospective slave owners took out loans to purchase slaves. Then, owners took out insurance policies against a slave’s untimely death that reimbursed the slaveholder for lost profits.