In the Sound

John Haber
in New York City

Susan Philipsz, Joachim Koester, and Alix Pearlstein

Christian Boltanski: No Man's Land

Late spring always comes as something of a relief. Galleries prepare to wind down, just as the New York becomes downright habitable again after lingering traces of winter.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but barely a month was rich in installations that did not wreck the place for a change. Not all were welcoming by any means. Quite a few, however, offered environments to enter, confront, and maybe answer. Susan Philipsz shared her grief, while Chris Twomey reached out. Barbara Kruger shouted one down, while Joachim Koester had a nervous breakdown. He gets equally ecstatic about art and pot. Christian Boltanski's No Man's Land (photo by Oddity Central, Park Avenue Armory, 2010)

Obviously all these incorporated sound. In fact, one in total silence, by Alix Pearlstein, is based on a musical. It is about dance, but it puts art, too, on the spot. She practically packs the history of underground film into an actual underground on the Lower East Side. The most bloated environment, by Christian Boltanski, makes that a history of displacement, from the Holocaust to the homeless. He makes the most noise, but it makes most sense as a memorial to a deadly silence.

Light up the darkness

"Be not afeard," Caliban assures himself. "The isle is full of noises." Susan Philipsz, too, takes comfort in ghosts. In fact, she adds more of her own—or at least sings along. She tells stories of absence and loss, draws emotion from a gallery's very emptiness, and shapes one's experience of that space here in the present.

As in Shakespeare's The Tempest, a human hand lies behind the illusion of spirits. Philipsz sets out half a dozen loudspeakers, and it seems like more. I See a Darkness proceeds from a mournful pop song (yes, Will Oldham) through spare Ravel noodling on piano to "Santa Lucia," the old Neapolitan melody. The sequence plays on the sad fate of Lucy, the schizophrenic daughter of James Joyce. (The writer named her after Saint Lucy, martyred with her eyes put out, as he descended into blindness.) The music bounces from one speaker to another across two darkened rooms, and the elusiveness keeps one listening.

It does not work out to a structured or guided tour, like the audio narratives of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, also back in Chelsea, but one should not expect hidden treasures in empty rooms. It does not present the aural and spatial illusion of Cardiff's loudspeaker choir for a motet by Thomas Tallis. However, Philipsz is still haunting enough. Her piece commissioned for "Haunted," at the Guggenheim this summer, insists on that. It gradually catches one's ear with muffled sounds from an adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw," by Henry James, but in her melodic voice. The ambiguity of absence and presence is exactly what makes it a ghost story.

Of course, most ghost stories are childish. Is all this more than an excuse for another display of the Scottish artist's lovely, melancholy voice, and does it matter that the Guggenheim's perpetual crowds make her sounds there all but inaudible? Consider them, as Shakespeare promised, "sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." Philipsz does not stretch the boundaries of sound art as much as Christian Marclay, Stephen Vitiello, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, or the New York Electronic Arts Fair, and I half wished that she were singing "Casper, the Friendly Ghost." Her themes can complement one another or simply get in each other's way. They are, however, comforting.

Chris Twomey creates comforting surroundings, too, but more suited to Caliban's animal nature. Where Philipsz lowers the lights, she actually lights up the darkness—at least on warm evenings after sunset. And where Philipsz stays stone-faced but ethereal, Twomey lightens things up in other ways, too. In a gallery backyard, three large bubbles of paper and plastic wrap hang at around eye level, like preposterous Japanese lanterns. I mistook the materials for crumpled shower curtains. And yes, they do come on at night, at least for the opening and closing reception.

Twomey calls the show "Astral Fluff: Carnal Bodies in Celestial Orbit" (joined one night on electric guitar by a "whirling Astral Acoustic Space Alien") but they are not orbiting too far overhead. Her main work, indoors, balloons off the walls with more astral fluff, interrupted by tablet-sized monitors. They show hands punching a telephone keypad, kneading bread, and fondling, as well as lips kissing—in other words, touching, connecting, and shaping. Photos show the work in progress, further linking it to human presences and process art. The artist insists on the photos as more than documentation (or something to sell after the installation comes down), though I am not convinced. I prefer the room to the garden, too, except as a performance space, but maybe, after the big boys all finish their tantrums, installations can lighten up.

The fourth basement wall

People have been shouting at me a lot recently, except when they refuse to speak at all. I mean quite apart from family and my annual spring performance review at work. I mean on video.

Barbara Kruger began doing it in the 1990s, long before Sharon Hayes, as a natural extension of the cryptic commands in her better-known photo collage. Once museums absorb her rebellion, how else to continue startling an audience? With The Globe Shrinks she has up to four people shout at once. Perhaps they merely rant, whine, or ramble, about politics, art, themselves, or you. Their sudden appearance on this wall or that only adds to the confrontation and confusion. At the 2010 Whitney Biennial, one video after another amounts to a harsh but puzzling lecture, and one montage even calls itself Natural Object Rant.

What they gain in impact, they can easily lose in specificity and resonance, along with their sense of humor. But one can see why they feel compelled to try. Art has often turned up the volume with bigger and bigger installations, and art since 9/11 has often traded the confident irony of the 1990s for anxiety. Video's presence in the room, rather than on a motion-picture screen, already suggests a kind of performance art without a living actor, and art since Minimalism has insistently broken a theater's fourth wall. It suggests spontaneity or confession, like an underground movie, but also artifice. Andrea Fraser has used two-channel video to psychoanalyze simultaneously her audience and herself.

Joachim Koester positively celebrates a breakdown in communication. One video uses a text-generating program, and another interrupts the frenzy of mescaline drawings with stop-action. A mime, with the cropped hair and deceptively open features of early Cindy Sherman, acts out exercises from Carlos Castaneda. The hippie icon has become the instructions for a madhouse. Just in case one missed the point, photographs of marijuana plants come with text about how government crackdowns led to indoor varieties with devastating potency. The counterculture meets paranoia, more than Thomas Pynchon ever dreamed.

Koester, who studied in Denmark, has the excuse of approaching America as something of an anthropologist. Alix Pearlstein sees New York's cultural history from the inside, including Minimalism, A Chorus Line, and the old wholesale and tenement spaces of Orchard Street. She cites Dan Graham, whose 1977 Performance/Audience/Mirror had the confusion of lecture and dislocation down pat. Graham alternates views of his own ramblings, his listeners, and their mirror images. Pearlstein's video traps dancers between a mirrored wall and the camera, as well as between audition and performance. Talent also obliges viewers to navigate between the gallery's modest main space and its basement, and the descent is not for the timid.

Alix Pearlstein's Talent (On Stellar Rays, 2010)Dancers line up and come forward, comfort one another and compete. One camera tracks smoothly back and forth but fades now and again to black, while the other large projection sweeps in a full circle. A glimpse of adjacent rooftops at sunset makes it even more of a New York story, although as strange and disorienting as Warhol's Empire. The slap of a hand against a thigh may echo, while spoken words become inaudible or silent. The line-up and narrative stasis recall another classic video, workers by Gary Hill. So does the struggle between possibility and futility, as for many an artist in New York, and a lot can happen in the space between them.

Memories of Silence

I cherish two memories of Germany, both born of silence. In Berlin back then, the old national gallery still stood apart from the city, in Dahlem, once a village to itself to the southwest. From the subway, students made a left toward the Free University as I turned the other way, leaving me to myself and the art. The other silence was far more chilling. At what had been a concentration camp, names and memories are all but lost along with so many lives. One can contemplate the traces only in the bare outlines where barracks once stood, marked by their foundations on open ground.

Art involves both presence and absence from the moment it goes out into the world. That is part of how it can evoke suffering. In an age of big installations, though, it can seem awfully short on silence. At the Park Avenue Armory, a rusted metal wall guards the entrance to No Man's Land. Already, however, it is deafening, as low tones pulse beneath a racing, high-pitched roar. In a room to the side, one can record one's own heartbeat as well.

Inside, Christian Boltanski lays out rectangles on the floor, so close to my memories that he has probably displaced them for good. Now I shall always think of the dead within their scale—and never mind the rising beams that mark their corners or the clothes stretched flat within each one. They do give way to one mammoth interruption, a cone some twenty-five feet high of still more empty garments. A crane periodically descends to snatch a handful from the top, rises again, and lets them go. The regularity and futility of it all make one want to deny the invisible human operator, especially if one goes in hoping that the crane will transfer clothing from the pile into neat rectangles or vice versa. The noise and the rest of the forty-ton spectacle are harder to ignore.

Boltanski deals in memories, like those of his Jewish father, who survived World War II by hiding beneath the floorboards. That harsh wall consists of thousands of cookie tins—the kind, he says, in which people used to store the scraps of everyday life. Not that he wishes an allegory to pin him down. The clothing makes him thinks of other disasters, like Haiti. The crane makes him think of those old arcade games, which allowed one to test one's skills in snatching a prize. I liked penny arcades myself before Times Square came back to life, but a pinball wizard he and I definitely are not.

The associations have an awkward way of piling up, fine as they are. I doubt anyone will hear the din as heartbeats, especially when the low ones would barely sustain life and the high ones would require jogging. Cookie tins may not mean much these days, and the numbers on each one now reinforce not repleteness but a frightening anonymity, like the tattoos in a concentration camp. Associations may change as well with site. On its first display in the Grand Palais in Paris, if I may judge by the photographs, the work had a comic grandeur, while in the old drill hall it has a wonderfully comic squalor. The curator, Tom Eccles, thinks of military displays, but to Boltanski's credit most New Yorkers will think first of a homeless shelter.

Large or small, Boltanski's work enshrine memories, like his echoes of childhood in "Haunted" at the Guggenheim, as if the postmodern dialogue of presence and absence—and it is a real one—never existed. And art these days does have a way of drowning out memories. Neither is a good thing. But give it a moment, especially giving housing prices in New York, and the shelter and used clothing become real. The drone approaches silence after all. I kept waiting to see how far the crane would rise and how far the clothing would fall.

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Susan Philipsz ran at Tanya Bonakdar through May 1, 2010, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at Paula Cooper through March 13, Chris Twomey at Creon through April 18, Barbara Kruger at Mary Boone through May 1, Joachim Koester at Greene Naftali through May 9, Alix Pearlstein at On Stellar Rays through May 23, and Christian Boltanski at the Park Avenue Armory through June 13, 2010.


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