After leaving PS1 Contemporary Art Center’s mass of recent openings with a mental count of three skulls, two hanging knight helmets, one room-sized sword, an installation of knife clusters and a carpet made of tar, I decided it safe to identify Gothic as an underlying theme at the institution this fall. Artists find the western world barbarous, crude and decaying, and with multiple shows making specific reference to the seedy underbelly of mass culture and the corrosion of authorship, there’s little wonder why.
But despite the gravity of the message, I must say that very little made me care. I’m not saying I think art should be responsible for educating or eliciting tangible viewer reactions, but I do wish more of the work I experienced significantly moved me one way or the other. Adel Abdessemed’s lukewarm exhibition Dead or Alive perfectly exemplifies this: The artist’s luxury cruise liner made out of trash reveals a raw, ugly energy within the act of destruction, but is stymied by the installation’s singularity in tone. A video of a cat eating a rat, a freestanding collection of large marble screws and several circular knife clusters each speak with similar pitch and volume. I can only assume that’s part of the artist’s point — that we live in a culture of both dread and frenzy — but literal representations of concepts like this tend to prohibit deeper intellectual investigations.
Kris Martin similarly explores ideas of decay, albeit more successfully. 100 years, a self-degrading metallic gold sphere, holds an empty room through its imperfect beauty alone; its diminutive size and floor placement only emphasizing the aesthetic strength of the object. Martin places the piece in a room adjacent to sculptural reproductions titled Mandi VIII and Vase, a Hellenistic sculpture based on Laocoön and his Sons and a Ming vase from an unidentified era, respectively. Both reproductions are rendered poorly, presumably to emphasize the degradation of material in its rearticulation and to remove the emphasis on craft. But Martin works with a relatively straightforward concept, so it becomes problematic that the sculptures are worked to the same level of mediocrity, as the loss of aesthetic investment from the viewer isn’t compensated by content. Fortunately, the figure sculpture is saved by its proximity to Mandi III, a monumental wall-mounted “departures” sign lacking all text and symbol. Intentionally ambiguous in form, the blank filming cards make reference to records and catalogues while at the same time evoking the silent and slippery passage of time.
Though the Kris Martin exhibition is largely successful, the remaining ten exhibitions on view at PS1 evoked mixed feelings, save for the impressive horseshoe screening installation for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Of course, the 14 episodes run 15 hours plus in total, which makes it difficult to see the whole piece during a regular business day. For the few who actually enjoy 15-hour film marathons, it may be a disappointment to learn that the movie already had a screening in its entirety last April at MoMA.