John Salvest: The Finished Consumo Ergo Sum

This time equipped with kneepads (a quick fix to the many hours spent on the floor assembling his art), John Salvest arrived at the Brooks last Thursday to complete his installation of Consumo Ergo Sum.

I, once more, came armed with a camera and questions for the artist. As a follow up to curiosities triggered during our previous meeting, I asked, “Does your art prompt the collection of objects like bottle caps, or do you accumulate the items first and afterward conceive the art?” Mr. Salvest explained that it goes both ways.

He amassed business cards for 8 to 9 years before picturing their artistic design, the result being Nothing Endures (1998). Smoke-Free (2004) proved the exact opposite; he collected cigarette butts with the preconceived idea to shape them into a likeness of the American flag. Consequently, his creative process seems a combination of waiting, deliberation, persistence, and chance.

Smoke-Free and his latest composition Seize the Day (2010), a medicine cabinet filled with pain pills patterned to spell the title, flank Consumo Ergo Sum in the Kraft Gallery at the Brooks. The effect proves a visually and conceptually stunning success. Together, the three works fluently articulate heedless consumption as well as fated transience, and they probe the use and meaning of repetitive, iconic imagery. Mr. Salvest’s artworks also cast back to the Tunisians mosaics just hosted at the Brooks. This reference reveals the influence of an age-old technique on contemporary artistic productions.

Posted casually in front of his accomplished work, Mr. Salvest presented a gallery talk Thursday evening, which proved the perfect capstone to his installation. What began with an engaging narration of the artist’s aesthetic progression and journeys to Tunisia and Turkey led to a fantastic roundtable discussion with the audience. Topics included the conversion of found objects into art objects, the process and psychology of collectors, the use of patriotic symbols in art, and the conservation of contemporary art and material heritage. One theme, above all, resonated: time. Acknowledging a desire to express time in tangible form, Mr. Salvest transforms everyday, seemingly expendable items into unexpected relics. By continuing to accumulate these objects, I believe he demonstrates that time is not meant to be static but rather to move, evolve, and expand—much like his art.

This striking installation will be showcased at the Brooks only through this September. For that reason, carpe diem—seize the day—and come see and consider Consumo Ergo Sum, a work unquestionably worth both the artist and the viewer’s time.

Consumo Ergo Sum: The Intern and The Artist

Meet Meg Jackson, Exhibitions Intern for the summer! Read on to find out more about interning at the Brooks, plus gain an inside look at the upcoming John Salvest exhibition. Come see him work with your own eyes before the installation is complete!

Enthusiasm, ambition, and gratitude—each have proven the norm in the last two weeks as I began my summer internship for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Last Friday morning, these sentiments were joined by a profound excitement and wonder, as my task for the day was to observe and record artist John Salvest install his work, “Consumo Ergo Sum.” Despite being a longtime art history student and an intern in several art institutions, this happened to be my very first opportunity to watch an artist set up artwork in a museum space. Stars filled my eyes, and I am certain I was not alone in my eagerness.

Typically, museum visitors meet screens or doors with signs that read “Installation in Progress” when art exhibitions are under construction. The Brooks, however, decided to put up only a rope at the gallery entrance, which offers guests a sort of backstage pass to the museum’s newest installation. The initial reaction of visitors as they came across Mr. Salvest working turned out to be as charming as the artist himself. Double takes predominated, as people appeared both surprised and curious by the scene. Or, perhaps “consumed” provides the best description.

“Consumo Ergo Sum” consists of bottle caps—various in shape, size, and color—assembled into a map of the United States. The process of installing this art is an interesting mixture of preparation and impulse. The caps are prearranged by color and amount needed to shape each state. Salvest starts with a pattern of the states, which he puts together like a puzzle. After traced, the paper stencil of the state is replaced with the bottle tops. Within the outline of each state, the caps have no particular order, yet Mr. Salvest appears most careful in their arrangement. He attentively places each cap one by one, turns it over and back again, and often changes its position. I noticed that he even once took a pencil to carefully push a lid just a smidge to the right.

Mr. Salvest frequently stood, walked towards the opening of the gallery, and looked at the work from a distance. His expression seemed pensive, engrossed. As I sat there considering the artist as he considered his work, a remarkable thought dawned on me. When examining art, I always have so many questions, many of which go unanswered. Here was my opportunity to ask questions to the person who has the answers. Abruptly breaking the silence, I asked Mr. Salvest, “Having installed this work in such disparate areas as Houston, New York, and now Memphis, are you ever curious as to how differently publics receive your art or your message? For example, is there any sense of, or worry for, regionalism?” So much for a customary icebreaker! Later I ask myself, “Oh, Meg, why did you not lead with ‘Why bottle caps?’ or ‘How did you come up with this concept?’” Hindsight personified would be a comedian, I do believe.

Mercifully, his look of surprise at the eager question gushing from the quiet girl in the corner immediately turned in to one of contemplation. Art today, he says, is received much better and more uniformly thanks to the Internet and other informing technologies. “Is this art?”, Mr. Salvest elucidates, is no longer the primary question when contemplating art. He goes on to say that this is one of the first times he has personally installed the work. Usually, the bottle caps and templates are sent to the exhibition venue for someone else to construct. I immediately recognized his presence as quite the coup for the Memphis Brooks’ staff and visitors—not to mention, the elated intern.

Subsequently, I mulled over the work itself. “Consumo Ergo Sum” means “I consume, therefore I am.” To me, the art comments on consumerism, materialism, and temporality. For my next question (thankfully much smoother in nature and execution), I asked about the collection of the bottle caps. Salvest explained that he collected the tops over time. He also mentioned that he has gathered enough caps to make the map nearly five times the size he usually creates. My mind reeled. How long did such an enormous collection of bottle caps take? Where does he store his gatherings? Does his collection inform his art, or does his art inform his collection? His art necessitates his own consumption, and consequently, this consumption provides a spectacle of consumption for the consuming art audience—oh my, the work seems like an onion in all its layers of meaning! I suppress my urge to set free my many queries and allow the artist to concentrate on his work. I am excited he will be working further on his installation this week, and I foresee his gallery talk Thursday as being both interesting and insightful. I, for one, find myself consumed with curiosity for the artist and his artwork alike, and I have no doubt visitors of the Brooks will be captivated in much the same way.