In the same way that alphabetical organization of art creates unexpected pairings, the chronology of museum exhibitions across the city inspires viewers to make otherwise unlikely connections between shows. Certainly, the similarities between Olafur Eliasson's pop-minimalist kinetic and light installations (recently closed at MoMA/P.S.1) and Paul McCarthy's anxiety and fear-ridden sculptures and performance art (open at the Whitney through October 12) would not have been so obvious to me had the exhibitions occurred further apart. On its face, it's a little like comparing the rosy good times you had at Studio 54 to the feeling you get inside a dilapidated spinning Graviton at the circus.
And yet, both artists use light and physical experience to engage the viewer emotionally and evoke strikingly similar audience reactions. I drew this connection at the Whitney over the weekend while watching kids run around Paul McCarthy's Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement: Three Installations, Two Films, with the same anxious glee I noted at Eliasson's show. Full mirrors at the back of the Whitney's gallery space along with three large kinetic sculptures give the exhibition a bizarre carnival-like feel. Bang Bang Room, a creepy installation executed in 1992, is a square wooden floor with four open mechanized walls and slamming doors that enclose its platform briefly every twenty minutes. Adjacent to this, Mad House (2008), a madly spinning prison-like office with a chair in its center turning in the opposite direction, works on the same timer. Both rooms evoke a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia.The video-based installation nearby, Spinning Room, (conceived 1971, executed 2008) takes the form of a scaffolding and stretched-screen cube, using an array of audio visual equipment to capture and project fragmented video footage of viewers within that space.
Each sculpture causes the kind of uncomfortable physical imbalance a 10-year-old boy is likely to respond positively to (and did), which isn't to say it lacks a sophisticated message. Certainly, the malleability of suburban architectural and decorative references suggests an evolving psychological hardship moving just beneath its brittle façade. What's more, McCarthy's performance documentation of the 70s adds another precise layer to the exhibition. For example, in Spinning, the artist frantically turns in one place with his arms out, directly re-enforcing the idea of internal turmoil. It may not be the most entertaining video you'll see, but there's something significant in the economy of such expression.
Other like-minded artists have used similarly straight-forward methods. Marcel Duchamp's 11 Rue Library (1927) a piece that consisted of multiple door openings leading nowhere, is as clear an influence as the installation Room Dividers (1982) by Vito Acconci, which allowed viewers to move walls back and forth by hand. Also the McCarthy anti-depressant, Olafur Eliasson's works have included several contemplative rotating mirror pieces, and light works evoking a similar nervous anticipation as Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement. Ultimately though, Eliasson plays only with the visceral: the body's physical reaction to color, surface, and movement. McCarthy puts much more on the line here, asking us to consider, if only briefly, some of the darker psychological moments within contemporary life.