Machine Language

John Haber
in New York City

Ghosts in the Machine and Artist Holograms

Come to "Ghosts in the Machine" looking for the machine in art. You may find yourself instead with the ghost of the machine.

Was Modernism the age of the machine, and is that age now over? The New Museum devotes all four floors to it, starting as early as 1810 and continuing to the present day. Step off the elevator, though, and that age may seem empty and quiet. No gears are turning. No engines are roaring. The sole presences appear inside Stan VanDerBeek's Movie-Drome, in ever-changing projections on its balloon hemisphere and in welcoming cushions on the floor. Otto Piene's Hangende Lichtkugel (courtesy of the New Museum, Sperone Westwater, 1972)

Otherwise, the entire floor has just two smaller white domes, from 1970, by Robert Breer. You may wander about, in search of the electric motor to accompany their paint and resin—but they are on wheels, and it lies within. The pods are taking over, only very, very slowly. A show about the life of the machine has surprisingly little life apart, even in a separate display of artist holograms. It is about technology and skills beyond painting, but as old media. Maybe the computer really has changed everything.

Seeing ghosts

The tale is provocative for all its slow spots, but then ghost stories are not supposed to be boring. This one unfolds mostly in the 1960s, with change in the air but a postwar crisis still in everyone's head. The fourth floor also pairs a 1984 painting of a lightning storm, by Jack Goldstein, with a photo by Harold Edgerton of an A-test from before 1952. Edgerton pioneered stop-action photography at MIT, so that the terror of the nuclear age comes with the joy of discovery. Even Goldstein's "Pictures generation," with its critique of the society of the spectacle, has to relish it. Yet the machines are off-stage, like the ghosts and cyborgs within them.

Stan VanDerBeek built his first Drome in 1963, and his imagery, like Chrysler, is suitably iconic. So is the short attention span he enforces, along with room on the floor to hang out and enjoy it, with or without mind-altering substances. The dome alone reflects its time, via Buckminster Fuller, although VanDerBeek first borrowed his from a grain silo. Otherwise, the fourth floor has Op Art on its walls, although Victor Vasarely and Julian Stanczak no longer look all that optically active. Only Bridget Riley pulls off her wish to create a "disturbance." And even that marvel comes laden with nostalgia—what Eduardo Paolozzi's catchy 1963 film calls The History of Nothing.

The curators, Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, set the tone of nostalgia in the lobby. It has The Way Things Go, from 1987, in which Peter Fischli and David Weiss somehow sustain their sequence of collisions and explosions for thirty minutes without laying a finger. Away from Chelsea, one is less likely to think of the passing fads for boy toys, trash art, and flashy installations—and more likely to call it a Rube Goldberg apparatus. And sure enough, upstairs Rube Goldberg was sketching his plans around 1930. He thought of himself as a satirist, but who knew? "Professor Butts" is always smiling.

The lobby also bears red and blue wallpaper designed for the occasion. François Morellet's Random Distribution of 320,000 Squares has something to do with pi (well, actually which of its digits conform to even or odd numbers), but mostly its pixels recall already primitive computer games and monitors. Upstairs Herb Schneider, in the heyday of Bell Labs, does an engineer's 1966 skilled labor on behalf of such luminaries of music, dance, and chaos as John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, and Lucinda Childs. One cannot help noting that his diagrams rely on vacuum tubes and other relics of a solid-state past. Nearby, a replica and photograph call up the "practice model" for a voice synthesizer at the 1939 World's Fair—which living humans are likely to remember for its roles in A Clockwork Orange and then with Kraftwerk. It is silent.

"Ghosts in the Machine" is a history of the machine age, but through multiple filters that place it further and further into the past. It sees machines and art alike as filled with presences, but silent and invisible ones. It includes collaborations between art and science, in some of the great years of great research centers—but also pseudoscience, like the Orgone Energy Accumulator and geometric guides to healing mental illness. It finds ominous parables in literature, like the torture machine in Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony. And it gives even those a history, in twentieth-century embodiments and replicas.

It is about looking back, to the point that even the ghosts have departed—and fears of the bomb never once reappear. It is about parallels, with a handful of contemporary artists, but they come off as the deadest and most mechanical of all. And they, too, see computers as having little to do with today's digital reality. Henrik Olesen wraps an early Apple in plastic foil, cast off on the floor. He also invokes Alan Turing, but as a tragic gender model, with 0's and 1's only incidental. It is, in other words, a postmodern history of a time before Postmodernism, never quite sure whether to recover or to bury the past.

The unmoving machine

Art history may sound like a departure, in a museum that Marcia Tucker founded to insist on the new. The previous month's videos by Tacita Dean took an unusual step back from contemporary art—but Merce Cunningham and Cy Twomby died between the making and the exhibition. "Ghosts" does, though, follow last summer's theme show on Eastern Europe, "Ostalgie," and the earlier "Unmonumental." It also does its homework, with utterly exhausting wall texts, and it does not unfold a chronology. Rather, it organizes itself around themes, parallels, and especially art movements. Op Art is one of many.

The themes often step outside art, even at their most decorative. The section for mental illness, for example, includes mobiles by Emery Blagdon that once carried current, as a cure. Schneider's circuits join Channa Horowitz's Sonakinatography—somewhere between optical experiments and musical notation. The movements in turn are mostly European, like kinetic art from Jean Tinguely and "Le Mouvement" in France, iron filings and other "Programmed Art" from Italy, collage from the English science fiction writer J. G. Ballard, and early computer art from Germany. Peter Milojevic, born in Kosovo and working in Canada, programmed his flowers in Fortran. Naturally Marcel Duchamp and Dada loom over everything—and naturally his Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, makes it into the show through a half-century old replica.

Duchamp's title has a spooky parallel in The Mechanical Bride, by Marshall McLuhan. Optical research, too, has strange parallels, like that between the 1972 Light Ballet of Otto Piene in Group Zero and flashing neon lights by Robert Smithson. Fans of Smithson's entropy will be relieved that he calls them The Eliminator, meaning the eliminator of knowledge. For another rarity, an entire room recreates a 1955 installation by Richard Hamilton, the English Pop Artist—a dreary frame for images of jet packs, ski jumps, and racers. Rarer still, Hans Haacke once suspended a weather balloon over a fan, weighted at its corners by small stones. The same mind that makes political art so dogmatic has the focus to keep blue fabric in perpetual flight.

It is one of the show's rare escapes from stasis—and every bit as beautiful as Dada's "chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" (actually a quote from a kind of patron saint of the movement, Comte de Lautréamont, who died in 1870). Far more often, even kinetic art barely moves, not unlike Duchamp's bicycle wheel. One can relish the exceptions, like a film of cyclists and snowy mountain journeys by a Japanese consortium—commissioned, of all things, by the nation's bicycle industry. One can walk right through a gorgeous volume grid in the dark, in motorized elastic cords under UV light, by Gianni Colombo in 1968, as part of Italy's forgotten Arte Programmata. Even so, nostalgia's wonder hovers over them all. Somehow, a stern film lecture on Man in the Motorcar and the deaths he brings, by Harley Cokeliss in 1971, cannot resist adding, "It sums up everything."

One can almost forget how much Modernism did move—and how much it believed in ghosts. Its elusive presences have their origins long before Dada, enough to have made Plato distrust art. Its horror at the machine goes back to the Romantics, like William Blake, but its factories thrilled and haunted Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, or Thomas Hart Benton in twentieth-century America. Its dynamism drove Futurism, The Contrast of Forms by Fernand Léger, the biplane beside the Eiffel Tower for Robert Delaunay, or The Conquest of Air by Pierre de La Fresnaye. Its love and hatred of the automobile enters a travel across America for Lee Friedlander or the consumer visions of James Rosenquist. A car in molded plastic at the New Museum, by Claes Oldenburg, is a pale substitute.

Sure, one can ask what gets left out and what Op Art is doing there at all. One can give up in exhaustion, faced with science as art or art as textbook illustration—and that much further from the machine or from life. That would be a shame. For once, it pays to browse casually, for whatever one might need. It pays, too, to look for the ghosts of the machine. In Phillipe Parreno's short film, the robot eyes seem to weep.

Ghosts in 3D

The museum calls its artist holograms "Pictures from the Moon." It might adopt the title of the rest of the summer exhibition, "Ghosts in the Machine." Its lobby gallery sure looks ghostly enough for the occasion, with its dark walls and lights from above. Walk past its seemingly blank monitors, though, and colors flicker. Penetrate to the one monitor at the far end, and an entire coiled body comes into view. Bruce Nauman truly does look trapped in the machine.

Eric Orr's Untitled #2 (courtesy of the New Museum, Private Collection, 1995)Talk about new media. When Nam June Paik bought his first Sony Portapak, in 1965, the United States had had broadcast television for thirty-five years—but the first ordinary hologram was just three years old, and the first hologram of a person lay two years away. Yet Nauman was to produce a set in 1968, of his head, and the next year he had crammed the rest of himself into the picture. At first one sees only hands pressing ever so close in that ghostly red. Look closer, though, and their connect and disconnect from his flesh become just as apparent. They are of a piece with the in-your-face video of Clown Torture, only earlier, less familiar, and 3D.

Before 1962, a hologram was just a technique in electron microscopy. In between, of course, came the invention of the laser, which also bathes Nauman in its red—not to mention, in the 1980s in Soho, an actual Museum of Holography, which may sound like a ten-letter word for kitsch. Illumination by an ordinary light source came quickly enough, for a wider if hardly natural range of color, but the medium remains rare in galleries and museums, unless they accept credit cards. The rest of the small show dates mostly from the 1990s, and the work may come as a surprise. Only Eric Orr is associated with it, and the late Californian rarely turns up in New York anyway. For comparison, the last moon landing was in 1972.

Like Nauman, Chuck Close depicts himself—not a bad reminder that he, too, presses human subjects up against the picture plane. As usual, the master illusionist sticks to head shots, which take on the air of an encounter with a mannequin. As one walks past, the medium both exaggerates and undermines their strict frontality and profile. Still learning in her seventies, Louise Bourgeois also evoked the dead, with a figure feet first, in bed, and with the texture of an unwrapped mummy. The museum, though, goes for two still lifes, like her sculpture. They bathe tiny furniture in ruby red, in one case under the glass of an old laboratory, for the disconnect in space and scale.

James Turrell opts for the older transmission hologram, like Nauman's forty years before, but only because he cares most about light as mass in the first place. As two beams cross one another, he somehow photographs color itself. Orr worries mostly about light as well, in that laid-back California Minimalism. Each image shows just three panes, jutting outward, as if John McCracken's planks had got up from leaning against the wall. In reproduction, they smear slightly, like melting plastic or strokes of paint. They also look like an experiment that an actual physics student might have done, like myself once, with spare parts.

It never makes much sense to ask, Is that art? To say no, one has to lose the knack for seeing it as art—and for seeing artists for what they do. Still, one can see why even 3D glasses are struggling to take on enough of their saturation in popular culture to become more a medium than a gimmick. The triumph may come with the one artist who nurtures two dimensions and their ruptures. Ed Ruscha finds The End in the ornate font not of the laser era, but of a found manuscript spattered with age and ink. As one turns one's head, it becomes a kind of last will for the artist, the viewer, and old media alike.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Ghosts in the Machine" and "Pictures from the Moon" ran at the New Museum through September 30, 2012. Related reviews look at "Bitstreams" and "Thinking Machines."

 

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