Hutzler Brothers Palace, erected 1888, and originally advertised as a “museum of merchandise” was the first department store of its kind in Baltimore. In the shell of this former emporium, McKean has fabricated a massive, multi-room, two-story structure, an architectonic labyrinth enfolding diverse aesthetic languages and multiple modes of representation. He merges the museological, the domestic, the store display, the geological, the theatrical, and the digital. In its totality, he has created an extended metaphor on “place”. Not place as a stagnant reality fixed in time, but as an emergent, fecund, and evolving set of conditions metabolizing past histories into the present. With The Ground, McKean proposes longer overlapping and diverging timelines where actants, human and non-human, live in close, nonhierarchical proximity with their time scales flattened and enmeshed. Here, a handmade replica of the human brain co-mingles casually with that of a wolf, whale, cat, and elephant. An out-of-time cave diorama shares a wall with twelve heads, possibly those of costumed members of some undetermined, future leaning, pan-cultural cult. A mise-en-scene built of clay and dirt depicting people participating in a water birth of a new human conflates the contemporary and historical, creation myth and quotidian, abject realism and magic realism.
As Hutzler’s slips with each passing year into more hazily remembered regional folklore, it also cements its historical status in a complex and problematic continuum of socio-commercial spaces—the marketplace— where substances and objects from eyeliner to boom boxes, handbags to frying pans, chocolates to wristwatches, were crafted to elicit various degrees of human desire. In this way, McKean conceives of the building as a filter through which materials and objects, each existing within complex global supply chains, have traveled to be displayed, browsed, and purchased before finally dispersing into the community-at-large. Today, nearly thirty years after Hutzler’s has closed, the building houses a vast internet server farm, where information streams into homes, phones, and businesses. Noting that the building sits atop roughly 25% of the earth’s data flow—tweets and texts, selfies, emails, merchandise orders, Skype calls, and search queries—The Ground projects a world slipping into phantom being, matter flattening into proto-screen realities —stoic back-lit voids.
The Ground indexes the mysterious and ungraspable space below us— the mantle where all earthbound creation rises from and will return to— carbon to rare earth minerals, platinum to silk, 64GB USB drives to arrowheads.
The project also speaks to the complex history of the site stretching from the Holocene, to Anthropocene, to pre-industrial, to 4th wave postindustrial—a testing ground for the successes, challenges, and failures of modernity. McKean offers timelines and sedimented realities, which archive the facades of a crumbling past and future. Expanding a temporal understanding of site, The Ground transmutes artifacts, relics, and talismans, to be discovered again as harbingers of a new time.