C Magazine


Issue 151

“Vermin Gloom” — ASMA
by Leo Cocar

Upon entering “Vermin Gloom,” one is immediately apprehended by an ambient soundscape, binding together the visitor, the architecture, and the works on display. Composed by musician Balas De Agua, the score is a composite of drum, flute, and key samples, evoking the simultaneously warm and spectral sound of an old transistor radio playing in a forgotten cave. The untitled soundtrack is the ideal point from which to begin the show by artist duo ASMA (composed of Matias Armendaris and Hanya Beliá). Around the 20-minute mark, instrumentals are bolstered by the sounds of dripping water and possibly crickets or skittering insects, a poetic evocation of the loose narrative in “Vermin Gloom” of an abandoned home being reclaimed by non-human life.

As the exhibition statement notes, “Vermin Gloom” “set[s] an imaginary stage within a young human’s room in the midst of its abandonment.” In this sense, the show invokes the space’s former life as the site of the Czech Consulate: homey, warm, and replete with wainscoting and fireplaces, drawing attention to the fact that it was once occupied. At the same time, “Vermin Gloom” presents an architectural intervention, as it replaces a sense of hearth with one of eerie, bug-infested desertion. In the sparsely populated side gallery, the only things are a wood carving (Harbinger, 2021), a pillow with ochre- coloured stains made by mould or sweat (Haunted pillow, 2021), and a large patchwork textile covered in black fabric, sporting an image of flowers rendered in spindly line work (Wardrobe bouquet, 2021). Whether the textile was intended by the room’s fictional former occupant as a source of warmth, decor, or a piece of architecture to block the door behind it is unknown.

In the main gallery, a similar scantily occupied atmosphere is repeated. Another patchwork textile piece, titled Felt a spider (2021), is strung up in front of the fireplace, this time decorated with an insect-arachnid hybrid creeping up the same flowers present in Wardrobe bouquet. Plugged in to the wall, Hooked by the stream (2021) appears (at first glance) to be an iPhone forgotten by its owner. Upon closer inspection, one realizes that the device has been co-opted by a biosynthetic resin image of a fly on a fishing hook, dangling above water. Occupying the screen, the presence of the fly neutralizes the phone’s use as a ubiquitous communication tool. On a perpendicular wall, a modified sneaker is fixed to the wall, its twin lying on the ground nearby. Both have received a similar treatment to the phone, with their soles replaced by nature motifs executed in the same icy-blue resin. The shoe lying on the ground, titled Trail mix (lost keys) (2021), sports one of the many insects present in the show, with a dragonfly darting over what resembles a flowing stream populated by a discarded soda can and the titular lost keys. Its flora-centric counterpart, titled Trail mix (weed) (2021), has had its traction pattern replaced by a plant that resembles the product of cross-breeding dandelion and lettuce. Trail mix (weed), Trail mix (lost keys), and Hooked by the stream all adapt the forms of some of the most coveted objects of the digital age— sneakers and phones—and warp them until their use value becomes totally annulled, to make way for extra-human life. Even in their unmodified state, sneakers and phones are a rich index to think through the global networks that make these objects possible—from shipping routes to delocalized labour to rare-earth mineral extraction. Each of these networks has an impact on our ecological systems, a violence that is often obscured. By implanting everyday objects with extra-human life, ASMA reminds us of the indivisibility of the commodity and the biosphere.

In both galleries, three etched, composite wood sculptures adorn the walls, acting as a kind of double for the exhibition space. With these three works, similar elements that exist in the real space of the gallery are instead rendered in the picture-like sculpture’s composition. In My Wooden Heart (2021), a scorpion menacingly crawls over the power cords underneath a bed. In Harbinger, a laptop sits on the floor tiles of a bathroom, whose sole occupant is a bird-sized moth. For the third piece, Fly Kicks (2021), a trio of flies crawl over a sneaker’s laces. The insectoid occupants of the space, both real and figurative, recall the exhibition text’s opening statement: “Something becomes a vermin only in relation to any human activity or environment.” In this sense, “Vermin Gloom” blurs the constructed boundaries between human and extra-human relations, habitat and home, as well as natural and artificial.

Ultimately, ASMA brings the space of a fictional domicile to bear on debates concerning human and extra-human relations. What contemporary economically driven green policies do is attempt to reinforce the nature-humanity divide, when this split is really an impossibility, borne of human abstraction and categorization. In contrast, the sneakers, phones, and textiles of “Vermin Gloom” are co-opted by extra-human life, as the idea of the home itself is questioned. It is not that the fictional young occupant’s home has been totally abandoned, but rather that it was left for occupation by our insectoid and mould-spore friends who never even left in the first place. Whether or not vermin are understood as our neighbours or pests is only a matter of conceptualization.