Friday, March 6, 2009

ovastrophe 2009

Last weekend's heavy east coast snow storm allowed Ovastrophe #3 (2009) to take place (finally!), although, what with the bulk of the snow falling late Sunday night/Monday morning, it was clearly going to be complicated trying to get people to find time on a weekday morning or evening to crush shells (unlike a Friday storm).  Still, the "emailing everyone at the last minute / take the snow when it comes" aspect of the ovastrophe is a constraint I imposed upon myself: "weather" is part of the work, it troubles any regular calendar, makes the rite less predictable, more fragile, and makes my flurry of activity and emails part of the weather too.

Tuesday morning was frigid but the sun was amazing, and the snow had remained clean and relatively smooth.  It's amazing how fast a handful of people can crush 124 eggs.

Turmeric or mustard powder? Statice calyxes (right).  Spirulina (upper left).

Strangely, I can't see the hibiscus as much this year: 2006's ovastrophe had swathes of hot pink, but this one had a more lunar feel.

Cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, hibiscus, egg shells, statice.

Just like in 2006, a photographer for The Villager was wandering around, and we once again got some local press (I felt very reticent and awkward when asked to supply some sort of artist statement, and mentioned process art, the ephemeral and the performative, vague echos of Holi - the festival of colors, etc.).

The next day: statice calyxes, a piece of shell, the pink glow of hibiscus.

For as much fun as the smashing is, I also love the half-melting next day: the hibiscus powder seeps into the snow and gives a diffused pink glow, the tiny beads of red peppercorns sink into the snow, bits of green grass start poking out.  In a few days little will be left besides the statice and some egg shells.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

pli sur pli

The current retrospective of works by Piero Manzoni (Italian, 1933-1963) at the Gagosian in Chelsea was a total revelation to me (  The show is open until March 21).  While I have seen the odd Manzoni piece tucked into museum rooms of European Pop Art and Arte Povera (next to Lucio Fontana's cut or poked canvases or Yves Klein's blues) this is the first time that Manzoni's brilliance has really hit me.

There is a large selection of "Achromes" at the Gagosian, white gesso, clay (kaolin) and glue canvases of frozen sags and pleats that groove somewhere in the space between Fontana's cut slits and Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman's meditations on white.  A later piece by Manzoni in the next room looks like these early "achromes" from far away, but up close it shows itself to be stacked straw.  It made me laugh.

(Not a Manzoni - the Gagosian is intolerant of off-the-cuff photography. Cat fur and barbeque skewers.)

Later "Achromes" abandon the folded canvas and use instead monochromatic cotton balls, cotton pads, fiberglass, rabbit skin, or bread rolls arrayed in boxes or frames.  The result plays both as abstraction and formalism (the fibrous depth of white) and as a consumerist recycling or critique (like the Nouveau RĂ©alistes Klein, Arman, Christo, Spoerri).  The cotton ball and pad pieces in particular -- turned slightly yellow at the edges over time -- have a 1960's make-up vibe that reminds me of heavy eyeliner and Camelot cocktail parties.

There is also some of Manzoni's later work in the gallery, a period when the performative and the piss-taking (of the art market) came powerfully together (as in the sealed cans of artist's shit), and if he had lived longer, one suspects that Manzoni might well have been a household name.

[On a related note: I have to admit that I never been a great fan of Jim Dine -- whose colorful hearts are ubiquitous in the art press  -- but the Pace Wildenstein show ( ) of his Hot Dream (52 books) -- one book created every week -- was amazing.  The creepy Pinocchio's and Santa Claus-with-devils photographs are Paul McCarthy-esque, and the whole audio, poetry, collage, book, red mayhem of the show was as good and fun as anything out there.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

swimming in long island

Currently at PS1 Contemporary Art Center (A Museum of Modern Art Affiliate in Long Island City New York ) one can find Argentine artist Leandro Erlich's "Swimming Pool" (this, after ten years of trying to bring the piece to NY; it was first conceived in Texas in 1999, where Erlich was an art student).  The two-story installation has visitors first come to the pool from above - step ladder at the side, ripples on the surface, haunting figures of others visitors floating (?) below - then, by wooden stairs off to the side, one crosses - clothed and dry - through the pool wall and into the deep.  The illusion for the upstairs crowd is enhanced when downstairs patrons splash their arms about and do the crawl "underwater".

While perhaps "simple" (compared to other concept/content heavy works at PS1 right now), the piece is direct, effective, and playful - and in the chilly New York  (where, unlike sunny Southern California, swimming pools are rare) winter, the sight harkens to a long-lost and much-regretted summer.  Erlich is from a family of architects, and one sees architectural issues of status and living space playing out with lingering emotional splashes (Marco Polo, bee stings, bleachy eyes, adolescent groping).

This being said, the piece is also a disturbing lie: it has a surreal pop ("a swimming pool! here?") at first glance, but so tames the nature of pools that, in the end, I wasn't sure if this lie was or wasn't also part of Erlich's intentions.  What is so off-putting?

First, while the surface of the water is cleverly counterfeited, it remains untraversable.  No shoves, toe dips, lost quarters, or cannon balls will break the water.  The pool is thus reduced to surface - to Looking Glass mirror-ness without a "through" - and hi-jinks, horseplay, trepidation (is it too cold?) and occasional annoyances ("stop splashing!") are liquidated.  Whether you use a ladder or steps to descend slowly into a pool, or take the plunge, whether you try to mitigate the sudden shock of cold or embrace it, a real swimming pool is perhaps the only time that humans feel their body gliding through a plane from one world to another.  But not here.

Once under the waves, a real estival swimmer faces other challenges, other risks: his or her weight, the problem of holding breath, trying to focus or grope about, the chill, the air caught in the puffing shorts... Erlich's simulacrum however  makes swimming unswimming: another walk about the room.  The play of light above and the shimmering ghosts of those looking down remind us of "being below", but no more than pre-made postcards of Paris capture the subtle touch of a lover's hands in the pre-dawn fog while crossing the Pont des Arts.

Which is to say that by these loses, by the deficiencies of Erlich's work, other pools and pooling moments may come (if we seek them) flooding upon us.  These things that this work fails to bring.  Preteen awkwardness while changing at the Y.  Aching fatigue after laps.  Amorous glances in the pool or during showers.  Tarps puled over above-ground pools, caked in rotting leaves and deep green algae.  Childhood peeing.  Vacation packages in cheap hotels, towels lain on lounge-chairs strung with vinyl.  Hot tubs and sexual adventures.  Slips at the edge and stern warnings about running or shoving.  Inflatable splashers.  Slides, boards, lanes, debris catchers.  Swimming holes in old quarries.  The feel of the hot bricks and the beaming sun as you pull yourself out shivering.  One wonders if even such common loci as kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms can hit such a complex nexus of memories and emotions, both of space and status, but also the body -- the fundamental nature of breathing and muscle, the womb, the skin, sex -- of family, of risk, of play and of aging.

Which is to say that I would rather there had been a real pool here, and that someone had pushed me in.

p.s. I expect that much has been written by phenomenologists about the differences between beaches, swimming pools (of which there is an amazing diversity), reflecting pools (both the clean coin-peppered versions seen in our capitals and the algae-incrusted still dark tains found in jungle temples), boating pools, Renaissance and Baroque fountains with tritons rising or sculpted grottos lost in the byways of overgrown parks, gay baths... these and others each draw us, haunt us, scare us by turns, in ways that our language seems hopeless to fully illustrate. 

p.p.s. I wonder sometimes if the iconography of the swimming pool and of the bather in gay-related art, fiction and movies -- David Hockney, "Gods and Monsters", "Milk", "Death in Venice", "Dancer from the Dance", Herbert List, Bruce Weber, porn, and so forth -- doesn't also perform (frequently) a kind of simplification/reduction of the pool as "locus amoenus" ("pleasant, lovely place"), a rhetorical term used to describe the groves and shadowy valleys from which poets speak of nature, love and simple pleasures...  The individuals splashing about in most of these works are rarely screaming tots or sluggish over-tanned and slightly over-weight old lions, but rather stunning youths and young men at the epitome of their classical beauty.  Which is fine as a short-cut for talking about desire, but hopelessly insufficient for plumbing the soul.  "The Swimming Pool Library" is perhaps an exception.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

misty light, hot white, ghost sheen

It's the last Sunday of the Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) show "Take Your Time" (Aprl 20 - June 30) split between The Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York.  The scorching humidity outside barely let up today even when the skies ripped open and deluged the Gay Pride marchers.  The weather inside was just as affecting.

The MOMA show is made up of thirteen large scale and effective pieces, including a wildly swinging fan cum pendulum, kaleidoscope rooms, long corridors in a monofrequency yellow, strobe-caught water drips, and a moss covered wall.  Frequently, Eliasson's tools are utterly simple (small motors that rotate wires, strobes, mirrors), but the effects -- because of the complicated unspeakability of one's associations to light, mood, memory, damp, dark and breeze -- defy simple analysis.  References abound, of course, to a generation of Southern Californian light artists (James Turrell, Robert Irwin); to Larry Bell's boxes; and even, by antithesis, to Judd and Serra (Eliasson's "1 cubic meter of light" - a misty box made of light beams), but the pieces work well without knowing any names.  One finds joy (kids love chasing the swirling fan), mystery, meditation; one feels the weight of light (the yellow corridor reduces and transforms fabrics and skin into variations of tweed and plastic); one lingers and breathes.

While aspects of the P.S.1 show on the other side of the river seemed more like marginalia (and here I am thinking of Eliasson's numerous musings on geodesic domes, kaleidoscopes and filtered glass in the side galleries), the curators' use of the old public school building was brilliant: on the top floor (in the stifling heat) were placed Eliasson's luminescent pieces; on the basement floor (in the cool musty half-light) the water works.  Spending time alternating from top to bottom was akin to spending time in the Russian baths: heating, exhaustion, relaxation, healing.

The P.S.1 crowd favorite was likely the gigantic foil mirror suspended and rotating above the reclining visitors, but for me  the most hard hitting of the entire two-site show were (upstairs) the "Neutral Light Set-up" (a room bathed in ever changing hues of off-white light) and (downstairs) "Beauty" (a billowy iridescent curtain of mist in a dark vault).

Despite the heat, I found myself camped on the floor of the neutral light room (see video) in utter amazement of the ephemeral, the powerful emotional connotations (cloud sky sheen) of the hues and they way they painted the walls.  All of a sudden, some five minutes into my meditation, perhaps under the bright white, all the floaters in the back of my eyes came into view and lingered.

If a person could marry a piece of art, I would propose to Eliasson's Beauty.  The mist falls not as streams or a flattened sheet, but in a undulating pillowy-ness that catches the light on one side and shimmers in rainbow threads, while from the back the white glow lights it like a waterfall seen from cave mouth.  People irresistibly need to touch the spray, some blow on it, some walk through it (from the back, the effect is highly cinematic), and from the right spot one knows what it means to love with a fire light heart.

(NB: while MOMA has a camera (no flash) ok policy, P.S.1, strangely, has a no-camera rule.  Get it together guys!)