Bureau of Bureaucracy
various hardwoods, veneers, marquetry, mother of pearl, gold leaf, and brass
96 x 36 x 24 in.
Permanent Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The inspiration for the Bureau of Bureaucracy came from the Cabinets of Curiosities built in Europe during the 16th Century. These cabinets had multiple drawers for keeping objects considered valuable and precious at that time, such as coins, unusual stones, and fossils. These cabinets made me think about what objects we consider precious enough to keep in our time, and I realized that today those objects are documents — birth certificates, graduation diplomas, licenses, medical reports, financial statements, passports, and marriage certificates. Such documents result from our interactions with the many bureaucracies that, over our lifetimes, register our existence, certify our competence, authorize our practice, describe our health and wealth, permit our movement, and sanction our union. In contemporary society, documents have become our precious objects because they not only reflect and define who we are and what we may do, but also what we may become. And so I thought it fitting to create a contemporary Cabinet of Curiosity in the form of a Bureau of Bureaucracy which would be designed to display the precious objects of our time — documents — and invite reflection on one of the most important institutions of our modern age: the bureaucracy.

Left to right: Bureau of Bureaucracy, front view closed, front view open, and back view. (Click images to enlarge)

The term “bureau” in the Bureau of Bureaucracy refers to its two meanings: a writing table with drawers, and a place of business where written records are used. I designed the outside of the Bureau of Bureaucracy to suggest a traditional, functional piece of furniture. This is deceptive, for the inside reveals — as in many bureaucracies — a far-from-straightforward story. Thus, the outside is intended to look uniform, imposing, and logical, and evoke an impression of solidity, legitimacy, authority, purpose, cohesion, and permanence. I then designed the inside to unsettle that initial appearance. That is, I inverted perspectives, provided a back entrance, included wasted space and created drawers that are curved or too small to be useful, hidden drawers, secret drawers, and symbolic drawers. On the inside of the bottom case, I created a storage system to display the documents that record my lifetime of interactions with bureaucracies.

The desk, when slid open, reveals a marquetry of the ancient Indian board game of Snakes & Ladders, reflecting the vices and virtues of life. In my marquetry, I made a few modifications to the ancient game in order to symbolize the game of life. First, the snakes and ladders are intertwined on my board because in life vice and virtue are not always distinct or unequivocal. Second, because life is not linear, sequential, or independent, the numbered squares of my board are arranged in an order that, at first, appears random, but is actually a continuous repetition of a Magic Square, the numbers of which, when added in all directions, sum to the same number.

Behind the first door of the Upper Case is a marquetry of four books. These books represent the dual character of bureaucracy in our lives. Elements of bureaucracies, as do the elements of our lives, both enable and constrain us. Thus, “Power” which facilitates forceful action, can also be overwhelming, and as in this case, can push “Humanity” out of the way. “Rationality” which has supported much of our industrialized way of life, is also sometimes at odds with it, and can appear, as here, upside-down and opposed to “Humanity.” Finally, the fourth unnamed book represents the unacknowledged conditions of our lives — enabling because taken-for-granted, but constraining because not recognized or reflected on.

To the right of the book marquetry is a model of the Reading Room of the United States Library of Congress. The Library of Congress houses one of the largest collections of documents in the world, and as such represents the empowering aspects of documentation and bureaucracy: information about multitudes of diverse experiences and rich images from around the world and through history. I have built the model of the Reading Room as it appears to the public — bright, open, inviting, accessible, visible, participative, and democratic.

This openness is deliberately opposed on the left with the set of Symbolic Drawers to be found behind the book marquetry. Here I have tried to represent some of the common, constraining aspects of bureaucracies, where rules and regulations become rigid and inhibiting, and where things appear dark, closed, inaccessible, concealed, restrictive, and obscure. So, we find a bottomless drawer, a false drawer, a glass ceiling drawer, a half drawer, a reflective drawer, Weber’s iron cage drawer, a drawer of measures, a drawer within a drawer, a secret drawer, a locked drawer, and a drawer accessible only through a particular hidden procedure. In addition, this section contains three hidden drawers.

The Lower Case includes 20 Document Drawers which hold and display the multiple and diverse documents that I have accumulated over my lifetime of interacting with bureaucracies. I start with my birth certificate, pass through a variety of educational, military, citizenship, licensing, marriage, financial, medical, and business documents, and end with a death certificate (not yet completed). The brass pulls of these drawers are arranged in strict alignment, to suggest how breaucracies see us — through a regimented system of discrete categories.

The back of the piece consists of three sections, which are intended to represent separate views of the world, each enabling and constraining in its own way. The upper section with its focus on a gilded center is a symbolic representation of Western Civilization. The centered focus is suggested by the single-point perspective which became dominant during the Renaissance period. The center of this perspective (the vanishing point) leads to a small door which represents the Back Door to the Bureaucracy. The lower section consists of a series of separate yet patterned panels. This is a symbolic representation of Eastern Civilization with multiple, yet interrelated perspectives. Its situation at the bottom of the piece is intended to suggest our contemporary, modernized neglect of these forms of life. Yet, here they constitute the foundation of my piece. The middle section is a marquetry which displays a Column split off from its origins, the Tree Trunk. This represents the contemporary split between the two civilizations, as well as other false dichotomies such as those between mind and body, between subject and object, and between the material and the spiritual. In time, perhaps these rifts will be reconnected.

View sketches for the Bureau of Bureaucracy

Download the Bureau of Bureaucracy brochure .pdf (4.3 MB)

Detail: Desk (click on Document Drawers, Snakes & Ladders, and the Curved Drawer to view enlarged details).

Detail: Book marquetry and Reading Room of the United States Library of Congress.

Detail: Symbolic Drawers and Reading Room of the United States Library of Congress. (Click on individual drawers to view)

Bottomless DrawerGlass Ceiling DrawerDrawer of MeasuresDrawer Within a DrawerIron Cage DrawerMaster Drawer