Choreographing the Ephemeral, or, More Art Stuff

TWA terminal, Eero Saarinin, photo by Ezra Stoller, via  Yossi Milo
TWA terminal, Eero Saarinen, photo by Ezra Stoller, via Yossi Milo 

I always seem to find a through-line on my Saturday gallery tours. I’m sure these themes are, to a large degree, ideas that I’m imposing on all the art I see, based on things that I’m thinking about in my own work. This past weekend, after the “blizzard” — an event that seemed cause a little wrinkle in time — we spent an afternoon in Chelsea, and I sensed in a lot of the work a desire to freeze the fleeting, or structure the amorphous. That’s a pretty loose theme, sure. But it works for me. And this ain’t a dissertation, so cut me some slack.

Dieter Roth. Björn Roth, Sugar + Chocolate Casts
Dieter Roth. Björn Roth, Sugar + Chocolate Casts

We started at the super-fancy-pants new Hauser & Wirth gallery for the father-son Dieter Roth. Björn Roth show. Back in 2002, when I taught a class called “Textual Form” at Penn, we talked a bit about Dieter’s Literaturwursts, or literature sausages — and I came to appreciate the expansive list of “ingredients” from which Roth composed his work. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times,

Inspired by the self-destructing mechanical sculptures of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, he favored organic materials like chocolate, dough and sausages to make works that were as mortal and decay prone as humans. He constantly blurred the division between art and life and tended to push his work to the brink of chaos. Process — as disorderly, random and natural as possible — was his overriding interest.

Large Table Ruin
Large Table Ruin

The gallery’s press release echoed that that “process” involved “embracing accidents, mutations, and accretions of detail over time.” Roth’s processual messiness is put on full display in “Large Table Ruin” (begun in 1978), a labyrinthine, fire-trap-of-a-workshop full of art supplies, detritus, old-school film projectors, cameras, audio recorders, and playback devices. All the media devices, themselves of “archival” vintage, spoke to some desire to record, to preserve, the mess and decay.

Fittingly, during the last two years of Roth’s life, when he had embraced his own mortality, he set up cameras in his home-studios and recorded his daily routine. This self-portrait / video-diary, distributed across 128 monitors near the exhibition’s entrance, represents, as the gallery puts it, the “artist’s attempt at illustrating life as the accumulation of vast quantities of fragments of data.” Data, itself no less a “medium” than chocolate or paint — and no less prone to decay — captures the accretions of detail in his daily life and the process of his own mutation.

Solo Scenes
Solo Scenes


Kjartansson’s “The Visitors”

The repetition and documentation of the mundane also seemed to drive Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” at Luhring Augustine. It’s a nine-channel, 64-minute video installation showing a musical performance by various Icelandic musicians, staged at Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. Each screen features a room or outdoor setting at the farm, with a musician playing his or her part in the composition. Kjartansson’s was the last show we saw on our (frigid) afternoon tour — and we seemed to catch the tail-end of the performance, since most of the screens showed cello- and guitar-toting musicians packing up their gear, and some screens had even gone black. Jumping in in media res, I couldn’t discern a plot, but I did sense a vibe — which was probably good enough. As Kjartansson explains in the Times, “My works are all kind of anti-storytelling,” he said. “They’re always about a feeling, but there’s no story.”* But I still want to see how this “feeling” is choreographed across time, so I’ll definitely return and give it the hour-and-change it deserves.

(*Speaking of undiscernable stories, Amy Cutler’s illustrations usually feature beautifully dressed, and distressed-looking, women doing enigmatic things. I saw her recent show — this time, of portraits — at Leslie Tonkonow, and was less taken by them than I am by her more elaborate drawings.)

David Allee, Frame of View

The “architecture” of the installation and the dark room gave Kjartansson’s installation a bit of a voyeuristic quality; I felt as if I were walking around outside the Rokeby Farm mansion, peeking in its windows. David Allee’s photographs at Morgan Lehman represented the opposite view: looking from a familiar inside to the outside world. But the window isn’t the only “Frame of View” in Allee’s show: his photos also call attention to, and flatten into two-dimensional images, the superimposed structural and perceptual frames — screens, photos, picture frames, window frames, spectacles, even the basic principles of perspective — that condition our vision.

Paglen, excerpts from The Last Pictures
Paglen, excerpts from The Last Pictures


Trevor Paglen’s “Last Pictures,” at Metro Pictures, also explores technologies of vision. We see satellites in orbit, and, at the same time, what the satellite sees down here on earth. We surveil the (secret) government surveilors. We scan images inscribed on a disc and launched into space on a Kazakh satellite, for potential interception by other beings whose own processes of vision may be entirely unlike our own. All quite cryptic. And that’s the point.


Suzanne Treister shares Paglen’s desire to visualize the clandestine, to draw out, and freeze in a network diagram, connections that are often expected to evaporate in order to evade detection. Her Hexen 2.0 at PPOW “looks into histories of scientific research behind government programs of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0, increased intelligence gathering and implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society.”

Olivetti Underwood (typewriter) factory, via  Yossi Milo
Stoller’s Olivetti Underwood (typewriter) factory, via Yossi Milo 

Modern architecture was wrapped up in some of those mid-century discussions of “control” — and legendary architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, whose work was on display at Yossi Milo, was one of the prime documenters of modern design’s “organizational complex,” to borrow Reinhold Martin’s term. Stoller’s work, as Michael Kimmelman explained in the Times, “helped fix modern design in America’s consciousness… Immaculate, self-effacing and with a mix of light and shadow revealing every angle and surface, his photographs stressed geometry, transparency, timelessness — like the buildings.” At the same time, he likened his work to being “given a score to play.” He thus captured the choreography of modern design and modern labor. All these great interior shots, many of which I’d never seen before, made me appreciate Stoller anew, as a proto-Gursky.

LIfe Savers factory,  via  Yossi Milo
Life Savers factory, via Yossi Milo

Doug Aitken – 303 Gallery Walkthrough 2013 from Doug Aitken Workshop on Vimeo.

And finally, the great charmer of the afternoon was Doug Aitken’s 100 YRS at 303 Gallery, featuring choreographed water-drops falling into a milky-white pool excavated from the gallery floor (yo, Urs Fischer!); a lightbox flickering the message “not enough time in the day”; a fountain in which mud (which looks like chocolate — or maybe I was reminded of Roth… or dinner) bubbles up from plexiglass letters reading “ART”; and an igneous-rock-like sculpture reading “SUN-SET” set into the wall and illuminated from behind. All are, in some way, references to temporality; all are “choreographed” into forms embodying both permanence and ephemerality; all acknowledge both the immediate and the “deep time” of sunsets, volcanoes and geology. 100 YRS — or more — all in an afternoon.



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