"just another market mop up" - - an installation by Andrew Ellis Johnson
by Phyllis Evans for Art Papers, July/August, p.33.
On view at the John and June Allcott Gallery, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, December 29, 1999 through January 27, 2000
In Andrew Ellis Johnson's "just another market mop up" ravenous fish masquerade as vermin and vegetables, sloshing sounds allegorize global economics, and a mop bucket turns into a wishing well. This site-specific installation at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill's Allcott Gallery examines the relationships between producer, consumer, predator and prey as it critiques social Darwinism and free-market trade.
Inspired by the glass-encased gallery’s similarity to a public aquarium, Johnson suspended life-sized casts of two sharks and several piranhas from the ceiling. In the absurdly comical but ultimately humiliating choreography of a circus act, the marine predators execute a contrived mid-air performance. Forming a pair of swags that nearly fill the gallery, the piranhas relinquish their fierce reputations and line up to swim, head to tail, into the mouths of the bigger fish. The sharks morph into peculiar hybrids as lavish paintings wrap their patinated bodies with the likenesses of a giant carrot and a huge ear of corn. Meanwhile, piranhas turn into ravens and hares. While it is unclear who is eating whom, Johnson exposes a manipulated economy that pretends to be a natural order, a global pecking order in which the biggest fish use food subsidies to fatten up their prey.
The brightly painted spectacle behind the glass lures the viewer inside the gallery where subtler elements contribute to the mood and meaning of the space. A blue-green patina cloaks the paneled lateral walls, creating fields of aqueous reflections that conjure an atmosphere of wetness. A continuous audiotape of mopping sounds further saturates the space, setting the stage for a curiously unspectacular mop bucket. Atypical only in its crusty patina, it rests anonymously in the shadow of the dramatic floating fish. In this context, it is tempting to overlook this unassuming object, but the bucket is actually the installation's most metaphorically significant element.
Within the bi-level architecture of the mop bucket, Johnson has carefully distributed a tarnished assortment of domestic, historical, and foreign coins. United States currency occupies the balcony -like upper tier of the bucket, which is used to expel water from a mop, while various foreign coins share the main reservoir below. As symbols for global economic powers such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, we can interpret their relative positions as allegories for power, hierarchy, and unchecked capitalism. From their high perch, economic superpowers wring the world's resources dry, permitting only a trickle to be shared by the majority of the world population.
This critique of public enterprise spills into the private sphere; Johnson's coin-filled bucket acts as a poignant reminder of our individual responsibilities to the global community. Plinking sounds punctuating the mopping sounds suggest coins being dropped into wishing wells or fountains. Tossing a coin into a well is a token act of charity that thinly veils our own selfish desires. Ironically, we wish for something better than what we already have, but ironically, we already have what the beneficiaries of our "drop in the bucket" contribution might wish for, had they our good fortune to toss money away.
By transforming a lowly mop bucket into such a wishing well, Johnson asks us to consider our individual roles in the global economic order. It is easy to point to the corporate powers that justify inhumane business practices with survival-of-the-fittest ideologies, but "just another market mop up" reminds us that we are all responsible as participants in an order we accept too readily as natural.