Installation's Crash Landing

John Haber
in New York City

Ugo Rondinone and Martin Boyce

Christoph Draeger and David Byrne

All those massive installations these days, as overstuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey, can easily make one overlook something: the artist is not there. The star of the show has departed, leaving visitors to rattle around a cluttered but still empty interior.

Ugo Rondinone and Martin Boyce focus on the emptiness, from a fiery yellow in the bare pebbled garden at SculptureCenter to a burnt-out fire and fragmentary mobile inside. The artists in a group show there prefer the violence that led up to an abandoned automobile and a locked gate to nowhere. Christoph Draeger for once invites one into his dystopia, while David Byrne makes collective clanking around an empty hall not just fun, but a musical event. First, though, how did art get, literally, into this mess? Ugo Rondinone and Martin Boyce's We Burn, We Shiver (photo by Jason Mandella, SculptureCenter, 2008)

Burned out

The fashion for trashing the gallery must come in handy for artists. It gains them attention from the crowds flitting anxiously among hundreds of nearby galleries—in a period I still like to call Modernism pressed for time. It responds to that wider audience for art with a correspondingly more straightforward message. It acts out the same kind of adolescent male fantasies that also dominate the movies right now. It certifies artist and dealer as players who can afford to make a mess, and it reflects pretty much everyone's anxiety about the global mess that the United States and others have made. All the same, it expands on a very different past generation of art.

It merges the found object of appropriation and Pop Art with Minimalism's object for itself. If puts the viewer in the picture, and it forces attention to one's surroundings. Michael Fried famously slammed Minimalism as theater, but the metaphor had its limits. The play was unfolding in the infinite quiet and slow time of perception, and the viewer shared both playwriting duties and the stage. Now the play has a plot again, as rapidly paced and scary as an action flick. Now, too, as in site-specific art this fall at the Guggenheim, the artist is clearly running the show.

Still, that very self-presentation leaves an obvious absence, and art has been there before as well. Every portrait is a memorial, and new media have exploited real-time data from Wall Street or earthquakes to identify representation with actual loss. In an installation, one gets to stumble around the ruins. When Draeger sets out soft furniture, cracked glass, and broken jigsaw puzzles, one can revel in disaster. When Byrne turns on the sound, one can hear the echoes. At SculptureCenter, though, one can experience absence in a simpler form.

Ugo Rondinone wants to return to a simpler life, but it needs a paint job. For two summers his aluminum tree has faced Battery Park, its branches bare and painted white, as if to lock in winter. At SculptureCenter, he spray-paints the courtyard pebbles a fiery yellow, while a show about "Landscape and Affect" burns in the basement below. Rondinone also has responsibility for the rainbow on the front of the New Museum, shouting Hell Yes. This time he flings color with hellish abandon.

He and Martin Boyce call their show "We Burn, We Shiver," and already Rondinone has taken visitors to extremes. His touch-up job continues indoors, too, where he mysteriously turns down the heat. A vintage fireplace hides the old warehouse gate, with no fuel but plenty of soot. A river stone on the floor, cast in bronze and filled with lead, similarly improves on nature while weighing down its processes. For the sole sign of life, the Swiss-born artist leaves his hand print in the sheetrock—his gesture preserved but its impulse denied.

Boyce, a Scottish artist, barely disrupts the hall until one looks up. A rod and the metal twist of a surgical splint make a fragmentary mobile. A half-lit fluorescent fixture covers the ceiling with its broken geometry. Outdoors, cryptic signs cross two panels as shadowy as photographic negatives. Again, time appears to have turned down the heat. As for picking up the pieces after the show, maybe someone will paint the pebbles gray.

Words of the prophet

New York has never been safer, but the violence has spread to Queens. A few months before Rondinone and Boyce emptied things out, Tom Burr (shiver) shared SculptureCenter with the latest in its series of group shows, "In Practice." Burr created stage sets for Modernism's dissolution. Starting in the garden courtyard ever devoid of greenery, things came apart more aggressively and firmly in the present, with an imagined car wreck amid the white pebbles. As with Luca Buvoli, sculpture is looking dangerous.

In this work, two badly wrecked automobiles face one another at a slight angle and a safe distance, as if drawing back in silence after a disaster. Only by coincidence did Burr's show inside pay tribute to Frank O'Hara, who died after a speeding vehicle struck him one morning in 1966.

Erik Smith has something else in mind than mourning, however. In their face-off, as in their contrasting black and white, the cars suggest both a collision and a symbiosis. The words spray-painted across the first car's passenger door also make one question one's own role in this not quite closed system: Who Among You. The completion of the message, half-hidden on the far side of the second car, then has one wondering at the silence: Deserves Eternal Life?

For Smith, the words of the prophet are a kind of graffiti, even if not quite on subway walls. The group show continues in the museum's basement corridors, once used for trolley repair. Most of it, too, implies a visitor's endangerment. Alix Lambert creates a dark record of murdered journalists in Russia's crony capitalist free-for-all. Drew Heitzler edits a largely forgotten film of a sailor's equally strange night on the town—played by Dennis Hopper, looking rather like a barely pubescent Paul Newman.

Haley Mellin and a collective called Forde and the Ashbirds also continue Smith's graffiti theme, with suitably threatening but not terribly meaningful totems and symbols. As so often at SculptureCenter, however, the best art exploits the tunnels most. Agathe Snow dares one to crawl through curtain after curtain, ring after ring, of urban debris, while Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova responds with a moment of quiet grace. Two wrought-iron gates allow one to experience the industrial confines as a private park. Locked from the outside only, they offer a kind of antidote to entrapment. Best of all, one can take home the key.

Will the key open the next installation? Byrne's summer show in a neglected ferry terminal invited the public into public art as never before. Meanwhile, one last artist returns to harping on his favorite theme, and for once he, too, allows others to hang around.

World without end, amen

Christoph Draeger may not be over his sense of impending doom, but he is learning to enjoy it. He is also learning how to share it with others—and not just gallery-goers. Now he has found the one sure way to guarantee an unhappy ending: he creates his own utopia.

If that sounds like the recipe for a horror film as well as a political dystopia, he begins with the movies, a collage of Hitchcock with a touch of Antonioni. He chooses the close-ups, layering one upon another. One hardly knows whether to credit the layering, the original director's formal genius, or so many images of desiring for the smooth transitions, but all three help turn the protagonists into the very ghosts they dread. Even beyond the movies, however, Draeger revels in the dread of others. A wood-frame tower burns on video, leaving one unsure whether to think of 9/11, oil refineries, There Will Be Blood, or wildfires out west. A jagged mushroom cloud has pride of place in the rear gallery facing down the entrance hall—in ghastly black-and-white, like a poor-resolution film negative.

Artists today can obsess over any number of catastrophes, and they do—from climate change, war, and economic malaise to an administration that has steadfastly fostered them all. I counted half a dozen examples just this spring, starting with Paul Chan, and that was before a market collapse collided with Damien Hirst at auction. However, Draeger was at this even before Y2K gave way to 9/11. He had to pull a plane-crash video on display at Palm Beach that very day in 2001. Perhaps conspiracy theorists should have looked for his ties to terrorism. His jigsaw puzzles of TWA 800, the Hindenburg, and other news stills have littered group shows, such as the reopening of Exit Art in 2003.

The puzzles have obvious appeal. The playfulness of a toy and its obsessive assembly collide with real-world anxiety. It also could come apart at a touch. Yet the device can quickly grow arbitrary and mechanical. For his solo show, Draeger lets loose. He throws too much at the wall in hope that something will stick, but if it tumbles to the floor, that makes sense, too.

Much of his new jigsaw puzzle, the Nagasaki image, has fallen to the floor, and the cracks have spread. They invade each mirrored tile of a large globe. They also appear in a mock-up of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass, but without its images. When the glass accidentally cracked, Marcel Duchamp pronounced his work finished. Little did he know. His narrative of the bride, the bachelors, and the chocolate machine never made all that much sense anyway.

Draeger's turn to art history and the movies sure sounds arch. How much more self-referential can art get? However, it helps restore to his art the balance of obsession and play. As for the utopia I promised, it, too, works best as a parody of art—this time the Whitney's warm and cuddly "Summer of Love." One passes through a black curtain covered by a peace sign to catch film of a "hippie movement" that he supposedly created in Warsaw. Well, okay, but one may as well lie on the beanbag sofa, watch the dark expressionist faces in wall hangings, listen to classic rock, and get over one's dread of another disaster, Chelsea.

Hey, hey we're the monkeys

How many monkeys would it take to type the complete works of Shakespeare? Stuck? Try an easier one and a different kind of keyboard: how many Monkees at an organ would it take to play "Take Me to the River"? David Byrne's Playing the Building (photo by the artist, Battery Maritime Building, 2008)

Not even David Byrne can top the hold on the imagination of the "infinite monkey theorem." He does, however, have the ingenuity to undermine any number of musicians curious enough to wander into an abandoned ferry terminal. This time the river in question is the East River, just north of the Staten Island Ferry, where the forlorn green hulk of the Battery Maritime Building slowly decays. Summers its north end houses the ferry to Governors Island, where one of four New York City Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson flowed. The second story to the south is alone worth the trip. New York has its share of public spaces and hidden histories, and this one will compete with any.

The sponsor, Creative Time, has an eye for spaces like this, and Byrne brings out its forlorn green hulk with a small wooden organ. Except for the nonfunctioning organ stops, it looks like an upright piano. One can imagine it as part of Victorian furnishings that never existed. Modern jacks and cables snake out from its back as in a science-fiction movie, giving it a spidery reach. The player faces down the cavernous hall, as do those waiting on line to play. All must sign a waiver, just as when Mike Nelson took over the remains of a Lower East Side food market last fall.

They will not make much in the way of conventional music. The middle range of the keyboard triggers what Byrne calls flutes but sound more like a theremin. The upper keys correspond to solenoids—or metal rods moving through electric coils—and the bottom keys to motors. The tremolo and clanking approach the soundtrack to a horror film without ever quite getting there. Anyone who remembers Talking Heads as robotic should put on the first album, produced by Brian Eno and starting with an exhilarating "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel." Do not expect to thank anyone for sending an angel here.

Probability aside, real chimpanzees at a typewriter develop a fondness for, say, the letter S. Most visitors pound away just as insistently, when they are not too busy posing for each other's tourist snapshots. I can verify, however, that it makes little difference whether one tries chords, scales, modes, melodies, random acts, or a hissy fit. Performers get what they get, with little regard to their intentions—or indeed to challenging their expectations. Nor do the sounds really respond to or represent the architecture, except in the trivial sense that one cannot help but notice one's surroundings. This is lower Manhattan, not the aural cathedral of Janet Cardiff or Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Byrne has sought the intersection of art, music, and performance since his days at the Rhode Island School of Design. He describes this interactive work as music's future, in ceding control of a concert to its audience. In practice, he rigs a truly entertaining stop on a summer-art tour, but he never lets go. Besides, when it comes to democratizing music, guitars already do a pretty good job for this generation, just as upright pianos did for generations before. Byrne calls the work Playing the Building. It is not yet burning down the house, but then this house, too, is already in ruins.

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Ugo Rondinone and Martin Boyce ran at SculptureCenter through November 30, 2008, and the spring 2008 installment of "In Practice" ran through March 30. Christoph Draeger ran at Roebling Hall through November 15, David Byrne's "Playing the Building" at the Battery Maritime Building through August 24, 2008, sponsored by Creative Time.


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