Office Space: Sandra Erbacher’s Institutional Critique Takes Aim at Modern Bureaucracies

Imagine a museum of objects taken from an average office from the late 20th century. It would likely be filled with a variety of familiar items: a 1970s-style telephone in outmoded avocado green, an oversized paper coffee cup, maybe a houseplant or two. These are exactly the types of objects with which the Providence-based German artist Sandra Erbacher begins her institutional critiques. 

In her multimedia practice, Erbacher employs office imagery to explore the idea of the institution—the gallery and museum in particular—as abstract, formless, and bureaucratic. In her exhibition “Standard Deviations” at Providence’s GRIN, she borrows a variety of anonymous, everyday elements from the nondescript work environment, but subverts them, turning symbols of productivity into impotent artifacts. 

In her installation, the mechanisms of business break down: intentionally bland beige carpeting has an anarchy symbol etched onto it in bas relief; a bench balances precariously on a gnawed-upon leg; a phone’s receiver sits forever off the hook, spurting a random string of phrases. Sometimes, Erbacher chooses to intentionally—and quite literally—weigh down these symbols, as in the case of a fan filled with concrete, keeping its blades from whirling, or a coffee cup immortalized like a bronzed trophy. The stuff of everyday becomes witness to the passing of time and its own inevitable obsolescence. 

“Instead of remaining hidden or on the visual periphery, these objects are activated through subtle interventions, such as shifts in scale and radical re-contextualization, and, thus, become central to the exhibition rather than acting as mere support,” Erbacher has said of her work. “By inverting a spatial relationship, I seek to reveal how the literal structure of the museum might stand as metaphor for the ideological systems hidden beneath the neutral veneer of any gallery.” Highlighting the infrastructure beneath the industry, Erbacher asks the viewer if the exhibition can ever really be impartial. 

—Heather Corcoran

Sandra Erbacher: Standard Deviations” is on view at GRIN, Providence, Rhode Island, Jan. 15–Feb. 14, 2015.

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