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!) 

Friday, June 27, 2008


Olafur Eliasson's four "Waterfalls" in New York's East River (from the Manhattan Bridge to Governor's Island) started cascading yesterday and will continue till October 13.

Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, waxed all Whitmanian over them in her review ( and perhaps there's no reason not to. 

I have liked Eliasson's previous large-scale meditations on weather and light, the meteorological and the artificial, and his use of water in all its states; and the mechanical and ephemeral Waterfalls are a perfect confounding of all of those preoccupations.  My only disappointment is in finding them positioned so far away from the public that their force, roar and spray are intuited rather than experienced.  (People are encouraged to take boat rides to see them from the river; the idea being that their power will echo through the rocking hull... More than a passing ferry?  Doubtful.) And in a humid New York summer, I'd be willing to abandon a degree of safety to have recycled river water douse my clothes.

Having people focus on the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn (straddling the Naval Yards, Downtown and the Lower East Side) is also to remember the historic heart of the shipping, unloading, merchandising,transporting city... a city and a riverfront that are disappearing before our eyes.  The Domino Sugar plant is closed and preservationists are fighting to save its sign.  The Fulton Fish Market is closed and being converted to swanky lofts.  Red Hook is undergoing a loft and Ikea boom.  When the water is turned off, what will be left?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

sachs craft

Tom Sachs' show of recent work (May 8 - June 21) at Sperone Westwater ( in the meatpacking district of Manhattan reveals the 41 year old New Yorker DIY re-appropriator with still a lot to say.  Sachs is probably best known for his (infamous) concentration camp fabricated from a Prada hatbox, his candy jar of 9-mm bullets (which led to his [then] gallery owner Mary Boone being arrested for a night), and his various misuses of Hello Kitty.  And while shock value still has its place in his work today, the strongest pieces go way beyond catty conversations among culturati in martini bars.

The best pieces in the show are "handmade" (more on this in a second) constructions -- boxes, cabinets, odd lamps, Duchampian ready-made-aided works -- which show both an eye to artisanal detail (like inset slots and toggles for keys and hooks) and awkward do-it-yourself bricolage (e.g. hand-burnt letters, exposed wiring).

Particularly stunning is Sachs' "Negro Music": a ghetto blaster and tons of tapes (and a bottle of Jack) safely locked away in a laboratory glove box (through rubber gloves you can switch tapes, hit play, rewind... the Jack Daniels however remains unassailable).  The strange protection offered is of course an illusion, for the sound comes through... as too the disturbing image of white culture testing, genetically modifying, appropriating and taming black cultural production.

The political reappears in other whimsical ways.  Sachs' "Waffle Bike" -- a tricked out bike (riffing off Puerto Rican bikes in New York) with attached refrigerator, waffle maker, a cage for chickens, a flag pole (Norway) and loud speakers (broadcasting Arabic) proclaims a untenable melding of northern European cuisine and Southern itinerant street sellers.  The only thing lacking is seeing it in action.  And syrup.  

In the same way, the kooky "LaGuardia", a observation tower for cats (built on several levels with stairs: liter box, goldfish pond, observation deck...) is both whimsical and disturbingly prison like (what are these cats surveilling?!).

I loved the mandela meets Renaissance dueling cabinet gun chest "Hardcore" in which handmade guns and the tools that were used to make them (pliers, hammers, etc.) -- all lovingly inscribed or etched with punk band names and the track listings from their albums -- are elegantly ensconced and sealed in a beautiful mirrored plywood case.  Once again, a "dangerous" cultural production (hardcore punk, a Brechtian hammer) has been aestheticized and sealed off, but the keys are close to hand and the case can travel.  (I would gladly have opened up the case and started to play... but the gallery do-not-touch-ethos is hard to fight).

I am not enraptured by everything that Sachs puts out.  His foamcore whales, Hello Kittys, pyrographic reproductions of animal fable engravings (do grandparents still give wood burning kits to their grand kids? do you remember the smell of the wood burning under the smoldering stylus?) leave me cold.  

Even more so, I do not know what to make of artistic productions that involve -- Renaissance atelier style -- the mobilization of a crew of (14) assistants (like Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt...).  It seems to me that "DIY" has a hard time surviving a capitalist production method no matter how artisan-based its ethics.  It would be more honest if each and every one of the assistants added their name to the masthead... but that dilemma is also a part of Sachs' attack.

[addendum 6/27:  Sachs "handmade" boxes have  brought me back (by antithesis) to thinking about Toland Grinnell (a Brooklyner, born in 1969) whose work has prominently featured creepy sets of elaborate and luxurious traveling cases and collapsable furniture in Vuitton-style precision.  The design-centered detail of Grinnell's work has always been a stumbling block for me. 
(Here's an interesting interview with Grinnell from 2003:
Grinnell's "Pied-à-Terre" was on longterm display at the Brooklyn Museum through last May: )]