The following essay is the poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s response to “Rachel Harrison Life Hack,” the first full-scale survey of Harrison’s work, which appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 25, 2019, to January 12, 2020.
Installation view of “Rachel Harrison Life Hack” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 25, 2019–January 12, 2020). From left to right: Dinner, 1991; I Like What’s Nice, ca. 1995; Leaktite Luck, 1995. Photo: Ron Amstutz.
Look, you’re going to be confronted with the remains of a dinner Rachel Harrison had twenty-eight years ago at Flamingo East in the East Village. (No, the restaurant isn’t there anymore.) First the dinner became leftovers in ziplock baggies and then it became leftovers spawning maggots in ziplock baggies and then, after complaints about flies, the baggies went into Ball jars. And here they are.
It’s pretty gross, without a doubt. You might be forgiven for feeling as though the crudeness were at your expense in some way, but I would encourage you to let go of this feeling. (The feeling that some kind of joke is being played, but with no clear object or vector, may recur; my advice is to float in this feeling, allow a degree of surrender to it.) For Dinner surely started, like all of Harrison’s work, as a gesture or experiment of interest to her, one whose reasons may have been inscrutable even to herself. Think about it: she bagged this food one night twenty-eight years ago, with no foreknowledge of this moment we now share together. It was, you might say, an intuition.
Harrison’s work doesn’t just rely on intuition. It showcases it, elevates it to a category of ontological fascination. Why, why, why? you might ask, in front of a Harrison sculpture; eventually your own questioning may turn into a kind of music—the music of thinking—playing alongside hers. Your thinking may or may not have content; it is unlikely to land upon answers. Indeed, Harrison’s sculptures are remarkable for their capacity to stir up the primal agitation at the root of cognition and analysis, the whir of thinking. Read More