Published in “Ellis von Sternberg: Dear Sludge, Cruel Sludge – Exhibition Catalogue,” October 2016.
header image: installation view “Dear Sludge, Cruel Sludge” (2016)
“In very rough terms, over the past 35 years, the world has consumed around 1 trillion barrels of oil. Over that same period, proved reserves of oil have increased by more than 1 trillion barrels. Put differently, for every barrel of oil consumed, another two have been added.”
–Spencer Dale, Chief Economist, British Petroleum
Admired by his contemporaries for his masterful studies of coherent architectural spaces in and around Rome, the printmaker Piranesi (Italian, b.1720 – d.1778) is perhaps best known today for Le Carceri d’Invenzione (“The Imaginary Prisons,”) a series of sixteen prints of Escheresque fantasy hell-scapes made between 1745 and 1750 . The interiors depicted in the Prisons are bowel like – intense, winding shafts and wells around a central vault or great hall. Deep shadows and erratic bolts of white light make for paranoid, palpitating spaces. Often empty, the few plates in which the miniscule shadows of human forms might be made out in the darkness are especially unsettling; that these little people might be trapped in architectural space – digested and discarded – as in the gastric system of a vast animal emerges as a central tension in the Prisons. The anatomy of this animal can be construed in the long tendon-like runs of nautical line zigzagging across the picture, or in Piranesi’s beautifully illustrated archways – belts of stone that read like strong, cartilaginous sphincters for passing people, gas, sludge.
In Ellis von Sternberg’s most recent body of work, the built environment emerges as a related kind of aggressor. However ambivalent, von Sternberg’s flat-bed “freeway” sculptures reinforce the arterial aesthetic of the 20th & 21st Century cityscape as essentially oppressive . The sculptures’ chrome finish recalls low-brow die-cast collectables and memorabilia – a motif von Sternberg has addressed at least once previously in a series of similarly scaled, sci-fi book covers. While this may help to situate von Sternberg’s interests in a certain vein of science-fiction, it also foregrounds a critique of surface.
The sculptures are three in total, each “typed” by neon orange, hot pink or lime green resin poured at a depth of less than an inch within the sculptures’ chrome bed. Von Sternberg’s “freeways” appear to emerge from this resin as from alien slime or the impossible amniotic fluid of a mechanical newborn. This fascination with slime is presented across the installation in which these three sculptures appear. Bottles of flashy sports-drink are displayed alongside a pus-colored “slug” made from spray foam insulation. The total exudate of the store bought can forms a pale, reticulated turd approximately one meter in length. The slug is thoroughly coated in men’s body wash, and is coiled lasciviously in a pool of the stuff – viscous acid green and engine-coolant blue gels marketed to project speed, virility & concentrated energy.
With these “freeways” as central tethers, I approach von Sternberg’s work from three distinct but related formal and iconographic vantages: (1) oppressive architecture – as expressed in the lines above – (2) dissolution / entropy and (3) bio-mechanical anxiety. All three address some dimension of uniformity; indeed, it could be said that von Sternberg’s work tends towards this state.
In Antonio Corradini’s (Italian, b.1668 – d.1752) veiled marbles, the material uniformity of the sculpture inspires a mixed reaction – on the one hand, awe for the remarkably sumptuous treatment of wispy veils and supple flesh which appear completely lifelike and at once curiously indistinguishable; on the other, a sense of horror at what might be imaged as ghastly, melting bodies. Like Corradini’s marbles, Von Sternberg’s slug – and indeed the bulk of the work in this series – appears both erotically trapped in spillage and hideously as spillage. The dissolved thing emphasizes that breakdown of form to a point that exceeds the possibility of recuperation– a thing beyond the point of being re-formed. Indeed, “melting is the entropic process par excellence.”  It is this operation that makes the dissolving thing especially seductive and hideous, straddling the line between common objects and what Michel Leris called in his notes on Joan Miro “the ambience in which we live like jellyfish or octopi.” 
In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the eponymous lifeform had been inspired by Swiss artist HR Giger’s Necronom IV, a print included in the artist’s 1977 Necronomicon. Referred to in later installments of Alien as the “xenomorph” (literally, “other/alien form,”) the creature closely resembles the series’ various slimy, claustrophobic interior architectures, emerging quietly from the bodily backdrop of the spacecraft in what are now iconic jump-scares. Indeed, this style of the film’s sets owes considerably to Giger’s blurring of boundaries between his sci-fi subject and the architectures they inhabit in his own work, which remains a critical touchstone in the aesthetic history of bio-mechanical imagery . The xenomorph costume in which actor Bolaji Badejo performed was coated with KY Jelly before shoots, and heavy globs of the lubricant applied over the mechanical head prop to exaggerate the sexuality of the alien’s genital-like mouth parts. As in much of Geiger’s visual art, the xenomorph is partly architecture, partly person, partly sex-toy. It is a creature of condensed utility – a slippery, sexualized machine for reproducing its own likeness with insectoid efficiency. Von Sternberg’s “slug” is precisely this type of lubricated monster. That this border between the organism and its environment should break down at the level of lubricant would indicate that the slug is as much its form as its substrate – the viscous slime that envelopes and propels it. The brevity of such a sculptural gesture makes for a monster which is not simply efficiently embodied but that which embodies efficiency.
 The Prisons were published as a series of fourteen prints in 1750, reworked over the following eleven years, and republished in 1761 as the “complete” sixteen.
 This treatment also locates von Sternberg’s frame of reference in a certain “dystopia-now” aesthetic tradition, iconically addressed in JG Ballard’s “Concrete Island” (1974).
 Hal Foster, “A User’s Guide to Entropy,” October Vol.78 (1996) p. 53.
 “(…) this liquefaction, this implacable evaporation of structures … this flaccid leaking away of substance that makes everything, us, our ideas, and the ambience in which we live like jellyfish or octopi.” – Michel Leiris, “Joan Miro,” Documents V (1929) p. 264.
 “(…) in [Roger] Caillois’s early essay the boundary condition is precisely what breaks down in what is described as a form of insectoid psychosis, as the animal is unable to hold the distinction between itself and its leafy milieu intact. Caillois compares this condition to that reported by schizophrenics who feel themselves dispossessed and even devoured by the space around them.” Rosalind Krauss, “A User’s Guide to Entropy,” October Vol.78 (1996) p. 40.