Behind the Screens 

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In two of this fall's most successful solo gallery shows to date, European artists take full and absurd advantage of their opulent Chelsea galleries' spaces, creating wonderfully disorienting installations out of light, screens and air. One expects as much from Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, particularly in light of her giant video installation in the MoMA atrium in 2008, though the content of her major new piece is notably more ambiguous than that enveloping semi-circle of visual pleasure. A dazzling, obstacle course-like installation by Zilvinas Kempinas comes as a total surprise—unless you visited Luxembourg's Musée d'Art Moderne this summer, which originally commissioned the piece—incorporating but going so far beyond the floating rings of magnetic tape that had been the Lithuanian artist's calling card on this side of the pond. Both create dazzling, psychedelic spaces that engage us both as viewers and architectural explorers.

At Lurhing Augustine, Pipilotti Rist's exhibition Heroes of Birth (through October 16) opens with a confoundingly small piece, as if to begin the process of warping our perceptions on a more manageable scale. "All or Nothing (alles oder nichts)," a tiny digital video triptych in the gallery foyer surrounded by random objects like a bouquet and a water cooler—perhaps for visitors to rehydrate and chit-chat after the adventure that follows—shows neon-hued body parts unfurling in symmetric, mirrored patterns. Cycles of legs, arms, penises and more shift continually between coolly abstract patterns and intensely fleshy, figurative close-ups. What look like stills from this video provide the wallpaper in the gallery's rear room. There, they fit very congruently around "Massachusetts Chandelier," a large hanging sculpture draped in underwear of various sizes and sorts—all-whites are the norm, but some flower patterns and ironic crotch slogans dot the screen of skivvies. Between the light filtering out from within, casting odd shadows around the room, and the two-channel video projecting bold colors onto the suspended drawers, the effect manages to be comically absurd and formally bewitching all at once. Like a teenager's parody of Brion Gysin's "Dream Machine" at the New Museum.

The centerpiece of Rist's show, "Layers Mama Layers," adds a curious double dose of sweetness and sarcasm to the comic debriefing of these framing pieces. Transparent screens hung from the 30-foot ceiling in the main space create a series of diagonal passages with occasional openings. Two projectors at opposite corners of the room play matching pairs of videos that, as they fade through progressive screens, blur into a diffuse play of light before meeting almost imperceptibly in the middle. One video features a herd of sheep in at times extreme close-up, the other a digital cluster of spirals in neon hues. The two overlap while a calming soundtrack sets a mood of gentle, swaying progression. Seeing visitors' silhouettes passing between the screens superimposed with footage of shuffling livestock accentuates the possible cynicism of the piece, as if we are like the sheep in the video following the tracks laid out for us by predecessors, becoming lost and lulled into obedience by the pretty lights. (Perhaps too literal an interpretation, but also too obvious not to take it up.) If, with "Layers Mama Layers," Rist means to dramatize the lifelong euthanizing of contemporary masses by increasingly immaterial agents of control emanating from an endless proliferation of screens, she's found one of the most bizarrely enjoyable media rigs with which to present her dystopian vision. An Aernout Mik video, "Refraction" (2005), also starring sheep and engaging with similar themes, inevitably comes to mind. Mechanisms for evoking sheeplike submission are rarely so pleasant as to make their machinations as clearly legible as Rist's installation seems to be. Parading through the screens to face the monument of second-hand undies, the bright installation takes on an unexpectedly dark character. So much to discuss around the water cooler.

Pipilotti Rist at Luhring Augustine

While Rist's installation beckons the visitor to pass through, entering Zilvinas Kempinas's dazzling installation "Ballroom" at Yvon Lambert (through October 16) seems dangerous. Past the front desk (don't bother with Roman Opalka's adjacent exhibition of pale numbered canvases), visitors push aside plastic curtains and step into a blurry, humming room-sized ballroom-dancing machine. The walls are lined with loosely hung sheets of reflective mylar that flap in the perpetual wind generated by over a dozen fans mounted on the ceiling, pointed downward. An electrical chord hangs down from each fan, at the end of which, about a foot off the gallery floor, a red or blue light bulb spins in a fairly constant loop. A closed circle of magnetic tape shimmies on the gallery floor below each fan and bulb contraption, not attached in any way but faithfully keeping pace with the swaying light and breeze above. Standing at its edge the room evokes equal parts carnival hall of mirrors and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But stepping away from the walls—careful not to trip on a lasso of magnetic tape or knock into a bulb—one quickly gets lost in a blue and red blur that stretches as far as the eye can see, twisting and shimmering as the wind ruffles the walls. The phenomenological experience of Kempinas's installation is like nothing else in the world, not even a night of bleary-eyed ballroom dancing. Chaotic yet consistent, loud but not noisy, bursting with wind that goes nowhere, his machine choreographs a dazzling semblance of disorder.

As in "Layers Mama Layers," "Ballroom" invites us into an intriguing space where lights and screens made from unconventional and ethereal materials subvert our senses. Whereas Rist does so to re-activate perceptions dulled by our herd-like habits, Kempinas goes a step further, making us disappear in a never-ending dance of mirrors and lights, a mechanical ensemble that keeps moving without missing a step, as if we're not even there.

(images courtesy Luhring Augusting, Yvon Lambert)

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