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TODT: Exurbia


If your brain needs a workout and you like a good spectacle, look no further than the TODT show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg. Step one foot inside and your mind will short-circuit with a sudden burst of electricity. Who is TODT and what is this plastic Garden of Eden, this green jungle of tshotchkes?

TODT consists of three artists (two men and a woman) who have worked together since the 1970s. Originally from New York City, they showed at PS1 in the early ’80s, at the Whitney and Venice Biennials, and throughout Europe and Asia. Importantly, TODT is recognized as the first collective in which the members request that their individual identities be nullified by the collective. Membership in TODT is quite demanding; members are constantly pushing each other to their limits, which sometimes leads to “civil war,” as one member described it.

TODT, an old German word meaning “death squared” or “negative to the extreme,” also references Hitler’s chief engineer Fritz Todt, who was known primarily for directing the Reich Autobahn project. In the past, TODT, pronounced by its members to rhyme with either “wrote” or “tot,” has focused on themes such as paranoia, dehumanization, and consumerism.

After spending 10 years working in Cincinnati, TODT has returned to New York to celebrate their exit from surburbia, hence Exurbia, the title of the show in Williamsburg. Through disturbing assemblages of objects such as fake bats (ordered from a taxidermist catalog), pig snouts, fish bait, and fake plants, TODT exposes the zeitgeist of suburbia (and beyond), a value system defined through occupations and objects. The installation is composed of several “islands,” or complex green plastic ecosystems that seem hyperreal. In this extreme world, the thing is king and the human is absent, though one can still find a plastaic half-eaten container of Gerber baby food.

There’s something entertaining and humorous about all this plastic (one wonders where they bought all this junk), but what’s the point? Exurbia certainly succeeds in depicting the enthusiasm of humanity and spiritualism through materialism, though it’s not a cynical view per se. Plastic apples sport miniature false teeth growing out of them and those little lizards from the Halloween store have more spotlight than they’ve ever seen before. As a whole, the exhibition bears a slight resemblance to the Hudson River School of painting on hallucinogens. Exurbia is a world where identity is defined by things and the power to buy them, where plants grow out of baseballs, where everything is available and possible: I buy therefore I am. This is a totem, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just a portrait painting of society, the word according to TODT. 

To a certain extent, TODT’s work echoes that of other assemblage artists like Edward Kienholz, Jon Kessler, and Donald Lipski. However, like Dada, Exurbia suggests a frustration with society, a celebration of contradiction, and a desire to expose culture’s true essence. We are in a period of “primitive modernity,” one member of TODT explains. The collapse of ancient values and the eradication of superstition, taboo, and divine right of rule as guiding principles have left this newly “modern” society with no choice but to christen material objects and endow them with meaning.

To make things even more complicated, although Exurbia is inspired by an American phenomenon, in their manifesto entitled Milk Money, TODT claims that we are all stuck in a global identity crisis in which “object and environment evaporate around us…consumed by that invisible vapor which riddles them electrically.” Who knows what the next 50 years will bring? Hopefully at least a few more exhibitions from the provocative TODT. 


Rachel Gordon


The Brooklyn Rail


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