Losing My Religion

John Haber
in New York City

Terence Koh, Ursula von Rydingsvard, and William Lamson

I can think of lots of reasons not to mistake art for religion. It surrounds art with a deep hush, just when one should be engaging the work with all one's senses. It makes artists into minor deities—or at least cash cows and media celebrities. It also buries the specifics of religious or secular art of the past. Now Terence Koh raises a new objection: what if the ceremony begins and nobody joins in?

Actually, Koh's nothingtoodoo raises every one of those objections, and a good thing, too. It gets one thinking about the function of ritual in art, not to mention the traps it poses. Not every artist is so willing to make fun of himself while showing off, but then again not every artist has to bother. A ritual can serve as subject, as The Last Supper, or as a natural process, as in earthworks. Koh in fact works with salt. It can be as low-key and anarchic as much early performance art. Ursula von Rydingsvard's For Paul (Storm King Arts Center, 1990–1992)

Ursula von Rydingsvard has almost a horror of anarchy, and her earthy sculpture can err heavily on the side of profundity, too. Yet she also can take sculpture off its pedestal even while building it up above human scale. William Lamson and Izima Kaoru follow on ritual, process art, and earthworks in a different way, with sheer exertion but also in new media. Lamson drags himself across cracked earth like Koh across a gallery floor, while Kaoru photographs the actual path of the sun. Given the heat, I enjoyed that Lamson's video showed at a space called the Boiler. However, they turn out to describe some urban and down-to-earth horizons.

All this plays out against a shared theme of art since at least André Malraux's "imaginary museum." I mean a rebellion against the aura of the unique work of art. Postmodernists have used that rebellion to assault modernist institutions; other critics have insisted on Modernism as already a critique of individuality, going back to Rodin's multiple casts and Picasso's collage. These and Romanticism before it were often at odds with established religions and the marketplace alike, but they and the market have often put celebrity artists on a pedestal—maybe even more so when artists "younger than Jesus" burn out and fall off. One can even see Koh's experiment as a chastened response to art's status in the Great Recession.

A pillar of salt

Penetrate the black curtain after dusk, and one finds oneself in near darkness, broken only by a massive white cone. On the other side of its peak, just taller than any mere human, one may find an artist edging slowly but surely around its broad circumference. On his knees, upper body erect, Terence Koh refuses pride or abjection. Head shaved and in the loose white clothing of an unstated religion, he alone has shaped the monument and the ritual. Gallery-goers must humble themselves as well. I certainly did, in part just to keep from holding my breath, puzzling too hard, or giggling.

But come back the next day for a shock. The dark space has grown bright, and the artist may well be exactly where one left him—only face down on the floor. He often lies at full length, arms outstretched past his head. But then after a few minutes he will have risen back to his knees and resumed his slow motion, marking time as clearly in his own way as Christian Marclay with The Clock. I realized only then that the change in illumination was just the passing of time. The change in position was probably just the need now and again for a rest in a long, grueling day.

I realized that the circular pyramid was not concrete but rock salt, another connection between the work and natural processes. I realized, too, that no one else had dropped to his knees behind him and shuffled right along. And now I dare you now to stop picturing the resulting train. The New York Times reports that a co-conspirator in a business suit did indeed follow Koh on his knees on opening night. Did the performance create a forbidding distance, awe, and mystery? Or did the silliness of the whole thing preclude even mockery?

Maybe both, and who can say which the artist intends? Ambiguity can easily become having it all—both unearned profundity and an easy irony. The press release in its entirety says only, "Dear friend / I will be performing daily / Love / Terence Koh," with an intimacy that itself sounds like a sly joke. One hardly knows whether to give him credit for it, especially after his "cosmic event" at the Whitney in 2007. But do bear in mind his often provocative and funny conceptual art, and do give him credit for a truly site-specific performance. Not every gallery has that breadth and skylight, and only in winter would sunset precede closing time, much as for the longstanding James Turrell installation at P.S. 1.

Mistaking art for religion has long risked charges of blasphemy, like the assaults on Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz, and "Hide/Seek." From the other side, the charge underlies postmodern distaste for Abstract Expressionism and Modernism's appropriation of "the primitive." Others have asked quite sincerely whether art has assumed the place of religion in a secular society, so long after The Last Supper, as if all that many people went to galleries or religion were going away anytime soon, and Plato, for one, was sure that art would corrupt religion from the moment it entered religious art. Maybe one should just accept that art does a reasonable job of describing the universe, and corruption is sometimes a good thing. It falls down only when it pretends to create a community, rather than piercing the communities that exist. I grew to admire Koh, his task, his changing light, and his salt mound more and more, but then I consume way too much salt as it is.

For true silliness, there is always Ofili—or better yet Hermann Nitsch. He lines the walls with massively smeared paint, cross-shaped arrangements of canvas, paint-splattered t-shirts like priestly vestments, and paint cans beneath them like votive candles. The rotund German with his long white beard even looks like an aspirant to sainthood. Had he merged with the art world, one could even call him Market Nitsch. He carries on action painting as ritual through the course of the show, and one can look a long time in vain for a sense of irony. It would feel just as cheap if one found it all the same, but I shall still seek out art and say amen.

Barbarian hordes invade Queens

Off a barely plowed and deserted street, the walkway through the pebbled courtyard had become a straight and narrow path through the snow. A wind-driven whiteness covered the rest, in one huge collective snowdrift, its smoothly undulating surface rising in spots almost to my shoulders. Somehow it largely spared Elegantka, by Ursula von Rydingsvard, at the end of the path near the door. But it rendered the totem halfway comical—and yet also welcoming and even elegant, like an official greeter dressed for the snow. It also brought the sculpture's more than eight feet in height down to earth. Perhaps the artist herself felt that much more at home.

Inside SculptureCenter, von Rydingsvard truly has found a home. It just happens to take up the main floor of a former factory, in a mostly industrial corner of Long Island City, where no one is in a hurry to shovel the snow. That suits her, too, for she makes art at once about home, dispossession, and something larger than both. One can see it in Five Lace Medallions, which stretch more than five hundred inches, with wood and chalk instead of ivory and lace. One can see it in a bowl large enough to serve a Viking army and called Ocean Floor. One can see it in both halves of another title, Weeping Plates.

One does not easily think of her work as homespun, not on a scale like this, and that includes the time scale. Those armies, totems, and oceans may not quite reach for eternity, but even decorative medallions are indifferent to modernity. They also share Modernism's hunger for the primitive, in their painstaking construction from small cedar strips. Craft tradition meets the brutally hacked or weathered surfaces of ancient civilizations. The fine craft shows in her use of graphite rather than paint or charcoal to blacken the cryptic sacks or dumbbells around the lip of Ocean Floor. The hungering for brute fact shows in the material of those sacks, intestines.

I hate to think of how many sheep, lost tribes, or museum-goers von Rydingsvard had to sacrifice for her art. Still, her work has never looked as crafty or as homespun. Another serving of intestines, on a tall frame leaning against the wall, looks like a long cutting board, and the medallions could serve that purpose as well. She calls the tallest sculpture Wall Socket, and one might take the totem from outside and plug it in. She also cultivates more punning and ambiguity. If the oval medallions are faces, the entwined cuts below could complete the portrait or begin a landscape.

The primitive will not go away without a fight. Born in Germany, with Polish and Ukrainian roots and displaced during the Second World War, von Rydingsvard is entitled to anxious memories of destruction and dispossession. She still adopts titles in her parent's native tongues. A reaching for profundity has come close to undermining past work, like the large heads in Madison Square Park in 2006 or older the furrowed monoliths (pictured here) at Storm King. However, this time she seems to have found more room for play indoors or even a home. The comedy of winter outside surely helps.

One can almost find a sense of humor in Wall Socket, along with the scale of a horror show. One could take it for a caped or hooded monster, or one crawl inside for shelter. A second freestanding work could pass for a dragon or a cave. Friends can peek at each other from opposite ends of the tunnel—which also benefits from inadvertent echoes in the Center's basement tunnels below. I am not quite ready to make peace with her barbarian invaders, but totems and Modernism do have one other thing in common: they take sculpture off its pedestal.

A walk in the sun

Americans may have settled the west long ago, but they still think of the land as large, savage, and very much their own. It shows not just in the real-estate market before the bust, but in earth art, too. Robert Smithson may accept the rhythms of the earth, Maya Lin may adapt them to the rhythms of human encounters, and Michael Heizer may obliterate them. But they all require an earthmover.

English artists like Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy act more modestly, even as they think more grandly of themselves and their art. For them, the earth is an environment larger than a human life but also closer to home—as personal for Long as a long walk. When it enters the museum, too, it takes on the scale of a nation's deep history. Instead of dirt, smoke, and mirrors, art becomes a monument to rubble. Now William Lamson may have figured out how to merge the traditions. He walks the earth like Long, imposes on it as violently as Heizer, and leaves A Line Describing the Sun.

Actually, he pretty much has to supply the sun, even in a parched earth. In fact, he has to haul it along with him. His two-channel video shows him loading and dragging a barrow across California mud flats. It lingers over the cracks in the dry soil, the length of his journey, and the setting sun. Smithson's mirrors have become Fresnel lenses for focusing the sun's rays, and they scorch his path, sending sparks and fire into the air. They also bake mud into blackened glass, crumbs of which he conveniently displays in a smaller arc in the gallery.

The scale model suits Brooklyn real estate between Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which itself has undergone some violent transformations. It works best, though, not as sculpture or installation but as evidence. It simply brings home what is happening on video, as in a natural-history museum. The projection, itself requiring a lens or two, thus becomes a meeting point between sites—a city conducive to garden walks and a scarred terrain under the sun. It presents neither a linear narrative on the one hand nor Smithson's entropy on the other. It becomes instead a journey into nowhere governed by the passage from day into night.

"A line describing the sun" might just as easily describe work by Izima Kaoru. Instead, the Japanese photographer calls the show "One Sun," perhaps a testimony to his single-mindedness. His fisheye lens captures a panorama of the sky, much like Rackstraw Downes in paint, with trees and other creature comforts around the sides. A full day's exposure leaves the path of the sun as anything from a straight line across blue sky to a nearly perfect circle. The large, circular prints may seem more appropriate as a demonstration in science class than as art, but they suggest the curvature of the eye itself while approaching abstraction, with a comforting realism peeking up along the borders. More subtly, they displace the horizon to the edge and the artist's lens to the shape of the work.

Has land art after all these years burned itself out? It has left its traces in the endless piles of scrap on canvas and gallery floors. It has left unfinished Heizer's immense and reclusive City in Nevada and Roden Crater by James Turrell. Or maybe climate change and real-estate values will give new urgency to art's dialogue between nature and culture. The hot sun surely makes an impression. I felt most the harsh patterning of cracks in the mud.

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Terence Koh ran at Mary Boone through March 19, 2011, Hermann Nitsch at Mike Weiss also through March 19, and Ursula von Rydingsvard at SculptureCenter through March 28. William Lamson ran (with interruption from the fire department for gallery violations of building code) at The Boiler at Pierogi through November 14, 2010, Izima Kaoru at von Lintel through October 9. Portions of this review concerning Koh first appeared in Artillery magazine.


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