Monday, July 4, 2016

Gold Jenga Towers: Thoughts on Social Commentary

Image 1: Gold Towers made from Jenga Blocks
The OBA Library is a library which holds a number of architectural models on the first floor. One of them is pictured above, in Image 1; these two, near-identical models sit side-by-side, but the conceptual implications that may have been behind these seemingly simple towers are varied and intriguing.  These two towers were both constructed out of Jenga blocks and have been colored gold. The leftmost structure portrays a solid gold tower with no gaps or holes. The right, on the other hand, has fewer blocks, and foliage has grown in the spaces. With a cursory glance, one might believe that the two towers are nothing more than interesting Jenga constructs. However, both models—through their composition and appealing aesthetics—introduce different arguments and give insight regarding the true enemies the “modern man” faces.
Looking at Image 1, the use of individual Jenga blocks to create one continuous form is, in itself, an intriguing dichotomy. A Jenga block plays multiple roles –it is an integral piece in a large sized tower and yet, its purpose is to be removed without destabilizing the structural integrity of the tower. However, in an attempt to create a unified whole, this artist has disrupted the nature of the Jenga piece; by gluing the pieces together, the artist has removed the individuality of each block and destroyed part of the Jenga block’s function. As I stared at these golden towers, I was struck by how perfect they seemed; how even if there might have unpleasing globs of glue or stretched, marred visages of the Jenga blocks, none of that was noticeable once the gold varnish was added. These thoughts, alongside my observations of the glued Jenga blocks, reminded me of the current state of our society. It is, perhaps, this topic upon which the artist wished to comment. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was his message—that, no matter how hard individuals try to escape the monotony of “how people should act,” more often than not, they become another cog in the system, creating a working society that restricts the ability to make radical life changes or become true individuals. In the placement of each immovable Jenga block, I saw a person who was unable to achieve their life goals and so was stuck (perhaps not unhappily) where they were. Another aspect of note is that the artist did not remove the “Jenga” logo from the blocks; in fact, they stacked them in such a way that the the viewer is forced to see the branding. Despite changing the inherent nature of the Jenga blocks, the artist chose to keep the material’s original form. Although the pieces have been spray-painted gold—which helps distinguish the blocks as something removed from the original game—the material is still undeniably reminiscent of Jenga blocks. As such, it makes it difficult as a viewer, to think of them as true building materials instead of repurposed toys. The artist’s design might have made a stronger statement had they removed the logo from the blocks so we saw blank material instead of a brand. The logo makes it difficult for the viewer to separate what they’re seeing from being a ‘golden tower’ and ‘a gold colored tower made of Jenga blocks’. Moreover, if they had been more inspired with the building’s form—perhaps by having all of the pieces stacked in the same direction (instead of the patterned horizontal and then vertical direction necessary to play the game) or by varying the number of blocks used per row—the model may have separated itself enough from the official Jenga game to meet with more success. The artist could have taken many avenues in order to distance themselves from the idea that this is merely a tower of Jenga blocks, and that would have made it easier for the viewer to feel as though they were looking at an actual architectural model. However, despite the number of changes the artist could have made, one particular aspect of the tower seems to stand out more than the rest: the top of the structure, where the tower deviates from the pattern. With such a small change, the tower transcends the medium as it no longer follows the general format of a Jenga game. For some viewers (like myself), this area of dissonance is the most interesting part of the model, as it is the only place where the artist has taken obvious creative license. We are able to see a personal flair in the work and it reminds us once again that these aren’t Jenga blocks taken straight out of the box, but a building that came from someone’s mind. Although the clear rigidity might imply the inevitability of “becoming a cog in the machine,” this sudden deviation to freedom could remind the viewer to try; only once they do so and get away from society’s expectations will they reach the top of the proverbial ladder and break away from society’s prescribed cookie-cutter life.
However, if the leftmost tower invokes the idea of humans working tirelessly for a small chance for freedom, the right tower argues a very different point; one of inter-connectedness between man and nature. When viewing this tower, I was first intrigued by the openness the foliage provided in the structure—the start contrast to the work on the left drew my attention. While I interpreted the tower on the left as an idea for social commentary, the one on the right took on a broader notion: one of man versus nature. It should be noted that, although my believed concept for this tower differs from the first one, this tower still suffers from many of the same aspects (see above regarding the obvious logo, the three-columned rows, the stacking, etc.). Since the Jenga blocks haven’t been sanded and they are placed in the same horizontal-vertical pattern it, again, makes it difficult for the viewer to forget that they are merely staring at stacked blocks. This tower was created in a less structurally sound manner (caused by the removal of the blocks), and it is this diversion from the official Jenga game which makes this tower seem more rich in concept. Most noticeable is the addition of plant life to the building, which introduces the idea of an uncommon interaction between the organic and inorganic. Perhaps the artist wanted to call attention to the fact that foliage should be used in building projects, or merely enjoyed the color contrast of green and gold, but I saw something else when I viewed the model. The use of plant life is not balanced within the piece. It is used quite heavily on the bottom and then becomes sparser as one ascends the tower before finally reaching the top, where there is absolutely no greenery present. While starting to view from the bottom and working up, I saw a progression of the interaction of humankind and nature. In the past, the two aspects used to have a mostly even relationship, but now, entire plant species are going extinct and plants are sparser than ever before. Although one can guess that the right tower—because it mimics the left –is supposed to be a building as well, it becomes something much more conceptual due to the gaps of space. However, through it, one can also be reminded that no matter how much man can try to bend the environment to his will, nature will always take back what rightfully belongs to it. In some sense, this tower represents the beginnings of nature’s recolonization of the land; the Jenga blocks outnumber the plants, but the greenery begins from the inside (the most central and in some cases vulnerable area of a building). Nature has taken over the core of the building, where the true power lies. Interestingly enough, the top—which was the most fascinating part of the left tower—now seems dull in comparison to the other conceptual ideas being introduced by this conversation between man and nature. It seems as though the model (man) is trying to assert its dominance as a building even as the plants (nature) take control of its innards.
One last thing that needs be addressed is that fact that the two towers, with their differing core arguments, were consciously placed side-by-side.  They both seem to contain separate ideas, even if they do follow a similar color and structural vision. One might wonder what the artist was trying to convey when he positioned them like this. The idea that stuck with me, even after leaving the OBA Library, was that these are two iterations of the same building at different points in time, with the tower to the right being the future building of the work on the left. If that is the case, it would make a very poignant statement about what humankind views as important. In the present day (which the left tower, with the perceived social commentary, can be thought to represent) everyone is so focused on comparing themselves to other people and making sure that they are the ones on top. However, in the future (which the picture on the right would represent for the purposes of this thought exercise), when the world is forced to start over, it won’t matter who had the highest paying job or who lived in the most expensive house. What will matter will be survival, and being able to live in a world where humankind is no longer the top of the pyramid. In this manner, the two towers are a warning to humankind: rather than constantly striving to be the best while ignoring the other elements of the world we share life with (i.e. nature), we need to find a way to coexist, because at the end of it all, we won’t be in charge.

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