The Chinese Encyclopedia

A character in a Borges story finds an old Chinese encyclopedia that presents a strange taxonomy of animals, dividing them into the following categories:

(a) belonging to the Emperor
(b) embalmed
(c) tame
(d) suckling pigs
(e) sirens
(f) fabulous
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(i) frenzied
(j) innumerable
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitcher
(n) that from a long way off look like flies

This bizarre classification system, or rather the amusement evoked when reading it, was the inspiration for Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, a work that indicts accepted systems of organizing, classifying, and arranging, ultimately concluding that all organizational systems are just as ridiculous as the list given above. Such arbitrary criteria and absurdly limited categories highlight the ways in which meaning is constructed within traditional categorical systems and ask us to question the meanings that inhere to these accepted systems of thought.

This show calls attention to the various ways in which objects and information are given meaning through association and representation. The artists are interested in how information is filtered and presented. They formulate new structural systems, undermine pre-existing structures, or simply reveal the absurdity of the very concept of structure. They allow for the possibility of new categories to rise amongst the old and fill in the gaps of the excluded by forging new associational axes.

Mike Estabrook illustrates words as they are defined by their Google Images results. “What does “disaster” look like?” he asks, though the answer he presents has been processed through algorithms. Paho Mann allows the viewer to sift through his belongings electronically by making selections within a database. A possible grouping produced by this system might include all items that are the size of a toaster oven and located in the linen closet. The slickly-designed infographics of Chad Hagen seem to make easy sense out of what must be complex data. Only after a few moments does the viewer realize that the colorful shapes don’t actually refer to anything outside themselves. There is order without content. In a game of “would you rather,” Jennifer Dalton makes the viewer self-define by selecting from severely limited (and less-than-ideal) options. Elsewhere, she illustrates the disparity of success between men and women in the art world, giving form to discouraging data.

Susan Thompson lives in New York and works as a Curatorial Research Assistant at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in addition to developing her own independent curatorial projects. She received her Masters degree in Modern Art, Curatorial and Critical Studies from Columbia University and was the recipient of the 2009-2010 Hilla Rebay Fellowship from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Image: Chad Hagen, Nonsensical Infographic #1, 2009, courtesy of the artist