Under Destruction I & IIJune 13, 2011
What if we thought of the substance of art not as media, but as matter? Matter exists continuously, whereas media must be elevated to the status of an art object. In turn, by making art, artists are performing manipulations, not transformations. The process shifts from an alchemical to a quotidian one.
The works in Under Destruction I and II inspired that thought experiment by presenting creation and destruction as interdependent—and sometimes as the same. The well-curated exhibition features cerebral, oft-kinetic sculptures, installations, and media projects dating from the past twenty-three years. It’s a welcome introduction to contemporary European, American, and Latin American artists and their open-ended works that provides little resolution and much room for interpretation.
A group exhibition originating at Museum Tinguely in Basel, Under Destruction appears in New York in three consecutive and heterogeneous chapters, all at the Swiss Institute. Under Destruction I was a quiet, poetic prelude featuring understated sculptural works made with commonplace objects. Nina Canell’s Perpetuum Mobile (40kg) (2009–2010) is an elegant example. A bowl of water sits on the ground next to a paper sack of cement. Activated by sonic vibrations, the water is frothed to a fantastical mist, which solidifies the adjacent building material imperceptibly.
Seductive illusion has little pull in this show—forms result from materials and processes. Nina Beier and Marie Lund’s History Makes a Young Man Old (2011) is a crystal ball that was rolled to the gallery from its place of purchase in a site-specific performance. The marks of experience obscure the clarity for which the material is valued; it’s not much to look at, and that is the point. In Monica Bonvincini’s White (2003), a cube of cracked safety glass houses an armature of neon tubes, interchanging structure and surface. Pavel Büchler’s Modern Paintings (1999–2000) is a series of abstract paintings collaged from found paintings that have been cut up and put through a washer.
Two single-camera media works hint at the active destruction in the next chapter. Micheal Sailstorfer’s Untitled (Bulb) (2010) shows a light bulb fracturing on impact. Originally shot in high-speed HD video and then transferred to 16mm film, it literalizes the high compliment that digital images can achieve film quality. Alex Hubbard’s Cinépolis (2007) adopts an action painting–like procedure for video, in which a projection screen is destroyed in service as a canvas for blowtorched Mylar balloons, tar, and feathers.
Everything the first isn’t, the second chapter is: noisy, spectacular, and physically stressful. Under Destruction II is a dissonant factory of counter-production. The influence of Jean Tinguely’s kinetic machines is acute. Visitors control the speed of a wrecking ball that demolishes the gallery walls in
Liz Larner’s Corner Basher (1988). Whacking the sheetrock at low speeds is pleasantly subversive. But at the highest setting, it whips around with the frightening velocity of a trebuchet, and the centrifugal force threatens to topple the machine. I felt a palpable breech of safety; Larner had created a scenario that cast my limits in high relief.
Heavy machinery is also employed in Arcangelo Sassolino’s untitled oversize hydraulic squeezing machine (2007). Only operated on weekdays, it lay passively during my visit. Nonetheless I discerned its force; a log was splitting under the immense pressure in its braided steel cable maw. Nearby, Roman Signer’s Stuhl (2001) is a video of a water mill–powered rotor, which made short work of dragging and demolishing a chair into splinters. The documentary-style shots were coolly indifferent, like the unflinching destruction.
Such mechanical efficacy contrasts with three works flirting with purposelessness. Johannes Vogl’s ludicrous Untitled (Machine to Produce Jam Breads) (2007) is industrial in size, makeshift in assembly; a bicycle sprocket set and PET bottle are deployed. Slices of cheap white bread ride a jam-smeared conveyor belt before dropping onto a mountain of similarly sluiced wheat foam on the floor. Recalling Tinguely’s self-destruction machine in concept, Ariel Orozco’s Doble Desgaste (2005) is a series of photographs documenting the futile attempts to sketch a cubic eraser. The eraser diminishes as the drawing proceeds, until neither eraser nor sketch remain. It’s an endgame; the finitude is satisfying. Jimmie Durham’s St. Frigo (1997) is a two-channel video installation of the stoning of a refrigerator. Men (of course) are shown lobbing bricks at the appliance, setting off clangs that echo throughout the gallery. Some rackets are out of sync, underscoring the off-pitch senselessness of the performance. Of all modern conveniences, fridges seem like an unwarranted target.
Pink Constellation (2001), Marin Kersel’s fascinating video, has the show’s only fictional narrative. Set in a cotton candy–colored bedroom that rotates in parallel with the camera, a teenage girl dreamily traverses the walls and ceiling. The special effects give way to a nightmarish scene where the artist is chased around the room by its entropic furnishings. The topsy-turvy world is mythical, yet it seems uncomfortably close following the recent tornadoes in the Midwest.
Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000) amplifies the show’s chaos and din to even higher audio and psychological levels. Shot in San Antonio, Texas, in 1999, the movie features Marclay dragging a red Fender guitar behind a flatbed Chevy pick-up, sending an unarticulated droning signal at a concert-like volume. Marclay made no direct references to the 1999 lynching-by-dragging of James Byrd by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, yet the indelible memory of the murder details spurred the connection, and consequently, a sense of horror and outrage.
Under Destruction threads an unlikely connection between the reticence of works like History Makes a Young Man Old and the violence of Guitar Drag and Corner Basher. Like the crystal ball rolled down a street, the show impresses physical traces, tapping embodied cognition or punching to the gut. Enduring the cacophony, visitors become aware of their own constitution—our skin and bones as the matter we operate.
Under Destruction II is on view at the Swiss Institute, in New York, through June 19, 2011. Under Destruction III is scheduled for June 29 to August 7, 2011, and Under Destruction I was on view from April 6 to May 8, 2011.