The conceptual role of the photograph takes precedence on the museum's higher floors; when video or photography captures a piece of performance art, is it art or an artifact? It is a topic that would be difficult to tackle in an entire exhibition, let alone one floor, but it feels especially timely with Marina Abramovic's retrospective going on at MOMA. While the instinct to preserve is strong, performance art is ephemeral by nature; need it be reproduced? And for artists like Gabriel Orozco, who create evanescent sculpture, the photograph is only evidence of the real work that has long disappeared. However, the price tag attached to said evidence infers otherwise; is evidence the new art object? The question isn't resolved but, Abramovic is represented with "Cleaning the Mirror #1" (1995), also on view at MOMA. A video playing simultaneously on a stack of three television screens, viewers can watch Abramovic vigorously scrubbing clean the bones of a human skeleton, part of a Tibetan death rite. Robert Smithson's "Yucatan Mirror Displacements" (1969) captures a piece of small-scale land art. Smithson placed groups of 12" by 12" mirrors in various sites in Yucatan, Mexico. They reflect the glow of the sun and cease to resemble objects as banal as mirrors. Instead, they become small squares of light struggling to shine through pebbles on a beach.
The show ends with works that convey what the curators refer to as "trauma" and a sense of the uncanny. This is one of the most interesting chords that the exhibition strikes; the desire to photograph and archive leads to a sort of doubling of our lives. And while it's easy to reminisce over the good times, another look at the bad times can feel like watching one's own slow march to nowhere. Sophie Calle's "Father Mother (The Graves #17)" (1990, above) channels the theme quite literally, as does Adam Mcwan's obituary for Richard Prince. The exhibition culminates on the building's darkened sixth floor with Tacita Dean's multi-media work "Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4"33'" (2008). Projected on six screens illuminated by antique film projectors, the recently deceased Cunningham (dancer, choreographer, and the late Cage's life partner) moves ever so slightly to each peal of sound from the speakers.
The only place that the viewer can get the visceral, chilling experience promised by the show's title is early in the show, on the building's first floor. A Paul Chan light installation is tucked inside of a small side gallery with Andy Warhol's aforementioned "Orange Disaster #5." Chan's "6th
Light" (2005-2007, at top), part of his 7 Lights series, is a square of light projected on the floor, bisected by shadows vertically and horizontally to look like an ordinary window. At first glance, the piece seems almost sweet; what looks like tiny pieces of organic matter like petals or leaves drift downward in the form of shadows in the square. To the viewer's horror, they are quickly obscured by much bigger, amorphous shapes, evocative of falling debris or, worse still, bodies. While Warhol's tried to nullify the horror of the electric chair through repetition, when placed next to Chan's window, it's the only pairing in the show worthy of being called "haunting."
(photo credits: Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, photo by Jean Vong; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)