A Matter of Survival

John Haber
in New York City

Edmund Clark and Chris Dorland

Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories

Has the information age raised the specter of political oppression? It sure has in social media, where the promise of the open Internet has given way to big data.

It may, though, be a trick question, especially when it comes to art. Edmund Clark uses new media along with photography to assail censorship, torture, and the war on terror. Others, like Chris Dorland, evoke virtual reality within the incomplete physical space of gallery architecture and installation. Mark Pauline styles his studio and gallery as Survival Research Laboratories, but they look much like the blue-collar America that technology has displaced. All find themselves torn between political realities, dystopian visions, and sheer pleasure. When it comes to the police at least, bring on the body cameras. from Edmund Clark's The Day the Music Died (International Center of Photography, 2018)

American as apple pie

I have trouble imagining a more annoying soundtrack for art than "American Pie," but I hesitate to call it torture. Edmund Clark would disagree. Don McLean's hit plays continuously at the International Center of Photography, piped down from the stairwell to a basement exhibition space that already feels like a torture chamber. Worse, it was on a playlist of such highlights of pop culture as ABBA, Neil Diamond, and the theme song from "Sesame Street"—used at Guantánamo Bay to disorient prisoners and to beat them into submission. Clark calls his show "The Day the Music Died," as if something irrevocable happened after September 11th, but do not be fooled. For the Brit, torture is as American as apple pie.

Clark, with the help of Crofton Black and the Freedom of Information Act, has assembled a grisly record. Redacted documents, slightly enlarged, take on a coarse grain to go with their black marks, newspeak, and terrifying message. Others serve as wallpaper, lining a dark chamber within the gallery beneath a video of talking heads, from Condoleezza Rice to mullahs. Within, a four-channel slide show presents drugged or beaten faces. Clark gained direct access as well, on condition that his photographs, too, could be redacted. Rather than blackening, they may be reduced to pixilation that approaches artistry.

Otherwise, artistry is hard to find. Clark has a reputation as a photographer, but photography seems almost incidental to his practice. It seems incidental at times to ICP as well. The center has put more emphasis on video and installations along with politics since its move to the Bowery, and this is its second show on the surveillance state in little more than a year. Paranoia strikes deep. Is somebody off his meds?

Clark, though, makes a strong case for paranoia, outrage, or despair. He might justify his most undistinguished photos as the banality of evil. Barbed wire sparkles in fading sunlight between a green ground and purple sky. Otherwise empty rooms, empty chairs, and the tools of confinement are what they are. He continues his war on the war on terror in Chelsea, with "The Mountains of Majeed." There the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, home at one time to forty thousand, looks more banal and confining still.

Every so often, it also looks surreal. A lush Asian landscape interrupts a conference room set for a meeting that I would be afraid to attend. It is not a photocollage, but a commissioned painting in the interest of local color. Quite generally, Clark is most effective at his most ironic and conceptual. In the gallery, actual barbed wire guards a pillar modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome. For him, it marks the course of an American empire.

At ICP, too, one might just as well forget photography. Remember instead that the slide show has to rely on the release of fewer than two hundred of two thousand official images. Remember the admission, without redaction, that "psychological and physical processes have been applied to produce complete helplessness, compliance, and cooperation." Remember the letters to a prisoner, from a child who wants him back. Or remember a projection of scanned postcards in picture-perfect colors, while voices alternate between a statement of "standard operating procedure" (section 4, sector 20) and a memory of aggressive interrogation. It does not quite salvage Don McLean or ICP, but it adds poignancy to what the Trump administration refuses to see.

Up your day!

From the very start, Chris Dorland holds out a work in progress. A video rests against a wall, facing the door, just a stride or two past the entrance. It nestles between the shelf on the right, for the guest book and such, and metal studs reaching to the ceiling. Its cryptic content and colorful, shifting images lure one in. To see the whole, of course, one has to step around the porous barrier, but already one can admire how the space has adapted. Dorland might simply have failed to finish the job for opening day.

That impression vanishes soon enough, for he has plenty of video, plenty of barriers, and not a trace of Sheetrock, as "Civilian." More studs form partial crossing walls in the large room at back. They also serve as armature for taller screens, without blocking the view from one to another. They orient the viewer, much like the grid of geometric abstraction, while leaving the work open. So does the imagery, with its quick cuts and more fluid motion. So, too, does the difficulty of making sense of it.

It looks both mundane and futuristic, much like the deluge of virtual realities in real life. Dorland says that he draws on ads and his own nocturnal walks for the cool blacks and warmer colors. They continue the dialogue between completion and incompletion, much like the partial entrance wall with its glimpse of more to come. They suggest a dialogue, too, among new media, installation, and architecture. The gallery did a heroic job of reclaiming a dark space a few steps down from the street, adding over time a full partition (for a small side room, here with paintings by Simon Mathers that look abstract but borrow from dairy cartons) and very short stairs to the back, with an assist from an artist. Once again, I had to think, an artist is lending a hand to its future.

from Chris Dorland's Civilian (Lyles & King, 2018)Futurism has the usual dark side, as with surveillance cameras and 24/7 excuses for entertainment. Dorland's darker screens include a woman's hand as at once a temptation and a slap in the face, while block letters dare you to amp (or maybe to give) UP YOUR DAY! Put it down to politics, Twitter, or a weakness for sci-fi dystopias, but something is in the air. Just a few blocks over, Anna K.E. confesses her dependence on Blade Runner, for what she calls "Crossing Gibraltar at Midday." (I guess no man is an island, but some women are.) Her images, too, connect photocollage and video to the body.

A block further, Sondra Perry raises more mundane fears of twisted data and the surveillance state. While the story is no less elusive, it incorporates real news and black experience—something to do with the exploitation of amateur athletes. Like Dorland, both artists combine new media and metal constructions for layers of real and virtual reality. Their sculpture looks vaguely human and vaguely utilitarian, like Joel Shapiro after one too many video game. To insist further on her work as installation, Perry paints the room blue. If that sounds ominous, her contribution to "Take Me (I'm Yours)" last year at the Jewish Museum alluded to the "blue code of silence" and "blue screen of death."

Dorland gets more personal while turning down the messaging. A civilian, after all, is often caught up in war but never in fighting. He can still play on closure and openness, and most often the open wins out. The barriers never preclude sightlines or passage. The incoherence never precludes the familiar. For all the software and walls, he still gets to wander at night.

Resistance movement

Probably no one has ever praised Jeff Koons for his "steadfast resistance to commercialization," but hey: he never stooped to the level of walking flamethrowers. He may have gone through his share of fish tanks and basketballs, but he never sacrificed twenty pianos to a work of art. Mark Pauline has done both, and the praise came in a New York Times preview of a not quite literally gut-wrenching exhibition. I say not quite, but Pauline did outfit one weighty machine with metal jaws of the size and height of a human head. You had better hope that they do not clamp down.

Then again, they might, because Pauline takes seriously the job of leading a resistance movement. He speaks of "living in a Stalinist empire," where every blow counts. While he and Koons both aim for mass entertainment, it took coaxing to introduce him to a major New York gallery. Sure, he could use the money, but an exhibition does get the word out that someone is willing to clamp down. While other openings stood all but empty on a dark winter night, his drew record crowds despite temperatures just above the single digits. I might not have minded the sparks of a flamethrower.

Pauline has taken a stance just outside the art world for decades now, in the guise of Survival Research Laboratories. One performance took place in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it attracted a fire marshal (but, no, not the KGB). His Bay Area counterculture roots go way back as well. A stint building equipment for military target practice drove home for him the atrocities of empire and war. It must have made him mindful, too, of his own complicity, and the charge haunts this exhibition as well, massively. It packs the detritus of a lifetime in performance.

Pauline piled those pianos high, only to set them ablaze. Talk about the bonfire of the vanities. I shall have to take the word of others that one weapon of mass destruction hurled planks into a bulletproof chamber the very day of the Chelsea opening, at hundreds of miles per hour. It gives rise to the exhibition title, "Inconsiderate Fantasies of Negative Acceleration Characterized by Sacrifices of a Non-Consensual Nature." The artist dares to be inconsiderate, but he is stoking fantasies. Threatening or not, he sees his performances as comedies.

Visitors are almost certain to agree. Out of action, the machines look far less dangerous. As assemblages, they also look downright familiar. They have something in common with Surrealism, the bad boy stance of so many trashy installations, or a toxic waste dump. Yet a patina of rust and disuse turns them almost into antiques. Packed tightly together, they belong to memories of construction sites past.

I feel complicit, too, in singling them out. Unlike combines for Robert Rauschenberg, they neither exploit nor defy their original function, and Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, or Louise Nevelson did far better at the machinery of death. They do not work as the record of a career, although one contraption includes a monitor. They are only incidentally political. Still, there is fun to be had in guessing what they did. The creature with huge jaws could be an old and neglected friend.

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Edmund Clark ran at the International Center of Photography through May 6, 2018, and at Flowers through March 3, Chris Dorland and Simon Mathers at Lyles & King through February 11, Anna K.E. at Susan Subal through February 28, Sondra Perry at Bridget Donahue through February 2, and Mark Pauline at Marlborough Contemporary through February 10.


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