Holden Head

August 14 – 28, 2022

written by Jordan Martins

I visited Holden Head’s exhibition at Bird Show looking for a sign.

Moreover, I had promised my six year old daughter that she would be able to see and hear worms inside the work, which I hoped would excite her curiosity enough to soften her resistance having to leave the house to join my wife and I on this visit. Situated in the corner of the back deck space of Bird Show, Head’s work held a ritualistic presence –  a metal table supporting a vertical plexiglass container with dark colored dirt, which formed a perimeter around a central mass of white clay kaolin powder. A thin black wire extended out from the exposed top of the display, connecting a buried microphone to a small bass amplifier housed beneath the table.

There were worms inside this dirt we were told, but we saw no visible trace of them on the day we visited early on in the run of the exhibition, neither directly poking out of the soil or clay, nor indirectly through trails of soil carved into the white clay by the worms as they penetrated the material and excreted their waste as a marker of their presence. The microphone was our only connection, so we listened in closely to the amplifier for any vibrations that could alert our senses to the presence of worms. My daughter and I leaned our heads in as we adjusted the dials, increasing the volume and tone knobs searching for a signal, as though the device were a radio picking up a mysterious internal broadcast.

I questioned if the sounds we heard were evidence of the worm’s presence, or instead phantoms being pulled from the noise and feedback of the amplifier by our own perceptual faculties seeking to find what we were looking for. How would we know? What does worm noise sound like? My thinking continued to morph around this experiment as I now questioned if the piece itself was staged not to produce a clear sensory connection to these hidden worms, rather to provoke this uncertainty of perception. What at first felt like a scientific experiment now felt more and more like a hermeneutic test of faith. 

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard deconstructs the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac to render faith not as an act of “infinite resignation”, rather, as a state of suspension between dissolving into an infinite reality beyond our comprehension and remaining grounded in the world. Isn’t it kind of fucked up that Abraham was about to kill his son and then God sent him a sign and he’s just like, “okay, nevermind. Isaac, you okay?” What if Abraham had misinterpreted the sign or missed it entirely? What if God sent another sign that Abraham interpreted as “okay, we’re back on, kill your son please”? Faith isn’t an act of shrugging one’s shoulders.

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the Fremen worship a giant sandworm deity whose name, Shai-Hulud, is a play on an Arabic phrase meaning “Thing of Immortality” or “Thing of Eternity”. Locals look for “worm sign” to predict when one may be approaching, interpreting vibrations on the desert surface as well as bursts of static electricity that form above it as they approach from the depths. Turning a worm into a god is on one hand an ironic transformation of a humble and not all that powerful creature into a deity and creator of the universe. On another, it amplifies a common association with worms and mortality, as the creatures who inexorably transform corpses into dirt and continue the ongoing cycle of life and death. The actual sandworms on the desert planet, which are the basis for this cosmic worm-creator mythology, are terrifying creatures that emerge violently from the sands to annihilate anything causing vibrations. 

The plexiglass structure holding the dirt and clay,and presumably worms, in Head’s installation somewhat resembles the size and shape of a tombstone—another structure that asks a visitor to connect to some invisible presence beneath the surface. As a sign, a tombstone points to the past by invoking a life that is no longer living. It points to the present by acting as a signpost for the un-visible place where the body loses its final form, dissolving into the earth completely. And when we erect these tombstone-signs, there’s a presumption of indefinite extension into the future. This will always be here to point to these things. 

I once happened upon a small park in London filled with people on their lunch break, only to realize that the perimeter of the site had hundreds of centuries-old tombstones stacked up against one another. Clearly the city had made the judgment call that these markers had served their purpose and no longer needed to demarcate the precise spots where each corpse had been buried. As signs, they were still signifying and memorializing past lives, but now in an untethered state. In a barely century-old city like Chicago, it’s hard to conceive of time and death accruing to a point where such decisions would be made. But I imagine we’ll get there one day. 

Some weeks after my visit to Bird Show, my test of faith ended when photographic updates were emailed to me and they showed what had been promised: pathways of dirt penetrating the white kaolin clay as the worms had made their way through these materials, and even part of a worm pressed against the plexiglass! Delicate patterns formed as the worms eroded the barrier between the black dirt and white kaolin. Subtle sifting in each material had started to create small scale patterns that resembled more macro-cosmic geological formations. In the simplicity and directness of seeing worms touch the kaolin clay it is easy to overlook and helpful to remember that they are blindly navigating through mineral deposits formed nearly one hundred million years ago as the hardest rocks slowly weathered down into the softest powder.