Michael McMillen: Domestica

at The Living Room, Santa Monica, CA
through May 6, 1998

It begins with the Tinkertoys, then the Erector Set, then the Chemlab, and finally the den that you help your father add onto the house with real carpentry tools. In other words, beneath the "refined" surface of the writer and culture critic, I am pretty much an "average guy." I like hardware. You can make things with it. But the hardware we make and use when we grow up is often an entirely different matter--we can destroy things with it.

Michael McMillen's current installation "Domestica" at The Living Room (the actual living room of an old house that serves as artist Barbara Drucker's studio but whose living room has been converted to an exhibition space) explores our "male" hardware fetish and our frequent fascination with war to its final conclusion in the construction of military hardware that has the potential of annihilating not just many lives, but the entirety of human existence. McMillen is perhaps best known in Los Angeles as the artist who created the "inventor's garage" installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a piece of scenery (McMillen has been a set designer in the film industry, by the way) that might have fit into "Back to the Future" and that no doubt appeals to the wannabe "inventor" in most males, although it inserts other commentary as one goes through it. "Domestica" points out how something happens between what we might call our innocent second nature to want to make things and the things we end up making as full-blown members of an adult political, economic and social order concerned with wealth and power of just a few. We get away from the "low tech" roots of our everyday existence and the everyday life that our work ought to serve but often just plain doesn't, and actually get sucked into modes of thought and social activity that is built around the preparation for and waging of war. McMillen's installation makes a point of contrasting these two realms--the domestic and everyday and the high tech military hardware with which the last 40 years of a cold war have made us all too familiar.

On the north side of the dimly lit room is a tall rusted locked-up sports locker with the audiotape of a faucet running in it. Across from it on the south wall is a fireplace in which McMillen has placed a rusted oval ash carrier that sticks out like a parched tongue that needs the water locked up in the locker. Water, as a "source of life," has simply been banished from the realm of gray metallic objects that mostly make up the installation, yet its dreamy sound remains to remind us that some of the "basics" of life are missing from the environment.

The friend who visited the show with me thought the locker had something to do with "adolescent male wet dreams," which is possible, but it also represents the realm of "competition" to which we are introduced early enough so that when we encounter it in the adult economic world, we "understand" what it means (either we win out against the next guy, or we lose, but we never cooperate, except as a "team" or "company" whose duty is to trounce the other team--all the way up to international economics and politics--and supposedly win the girl's favor when the game is over). Off to the right of the locker, tacked to the wall, is a neat little cluster of gray model barracks housing--a row of five, in front of which stands one that obviously belongs to the sergeant/officer. A little thread pinned in right angles leads from a red dot to one of the barracks, as if some single soldier has dutifully "marched" (left-right-left) back to his austere barracks "home." Off to the left of the locker, in a lower corner of the room, sitting atop a short metal cylinder, is what looks like a bowling ball that has been sanded into a gray and blue marbled "earth" seen "looking back" from space--one of the rare images that our technology has given us of the actual limits of our world (we don't really get a second chance if our competition succeeds in destroying this earth). And dangling from the ceiling is a moon or stand-in for a satellite made of a ball of tinfoil, whose shadow moves back and forth across the north wall because the low watt bulb that lights the room dimly is attached to the end of a motorized pendulum. Off in space, at this very minute, are the satellites collecting the "intelligence" for the next possible strike.

Adolescent male wet dream it may be. On the east wall a large gray funnel points its phallic spout across the room at large torus-shaped cake mold whose central hole becomes a metaphoric vagina. Of course, there is no "sex" here, simply its Freudian displacement and sublimation into other imagery. The eighteen-year-old male is often wrenched out of the civilian social world into the military before he gets a chance to develop much of an actual romantic life. The "military" as a "right of passage" into "true manhood," where "true men" also often learn (or have it confirmed, if they have already learned enough repression) that sex is something furtive you do with a prostitute, like fitting a funnel into a cake pan (while women are encouraged to pine after a man in uniform). A chess/checkers board above the room's door to the next inner room emphasizes the idea of a game turned awry (the board is rotated to form a diamond shape), although we know that chess is a game of intellectual skill and competition that is based on the metaphor of war--but happily without any real consequences. It is a game, by the way, at which the scientists and engineers who build bombs no doubt excel, to make a "living."

But the cake pan and the large funnel are also relics of simpler technology more closely tied to daily life--the cake pan obviously, the funnel perhaps less obviously (since you can pour anything, not limited to water, or milk, say, with a funnel). Nevertheless, these actual uses get overlaid with a familiar 60s Freudian interpretation of the phallic "weapon" aimed at a vaginal "target"--and of war as a form of sublimated male sexuality. A similar, although not obviously sexual, substitution happens with the pastry roller that hangs from a string in the gallery's southwest corner, like a "bomb" on its way down. And with the nine old pipe organ cones that stand on the fireplace sill like a row of phallic missiles, deprived of their ability to make music and turned into objects that mimic weapons, the last small one crushed and tipped over. Weapons of war come to displace objects of domestic use and comfort. Parts of actual model war planes (with a few domestic models thrown in--war technology has its domestic "spin-offs," you know) sit as wreckage in the bottom of a large preserving jar on the fireplace sill, in case we miss the exhibition's theme in its other objects? Even the mosquito hawk (a fly with long spindly legs) made of wire that is stuck on the south wall reminds us of war, with its one missing leg.

War is not exclusively a high tech phenomenon. It is an "enigma" that has been with the species as long as anyone can remember, and some cultures practice it with almost religious fervor. McMillen's installation probably does not provide an answer to the enigma, but it raises the question of why we focus inordinate attention on it when we should be paying attention to the improvement of our daily lives. Man often exhibits an utter inability to think his way out of war. It is often justified as a means of preserving "our way of life" from the predations of outside marauders, but soon enough it takes on a rationale all its own, and the possession of weapons becomes a temptation to expand "our" dominion. I put the "our" in quotes because I do not think that war is exclusively a "nationalist" or a "male" phenomenon (although it also becomes that). Men are trained for it and lead into it by their political and economic elites, whom it benefits far more than it does any lowly soldier. War is a class phenomenon (and the women of ruling classes benefit by it as well). The "male" culture that prepares the boy for it is simply an attempt to insure that he will respond when he is called. The industrial era's unique contribution to it has been the development of military industries whose technology removes us even further from war's gruesome reality and ups the destructive stakes. But profits are to be made making those high tech weapons. And the economic and political power of elites is at stake in waving them around at others across borders.

Copyright April 1998, Peter Kosenko; if you wish to republish this, contact me.

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