For the past 15 years, Bachrun LoMele has worked on the site of the former Synanon cult compound in the Sierra Nevada foothills, building his art practice into a self-perpetuating exploration of the vexed notion of personal truth. He solicits anonymous volunteers to record what they believe to be true statements in privacy, then randomizes and rearranges those “truth units” before returning the reconstructed utterances to an audience in suggestive material form.
In his current exhibition (on view through October 15, 2023), wall-mounted sculptures from the “Broken Words” series frame remnant elements of signage from the walls of an abandoned Muslim elementary school, once operated at the site of LoMele’s studio by members of the Baladullah cult. Wall-mounted works from another series, “The Understory,” replicate objects of decor that would not be out of place in a middle-class home, school, or small business: there are forms reminiscent of pallets, salvers, picture frames, and a lectern. The central installation, Burn Pile, appears to be a haphazardly assembled jumble containing scrap lumber, industrial track lighting strips, deconstructed sections of a staircase, and LED channels crawling with messages in red lettering. All of these materials are shoved high against the back wall of the space, like a pyramid of waste bulldozed by a FEMA cleanup crew.
Faux-wood paneling and fussy decorative contours conjure a small-town, cracker-barrel Americana, familiar to anyone who’s ever stopped at a rural antiques mall. But these objects are post-use, by definition, and the vision they sustained has been deconstructed. Burn Pile evokes the past-tense images whose production accompanies the quickening drumbeat of natural disasters on the nightly news. Similar piles appear with ever-increasing regularity on our screens after the passage of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires. What’s on the burn pile? Materials and utterances from 21st-century American homes.
Within the pile, surfaces that initially read as wood veneer resolve into a densely inscribed thicket of swirling patterns and lettering. Objects themselves fool the eye. Lengths of scrap wood, demolished staircase parts, and lighting strips turn out to have been fabricated from papier-mâché and other materials, as have the picture frames and serving platters. Every object is doubly loaded: first, with inscribed text, and then with swirling patterns that are reminiscent of (but not identical to) wood grain. This swirling pattern-language, LoMele has said, connotes the principle of flow.
The texts that are “illuminated” in the installation’s LED channels and inscribed on its surfaces remix compilations of statements solicited from anonymous “truth donors” via the interactive installation Confidence Booth, which LoMele exhibited at various shopping malls, thrift stores, flea markets, and public parks in the Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley. Volunteers were invited to record true statements inside a private, soundproof booth styled to look like a cozy living room—“I wanted it to look like grandma’s house,” LoMele recalls. Afterwards, a randomization algorithm scrambled the harvested truths. The resultant hybrid utterances—machine-derived cut-ups that dilute authorial agency to homeopathic levels—have been divorced from obvious meaning. Resisting interpretation, they retain ghostly traces of intent, as well as a degree of structural and historic specificity: they’re voiced in the past tense like remembered dreams, studded with Californian place names and proper nouns that gesture obliquely toward national headlines of the recent past. A papier-mâché salver reads, in part: “It was Fresno. It was daylight. It was Epstein. It was him daylight possibility Cousteau. It was Fargo-to-Seven-Brother.” Another piece is inscribed: “This is not the horror of this year’s arrow. / one day flying through the epidemic in the shadows.” You wouldn’t mistake these fragments for truths universally acknowledged. Even so, a weird, truthy quality clings to them.
LoMele’s approach recalls the stylings of Komar and Melamid, the post-Soviet conceptualists whose signature project remains the 1990s series “People’s Choice.” In these works, the duo created nations’ “most-wanted” and “least-wanted” paintings based on the results of surveys conducted by professional polling companies. The generally acknowledged aesthetic failure of the results provided the project’s punchline, while gesturing at the inadequate binarisms of Cold War thought. In the same way, remixing volunteers’ personal truths into authorless new configurations yields serendipitous vibes, even as it fails to generate veritas.
“Truth is like a thrashing-machine,” Herman Melville observed in The Confidence-Man; “tender sensibilities must keep out of the way.” On one level, Burn Pile telegraphs the difficulty of finding common ground in an era in which every truth is construed to be “personal,” where post-truth politics and tender sensibilities hold sway. But LoMele’s installation is not all Babel and nihilism. In a video narration, he states that he aspires “to show respect for an ambient sincerity, free of specificity,” wondering: “Can the apprehension of a greater truth, unknowable, oblique, arise from this?” Burn Pile might function like a compass, redirecting our perception of truth to a sector located elsewhere, where logic does not apply. If crowd-sourced truth nuggets fail to congeal into sense, this might tip viewers off to the fact that their search for truth was itself flawed—the question incorrectly framed. LoMele’s sprawling project indulges our skepticism, while at the same time staking claim to the oxymoron hidden like a stiletto inside Bruce Nauman’s neon catchphrase, The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths.
Burn Pile’s claim to humanism is vested in its central insight: that truth is not the outcome of an equation’s solution, or an essence to be distilled, but something essentially beyond. This point hits differently in the age of ChatGPT. The large language model neural networks and other artificial intelligence systems now beginning to shape our world are trained by trolling through billions of pages of text data indiscriminately scraped from the Internet, employing a post-truth learning model that is alien to the human brain. Now that AI is casting horoscopes, writing state legislature housing bills, and designing weapons systems, will viewers laboring to wrap their heads around Burn Pile’s koans conclude that the fault lies not in themselves, but in the algorithms?