Bright Lights, Big City

John Haber
in New York City

New Media 2007: Terence Koh and Anthony McCall

Jesper Just and Doug Aitken

Once new media looked so simple. Not any more, and I do not just mean simple as a concept. Forget a grainy past, in the dim, flickering light of a recycled cathode-ray tube. Forget even the distinction between digital art as computer driven or as video. Now artists have the power to flood the world with light.

Terence Koh uses light so intense that his installation spills out from a museum room one often skips, to take over the entire lobby. Anthony McCall has one not just stumbling in the dark, but stumbling to avoid crashing into lines, walls, and volumes of light. Jesper Just makes darkness into a film noir cliché, but only before exploding into a preposterous fireworks display. Doug Aitken may not have as obviously bright a light source, but his projections cover the walls of a museum tower eight times over. Almost on the eve of the Oscar ceremonies, it promised New Yorkers a night on the town. Doug Aitken's Sleepwalkers (Museum of Modern Art, 2007)

Each emphasizes formal, sensual experience. However, each also brings out a change in new media almost everywhere these days. By their slickness and their interest in projection itself, they are making art like and about the movies. A fall 2008 postscript takes Aitken on his search for the real America.

Light deprivation

Suffering from winter light deprivation? Terence Koh more than makes up for it, but with a nagging reminder not to stare at the Sun. The Whitney promises a "cosmic event," akin to "creation of dark matter," but it has little to do with mass, heat, gravity, or a boundary for light and far more to do with the cinema. Koh fills the small lobby gallery with blinding illumination. Whiteness extends everywhere, keeping one apart rather than sucking one in. Not even museum visitors can share the space.

At least it seems that way at first, for the work occupies what astrophysics might term a larger event horizon. A white screen covers the facing window. From the outside, the museum appears inexplicably opaque. Those waiting for an elevator become actors in a shadow theater, and most seem to enjoy posing. Koh manages to snag visitors who might normally head straight for the café or a more prestigious exhibition upstairs. They cannot stay for long, but then where could they safely stand?

As one surrenders one's ticket, a slippery curtain of light covers the lobby floor. I crossed it gingerly and headed for the gallery, using a newspaper to shield my eyes. As a dutiful reporter, I wanted to observe how the arc to either side of the source transforms the room into a rounded, empty proscenium. Besides, I did not want to fall flat on my face. The Whitney describes the scene as a "seductive yet inaccessible diorama," like an empire for Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but I felt only relief when the guard pointed to a taped line on the floor and turned me away. James Turrell and his soft volumes of natural light belong to another era, before today's rising stars (in quite another sense), heightened theater, and gay culture—each a point of reference here.

Koh lays claim to that past era's multiple boundaries, but none of them shifting, and they end on a movie screen. His work involves objects, but mostly illusory ones, and its four thousand watts discourage contemplation. It depends on the viewer's interaction, but not necessarily a voluntary one. It fulfills a classic definition by Michael Fried of Minimalism as theater, but with at least two stages sets, one always empty. It lends itself to grand metaphors, but dubious ones, and I can only imagine a still larger version in Zurich. Something this outrageous and contradictory could well exemplify both the limits and interest of installation art now.

Anthony McCall has much the same play with light and object, concept and megawatts, seduction and terror. However, his latest installation has a more traditional relationship to the gallery, less ironic glances at the recent past, and a lasting impact. One reaches it past two rooms of sedate drawings defining its elements, like a geometry lesson from Sol LeWitt. The very basis of his art lies in the construction of point, line, plane, and volume. A projector sends out a sheet of light, which defines a preternaturally well-defined curve, while altering the viewer's perception of the intervening space. Yet each element has its own slow, patient motion, and they, too, create a shadow theater.

When McCall appeared in a fall 2005 group show, I saw most this interaction between art and science, between corporeal sensation and meditation on form. Large outlines on the floor changed places in a slow dance, and in entering the alcove one danced with them. Here the shapes seem more arbitrary, while the horizontal projection slices across a thoroughly dark, enclosed room, like a film projector that has taken control of the theater. The shifting walls of light look formidable, almost impenetrable, and dizzying. I overheard visitors wishing that they could stay all day, but here, as at the Whitney, I felt grateful to escape intact. The banal drawings out front hardly prepare one for the larger fragmentation of experience, and I can now last the rest of the winter without a sunlamp.

Just thinking

Nothing defines new media, beyond its past, present, and future. That sounds innocuous, but it runs counter to almost everything one has heard from its friends and foes alike. Many still insist on a unique role for video or digital art, one that can avoid the constraining forms, markets, and academies of the past. With its direct access to real-time data, it can even more directly mirror nature—or free human beings from nature, into a world of cyborgs and simulacra.

A belief that "the media is the message" reflects nostalgia for 1960s in more ways than one. Marshall McLuhan aside, it has the way too much in common with any other formalism. It revives late Modernism in Postmodern dress, missing the very plural in "new media." That plural expresses itself in gaps between media, between a work's creation and its place in the world, and between the strikingly varied genealogies for new media today.

And those genealogies keep changing—along with burgeoning art markets and sheer computing power. What began with underground movies, records of performance art, or the clunky and joyful TV sculpture of Nam June Paik now echoes the latest video games and Hollywood productions. Artists may compete with slick consumer products, resemble them despite the best of intentions, or take them as metaphors for their art. Sometimes one hardly knows which.

Jesper Just has still stronger connections to a darkened cinema, surely the ultimate in what he has called his Romantic Delusions. He makes art as Kafka would have, if only the hunger artist had Technicolor, a great sound system, and the Finnish Screaming Men's Choir. Previously, the Danish video artist's jowled alter ego had to answer to the ominous ring of dozens of telephones. In Copenhagen, apparently, God does not yet dispense judgment by broadband. For his second New York show, the filmmaker's existential crisis ends in Long Island City, with a terrific view of Manhattan. If you have read about real-estate plans on the waterfront, you will understand the fireworks.

It Will All End in Tears has three parts. In the first, set in a misty garden, a handsome young man and his relentless marching drum stir the middle-aged hero to a reawakening, undirected lust, madness, and abjection. In the second, that actual men's choir turns a jury box into a lecture hall or theater—or perhaps vice versa. It duly screams its verdict, which turns out to follow the lyrics of "I've Got You Under My Skin." Judging by the monotone delivery, God has not yet learned how to swing. Finally, on the roof of Silvercup Studios, it does all end in tears and, yes, fireworks.

Just's settings look reasonably nice on film. The appropriation of Cole Porter tempers his strivings for profundity with something almost approaching humor. And, hey, film noir is in. However, Just raises a broader issue: how will artists deal with the growing temptation to merge the conventions of single-channel video with Hollywood production values? Pipilotti Rist and Rist in retrospective, Matthew Barney, Bill Viola, and even Shirin Neshat have succumbed, not all equally well. In the future, the merger could become that much more subversive of both art and popular culture—or new media could all end in tears.

Call it sleep

Not everyone is crying. Whatever one thinks of the Museum of Modern Art as a part of the urban fabric or a home for art, it offers a glowing image of Manhattan at night. Those towering galleries filled with light look right out of the movies. One can almost forget that the art within grapples with lives beyond midtown's displays of power, wealth, and beauty. One could forget, too, that, as with the former Museum of American Folk Art and Rain Room, it uses the space next door for a real-estate deal and a light show.

So, too, does a video by Doug Aitken, projected on those sleek walls after dusk. Sleepwalkers follows a cross-section of New Yorkers on their daily grind, from a bicycle messenger to a corporate executive. They abandon sleep, reach for a shower and coffee, endure a commute, glance in shop windows, walk down faceless corridors, and fall into their routine. One sorts mail, in a futuristic office that makes simple tasks a test of reflexes. One gets struck by a taxi and may or may not recover, and no one shares a frame with another human face. All the same, Aitken's lingering over surfaces turns their anonymity into a dream.

Perhaps no artist would dare project onto the original façade, but one might start across the street from the new south entrance, where the video plays overhead. One could stay to watch all five characters, with their fourteen minutes each of fame, plus two segments with no actors and something close to abstraction. After a while one could try the alley to the museum's west, where lines for MoMA's 2004 reopening once snaked all the way to 54th Street, for two scenes side by side. One could end in the sculpture garden, for projections on three sides—plus all that sculpture on the fourth. In this way, Aitken invites one to see the video alternately as narrative, as parallels, and as fragments of a total experience. The segments run in sync, while rotating across the viewing points.

The segments share some details, such as the rising sun or the back of a coat passing the red arrow of a street sign. Other details serve as variations on a theme, like shower heads and breakfast plates. Bright circles appear again and again, from the sunrise to traffic lights, hubcaps, bicycle wheels, and coffee cups. People proceed languorously, but the background moves crisply, in a flurry of circles, rectangles, and traffic patterns. It echoes Piet Mondrian's work in series or the chill of the Modern itself, not unlike his high-tech furnishings on display at his gallery. Most of all, it derives from Hollywood—like the bleak office spaces of The Firm, the city seen from above in Lost in Translation, or Blade Runner.

Once again video art is having trouble resisting the lure of a multiplex. One expects no less from the garden walls—or a cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Tilda Swinton, and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). The catalog has the allure of an album cover, and the preview on MoMA's Web site has the pace of a DVD trailer. At the end, each character has a cinematic epiphany. The man struck by a cab may get to dance around it, while a white-collar worker loses herself in the intense light of photocopier. The twirl of a silver bracelet releases a wild dance, a construction cable becomes a lariat out of a wild-west show, and a cast-off plastic bucket enables a fury of drumming.

These stories come very close to the bridge of "A Day in the Life." As with McCartney's lyrics in isolation from Lennon's, one does not have to read the news today (oh, boy), and one may never probe the depth of their sustained final chord. In this elegant city, even day laborers attain their dreams, at least in their heads. Still, maybe Aitken's fable of human isolation and hidden connection says something about New York at its best. Where else would I stand in the dark, in subfreezing temperatures, for more than an hour without speaking a word? Where else, too, would I have shared it all with a crowd?

A postscript: westward ho ho ho

When Aitken turned the Museum of Modern Art into an immense video screen, no single time scale could capture the city in motion. A real-time viewer circulated MoMA's new building to see it all. In each of five projections, an individual entered the day's routine as if in slow motion, in parallel to the others—and subject to many more unseen—but alone. Behind them, New York spun and flickered like light sabers. Together, their movements described ordinary existence as personal, communal, glamorous, and alienating.

Aitken's 2008 project extends much the same description to America. Starting on 22nd Street, it radiates outward from a city. A circular wall of abstractions conveys a futuristic architecture, fully three dimensional but crowding to the picture's edge. The tame blue-and-white watercolors owe something to both Cubism and sci-fi comics. In nighttime photographs from a satellite's point of view, actual cities expand horizontally, but they look just as crowded and chilly. Glass boxes reinforce the darkness and the chill.

The boxes snake through the back room and behind the desk, as if to insist on their distance. Their shapes also spell things out, in case one missed the point of their expanse. One spells STAR, punning in more ways than one on a luxuriant city's points of light. Another spells where the expanse is heading, WEST. That means a land of highways, and video in the gallery's new 21st Street space takes one there. Again in case one missed the point, Aitken calls the installation Migration.

The mammals on video look quite capable of seasonal migration, but they are going nowhere fast. A bison just stands there, framed by a motel room. Smaller, cuter creatures nibble and do their thing. Like the Sleepwalkers at MoMA, they appear in close-up, leaving the roadside interiors unrecognizable without a sharp eye and the press release. Isidro Blasco's Shanghai Planet (Black and White, 2008)The close-up gives mundane existence its intimacy—but stands for an enforced displacement and isolation. So does its staggered appearance on three simulated billboards.

The two-gallery exhibition parallels the display in winter 2007, with fancy objects then down in Chelsea. Again video steals the show, but without the commanding scale, the immersion in everyday life, or the formal resonances from screen to screen. Even more this time, Aitken relies on star appeal to get across his message of alienation. If you liked Donald Sutherland and Cat Power, how could you turn down cuddly animals? Still, his installation transforms the experience of video. Billboards in a gallery do not literally engage the viewer in the narrative as midtown could at night, but they might look awfully good along the west-side highway.

Isidro Blasco, too, mixes media to evoke urban displacement, but he locates it in a more realistic social space. Fragmentary photographs of "Shanghai at Last" cover a perilous wooden scaffolding. From the front, they add up to full-scale locations, from skyscrapers to tenements, and for a moment one can imagine penetrating an alleyway market. From the rear, they look more like a makeshift city by Phoebe Washburn. Blasco thinks of himself as a sculptor, and one can see him as adapting old-fashioned architectural models to Shanghai's growth, like a literal slice of life. As photographer, though, he manages to squeeze in a portrait of capitalism and chaos.

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Terence Koh's cosmic event ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through May 27, 2007, Anthony McCall at Sean Kelly through March 17, Jesper Just at Perry Rubenstein through October 28, 2006, Doug Aitken's "Sleepwalkers" at The Museum of Modern Art through February 12, 2007, and his concurrent show at 303 Gallery through February 24. He also exhibited at the gallery with paintings and photographs through November 8, 2008, and video through November 1. Isidro Blasco ran at Black & White through November 15, 2008.


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