Bronte Stolz
Behavioural Sink
09/06/2023 – 17/06/2023

Behavioural Sink, Bronte Stolz

Bronte Stolz takes his exhibition title from a term used in a series of experiments from 1958 to 1962 by ethologist John Calhoun to describe a vortex of destructive behaviour observed emerging in overcrowded populations of rodents. In Calhoun’s experiments, colonies of rats were given utopic conditions (food, air, light, sanctuary) but kept in strictly limited pens. At a certain point of population growth, the behavioural norms of the colony collapsed catastrophically. Despite an endless supply of food, the population turned to cannibalism. Sexual drive either atrophied or became hyperbolic. Cases of infanticide exploded. This was worse than a Malthusian cycle of boom and bust, in which the populations of eagles and rabbits in a valley balance each other out. This was instead a model of species extinction which, as an allegory of increasing human urban density, was invoked in science fiction apocalyptic nightmares such as Soylent Green.

What is the catastrophic rat pen that Stolz fashions in this installation? The vortex here that drains species-behaviour toward extinction appears to be a schematically disassembled, defamiliarised public toilet! An all-too human drain. On one wall, a second-hand stainless-steel urinal is neatly but enigmatically sliced and mounted, spaced out into five sections. Steel cross-section ends have been patiently welded to each suggesting that these are solid blocks of Minimalist metal, as silent as sentinels, as obdurate and portentous as the black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. They could be post-industrial standing stones, talismans or trophies or tombstones of a defunct world. Nearby, floating on a glass wall are two recycled public hand-dryers which have been laboriously stripped of their old enamel paint with their brand names, cut back to a raw metal surface as if naked. They patch together like a Lego totem of a split face. Flipped sideways to face each other they resemble the tightly embracing abstract lovers of Brancusi’s carved sculpture of The Kiss, with their outlets locked together in a mutual, tautologous and robotic exchange of heat. Not a circulatory system, but one of incessant gain to the point of meltdown. Or of fossilised coldness. On the third wall is the associative complement to these fatally hermetic thermodynamics. Three metallic casts in a row, again cut apart from the one extruded object, are derived from the serrated form of a minuscule heat sink, the type used to absorb and then dissipate unwanted heat generated by computer CPUs. Small incidents of permitted miscasting in the scaling up of the object give the edges of the fins a dented, jagged menace. Jutting imperatively with a staccato rhythm out from the wall, they expose their flat steely faces to the room, demanding urgent attention. Look closely into those three seemingly blank surfaces that address you, and that patina – the result of days of acid baths – becomes a mottled nimbus as if an image were trying almost miraculously to form in grisaille: but as an echo or corrupted signal. (This, from an artist whose work in the past has included coaxing up intricately tonal – and hazardously fragile – appropriated images by meticulously brushing mural sized panels of lush velvet.)

Is this rat trap of dysfunction, of objects splitting to then configure into esoteric, totemic signs merely a riff on the familiar Duchampian piss-take of the Fountain? I think there’s something less frivolous, though no less droll, here. “I’ve always had an existential relation to pissing,” Stolz says with flagrant candour. “I think the first memory of my self is a negatively charged image of pissing … at the age of two. As a child, pissing seemed to be a failure of the human organism, an inefficiency, a failure to be made in what I’d been told was the image of God.” True enough, God doesn’t piss. But in Western art the iconography of little boys pissing has a fulsome, if unnoticed, lineage – and a classical vintage – whether as comic cherubic cheekiness or as innocent misbehaviour given a sentimental, often maternal, permission. When adult men piss into a white porcelain bowl in a public toilet there might be a small, printed image of a fly sitting near the drainage holes, presumably there to catch the eye and so unconsciously to direct the stream of piss toward that point: an infantilising behavioural guidance system. Stolz’s pissoir may be brushed stainless steel but it reflects that phantasmic image of the man as infant standing before it as much as the trompe l’oeil fly in the porcelain sink. His installation of the pissoir is the first image in the mirror of the embodied self, split into a dreamlike dysfunction. Piss, like an acid bath, creates the patina of this mirror, and the objects turned into dim mirrors for those in the colony of rats.

Edward Colless, June, 2023