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Film Histories: Caroline Martel on Industry/Cinema

Caroline Martel’s video installation Industry/Cinema places ephemeral films alongside more familiar ones.

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Film Histories: Caroline Martel on Industry/Cinema

As you walk up the stairway at the Museum of the Moving Image, you’re greeted with a screen. On the left side is a black-and-white, silent, documentary image of young women dancing outdoors; on the right side is a tinted, silent, documentary image of a woman alone, twirling her dress. Perhaps curious, you approach, sit on a bench, and put on a pair of available headphones. The film on the right, Thomas A. Edison’s Annabelle Serpentine Dance, from 1894, you might recognize by face, if not by name. But playing on the left is a lesser-known work that holds equal entertainment and documentary value: the Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s 1920 film How Business Girls Keep Well.

Film canons and best-of lists are consistently built on a fiction, which is that the people building them have actually seen every movie ever made and can select the best accordingly. But a quick look at a list like the British magazine Sight & Sound’s recently released poll among more than 800 critics for the top 50 films of all time, which consists almost entirely of feature-length fiction works from the United States, Japan, Russia, and a few Western European countries, suggests this isn’t the case. The States alone have produced more than 500,000 “ephemeral films” (a term coined by American archivist Rick Prelinger, who also gave the statistic), short works created to advertise, promote, educate, and even entertain, and made both by corporations and by private individuals.

Caroline Martel’s video installation Industry/Cinema, which opened at the museum in May and whose run was recently extended until October 28, places ephemeral films alongside more familiar ones. Visitors can follow up to seven short juxtapositions of film images, and select which side to listen to by pressing a button on a pair of headphones. Charlie Chaplin works an assembly line while Chicago factory workers labor; HAL 2000 speaks in dialogue with phone-company promo films like those Stanley Kubrick and collaborators studied in order to construct the computer; an announcer tells listeners that telecommunications is transporting them into the future, while a young Jeff Bridges transforms digitally within the electronic world of 1982’s TRON. The overlapping sounds and images show and tell how much the two sets of movies have fed off of each other.

The bulk of the installation’s left-side films have come from telecommunications companies, which the Montréal-born Martel studied while making 2004’s The Phantom of the Operator, her found-footage film about the history of the industry as told through its vanishing female operators. Many operators, like those glimpsed in the installation’s opening, only exist now in the molds their companies made for them. I spoke to Martel on Skype in April as part of research for a previously published Moving Image Source piece. We discussed these women’s stories, as well as how they have led to her stories and her efforts to give space for her audiences to form their own.

How did you get the idea for the installation Industry/Cinema?

It was inspired by the feedback and questions I got from audiences following the many screenings of The Phantom of the Operator around the world. I like this claim that the idea for a work would come from the people. I’m attached to this notion probably all the more because, as an independent documentary filmmaker who has to flirt with the industry, I often hear this discourse that we have to “give the audiences what they want.” The film I just finished, about the early electronic musical instrument the Ondes Martenot, is about a subject that is nearly impossible to fund from broadcasters’ standpoint. But the incentive to make it also came from Q&As, by popular demand, when spectators were begging to understand this music that was part of the Phantom soundtrack.

So to go back to Industry/Cinema, it was audience questions that made me feel like there was something to explore. Many were expressing the feeling that they had already seen some images included in Phantom…They wondered, had I put in excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Fahrenheit 451? I felt like there was a popular sense of recognition that I should take the chance to verify. I felt like, “What if I look back at my huge collection of 200 telecommunications films and see how it cross-references the films we know?” Whether fiction or important documentaries like Berlin, Symphony of a City.

I have to confess I had never seen Modern Times until three years ago, but when I saw it, I thought, “Wow, Chaplin really copied the wheels in the Western Electric films!” I also saw the restored print of 2001 with my editor while we were finishing Phantom of the Operator, and we were like, “My God, he took so much from all the Bell Labs films!” It was obvious that it was not only industrial films that had copied all those famous films, like advertisements are doing now, but it was also the other way around.

In this installation I focus on industrial films, but as we know, there are educational films, recruitment films, and all these other kinds of ephemeral and/or orphan film genres. They’ve been in the shadow of film history, so the intention of the installation was to bring them out. Are you familiar with Rick Prelinger’s foundational ideas on ephemeral films, and the fact that these films are “in the darker side of the American dreams?”—as he writes on the Our Secret Century CD-ROM series cover? A background idea to Industry/Cinema is that these films are in the shadow of film and media history, in our collective unconscious, ready to be revealed.

Some filmic styles and even specific shots were constantly being repeated in the industrial and traditionally canonized moving images I examined: close-up shots of wheels turning, of horizontal curtains opening, of passersby seen through windows, of traveling shots in computer-generated images of networks. So it made me feel like these images could be seen as iconic. In that sense, you could say Industry/Cinema takes a semiotic approach, bringing out these recurring visual themes, that almost became clichés. But it was also important for me not to force the resonances between the two image regimes. There’s a documentary approach that I care about, which is simply to reveal what was already in the films.

Sponsored filmmaking is a practice that’s important to understand in order to understand moviemaking in a larger picture. For instance, it allowed filmmakers to finance their more personal films while learning their trade. From this perspective, this practice has contributed to the economies of 20th-century filmmaking in a particular way. But it’s also a fascinating body of work unto itself and has a lot of documentary value. It’s really entertaining, and often extremely beautiful.

Do you remember the first time you saw an industrial film?

In terms of ephemeral films in general, it goes back to high school, when our chemistry teacher would suddenly decide we could afford a break from the curriculum. He would pull out his 16mm projector and show us some 1970s-to-1980s Hydro-Québec films about how the North got developed with some major hydroelectric projects. Somehow we never questioned why he would do so. We just enjoyed.

The Phantom of the OperatorIf you talk of industrial films truly made for industry, it was when I started looking for moving images of telephone operators at the Bell Canada historical center in Montréal. When I think of it, it’s likely that the first one I saw was Nell Cox’s Operator!, a sexy recruitment film she shot with Ricky Leacock for AT&T.

How did you start working with industrial films?

I started The Phantom of the Operator project in the final year of my B.A. in Communication Studies at Concordia University, when I wanted to make a film on the history of telephone operators. I did a lot of background research, including interviews with retired operators and current union leaders at Bell Canada. But it was impossible to find moving images of real operators. So Phantom gradually became a film about how the real workers have been invisible, and how their images have instead been constructed through films that were produced by the companies. As I like to say, the final film is maybe the 10th “operation system” of the initial idea I had.

To the extent of your knowledge, are the people appearing in the industrial films as themselves, or are they professional actors playing these roles?

It depends on each film. In the 1910s, for instance, real operators were depicted more or less naturally. I don’t remember having seen any documentary images of solo local switchboard operators, but more ranks of operators from the city, looking like an impressive assembly line of workers in Victorian dresses. I think that the representation of operators using professional actresses really came with talking cinema. I’d say that the companies used models and actresses from the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s.

But there are exceptions. There’s a film that is excerpted in The Phantom of the Operator with an operator who gleefully says “Your voice is…you!”—that plays on the Hollywood musical comedy tradition, with each operator incarnating a different quality of “The Voice with a Smile.” In this case, I bet that these are real operators who, on their time off, wrote this skit, made the pasteboard décor, and then performed it for the training film. That’s one instance of the operators representing “themselves,” but totally one with this ideal of the Voice with a Smile.

“The Voice with a Smile” was what the operators were called from roughly the late 1910s until the 1960s. This was coined under the presidency of Theodore Vail, the head of AT&T in the States from 1885 to 1887 and then from 1907 to 1919, who was quite wise PR-wise. “The Voice with a Smile” is a hell of a wonderful (and slimy) PR nickname that was aimed at “inspiring” and disciplining the operators to be pleasant and to “look” good in the caller’s mind and imagination. Prior to this, in the 1890s, operators were called “Central,” then the “Business Girls” or the “Hello Girls.”

Operator! is, to me, the last film that was made showing the operators as those sexy happy young girls. And then, in the 1970s, when the documentary ethics momentarily took over corporate filmmaking, it became much more of a realistic people-oriented representation. This also came in conjunction with affirmative-action measures in the United States, which made major American companies comply with racial and sexual diversity in all types of positions. For instance, the other film Nell Cox made was All Kinds of People. There you see real operators who aren’t that young, and some of color, and some males. But, gradually, really, what became sexy was the inside of some new technology… That’s what I could notice by watching at all these films from the mid-1970s on.

This seems to me to be something you address in both Phantom and in Industry/Cinema, which is that the image of the woman, and the qualities attributed to the female employee, gradually shift to being attributed to the machine itself.

Yes. At first the operators were there to facilitate the technology, to allow it to “pass,” be accepted, appreciated, and then adopted. Then gradually the situation got reversed. Technology became sexy, and the operators weren’t that appealing anymore, especially behind their computers.

How did the telecommunications industry evolve in the United States and in Canada?

For the better part of the 20th century, the Bell System, the North American telecommunications company, was the largest corporation in the world. With a tripartite structure encompassing the entire telecommunications production line, it also maintained a privileged relationship with the government and the military industry. A monopoly in most of the United States and Canada, it retained its strategic position up until the dismantling of “Ma Bell,” instigated by antitrust legislation in the late 1970s. While in many European countries the telephone was nationalized, in North America it was actually very much a private enterprise with a public service aura, offering a “universal” service. “One policy, one system, one universal service” was the dictum put forth under Theodore Vail’s reign—to justify all the more AT&T’s “natural monopoly.” I didn’t do research per se about the history of the telephone industry in Europe, but it was not the same bed for corporate intelligentsia to be developed as it was here.

The Bell system has always been a technologically trailblazing communications company—participating in the development of talking pictures, and later on of the microprocessor. But it also has been a pioneer in communications, breaking ground in modern public relations practices since around 1910. As part of its efforts, Bell continuously produced a large quantity of recruitment, information, training, education, industrial, and publicity films, often with high production values, made for both external and internal use.

One of the hypotheses of Phantom is to see how the telecommunications industry was at the forefront of a lot of managerial experimentations. Indeed, again under Theodore Vail, AT&T put forth a kind of corporate paternalism with their employees, by organizing “recreational” activities for them, or allowing them to become stockholders as part of their salary. Of course, this concurred with the rise of unionization of labor in North America—which the Bell System was effective at discouraging as part of its “familial” structure. Industrial psychology was also very much experimented within the manufacturing arm of the Bell System, notably with the pioneering Hawthorne experiments at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works factories in Cicero, Illinois, that begun in 1924. This study, although originally to evaluate the impact of light on workers’ performance, gave way to the discovery that being studied was indeed a factor that impacted positively workers’ productivity. This later gave way to what was called “the Hawthorne Effect.” Another instance of pioneering studies made for the Bell System was by Alvin Toffler in the ‘60s, who was hired as a consultant. He recommended the dismantling of “Ma Bell” to the management a decade before the government imposed it. He also predicted how consumption would evolve within the telecommunications industry, for instance with subscribers being able to choose between telephones of different colors instead of the classic black ones. This inspired his 1985 book The Adaptive Corporation.

The influence of the Bell System on 20th-century North American society and culture has thus been far and wide, from the managerial sphere to the popular, from business and technology to the general culture at large.

The Phantom of the OperatorAre all the pieces that you present in Industry/Cinema privately funded, or were some made with public money?

They are industrials, funded by the industry! However, playing alongside a clip from Modern Times, the Frank B. Gilbreth films were funded by the Chicago chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Management. These are scientific management films indeed, demonstrating the “One Best Way” to reduce the number of motions required to perform a task. The goal of this research was to increase productivity, while also reducing work hours and fatigue.

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On the left side of the installation you’re consistently having the industrial films, and on the right side you’re consistently having the more canonical films. Do you anticipate an audience favoring one side? Did you want this?

I would love them to embrace it as one image—as split-screen, rather than dual-screen. Of course, your eyes always want to go from one side to the other, but that’s why a proper distance from the screen is crucial. Then there are also the distinctive soundtracks that can allow you to be tuned to one side while looking at the other.

But since it’s a gallery-based project, I would also like Industry/Cinema to stand visually unto itself, as something on the wall that is aesthetically intriguing and pleasing, and don’t have to rely on sound to “make sense.”

You use a voiceover in Phantom, but there’s no voiceover in Industry/Cinema. It’s the images with their own original soundtracks.

…or with the other film’s soundtrack. When we were editing the excerpts, we didn’t intentionally try to edit so the right soundtrack would for instance apply wittily to the left channel. But people have reported that they have experienced interesting synchronizations. Some even took care to see the installation twice because they loved to apply the soundtrack from one screen over the other. So although there’s no voiceover resonating with the images, there’s this potential comment on the images by a superimposed soundtrack.

I see something running throughout both works, which is a fascination not just with industry, but in particular with the communications industry, of which filmmaking is an arm. What do you find compelling about it? First off, do you accept the term “communications industry”?

Well, the distinction between the uses of terms has interesting historical connotations. The communications industry, which lasted roughly from the beginning of the 20th century to around the 1950s, had a humanistic aura attached to it. From about 1910, the figure of Alexander Graham Bell had been used by the company to give itself some “soul,” tying its faith to the very inspired invention of the technology. Borrowing from the humanistic, innovative, and benevolent spirit of the inventor, this also helped to naturalize the ideal of service for its employees—called the “communications people”—and to ground its ideology of progress in some mythical initial stages. Business was supported supposed to be about the ideal of allowing people to be in touch with one another, to the point where peace could happen because nations could be in touch through the telephone… Tthat was part of the propaganda, but people also believed it. The operators felt that they were part of this very positive intervention, and they were right! I could see, in Bell’s corporate literature, that the good inventor’s icon remained until the 1980s, but then it became residual, no longer a must, de rigueur, to celebrate the phone. When it became more about telecommunications, it was more about progress for technology’s sake through the networks. Then in the early 1990s the term “telecoms” rose, when the phone companies wanted to stay “current.” And now we’re deeply into another realm with the Internet.

But for instance, we have over email and Skype a lot of conversations now that we would have had 30 years ago over the telephone. And this is a branch of the communications industry as well.

Yes, and after all it’s always been about networks and humans.

As long as there has been an advertising industry, it seems, technology has been advertised as a way to connect people. Do you feel that this installation also addresses the shift from telecommunications to something even more electronic?

You mean like leading to TRON? Yes, in TRON he’s literally in the networks, and we know that this has become the case for us. Now it’s as if the world we live in, in our Western world and in urban areas, is a network. We’re always ready to have this pulse of data coming to us, and people trying to be in touch with us. We’re always prepared to get this input, we are under both a social and an electrical tension.

This is your first installation. How have you found installation work different from film work?

I really have loved to do space-based “film,” and I would love to do more in the future.

As someone who’s mostly worked in film, what first appealed to me was the idea that I didn’t have to be tied to one straight screening on the wall, so that’s what I first explored when I was invited in 2009 to do a residency at Montreal’s Dazibao gallery. I contemplated having two rotating projectors so that the images would cross one another on the four walls of the gallery—with synchronizing moments of mutual recognition between industrial and canonical images embedded in “programmed” editing. This was technically exciting and challenging to figure out, but in the end, there was a risk that the dispositive would take over the content. So we came down to a dual projection on a wall. However, the first time Industry/Cinema was shown, the gallery could not angle the projectors so that the videos would actually touch; this had conceptual implications, because I was aiming the installation to project “one” frame, with the two image “regimes” playing directly next and with each other, not separately. But instead, reinforced by the fact that there were two pairs of headsets, they felt like they were two screenings in parallel. So this first presentation of Industry/Cinema was a bit like a blueprint. The version we have at the Museum of the Moving Image is now really the one, especially with 20 state-of-the-art headphones with their individual switches for the soundtracks!

But to go back to your question about the difference between film and installation works, I’ve enjoyed experimenting with the differences between the types of engagement of spectators/visitors in both media. As a media artist, I consider that the final part of my creative job is to pay attention to how people respond to and navigate with a piece I made. I have to become a kind of voyeur of their reception, tune into them. I always keep openness in the process, a place for doubt, even when the piece is “finished.”

So an installation gives you a privileged opportunity to see people actively interacting. For instance with Industry/Cinema it was fun to watch how people would play with the sound channels, “get” it and stick around for another round, not “get” it and leave after two minutes, etcetera. I think that spectators are always active, but unfortunately they are nowadays getting used to seeing works that are the products of our ADD culture. I prefer to keep space in my work for the spectators, to leave them the room to “make sense,” make the connections themselves from their own knowledge, experiences, moods. I have these comments from people who say, “Thank you for taking for granted your audience is intelligent!” And then there are others who don’t connect the dots, and feel the piece is simply “too long.” All is fine for me, it just fascinates me tremendously!

What industrial films would you recommend for beginners? And how can they find them?

In the United States, a great way to start is to consult the guide book that the National Film Preservation Foundation, with Rick Prelinger, came up with: The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, from 2006. Some people expressed reservations that this type of initiative might create “canons,” but it’s a great way to start, and the films are mainly available online through archive.org. In Canada, there’s a database that was developed by a research group led by professor Charles Acland at Concordia University, the Canadian Educational, Sponsored, and Industrial Film Project. The films can even be viewed on the in-progress website. For Europe, there’s a recent publication that is worth checking out for key European industrials references, edited by Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau: Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Production of Media.

What can you tell us about your new film?

Wavemakers is an independent feature-length documentary about the legacy of one of the first electronic musical instruments—and actually the most sensitive and expressive one—the Ondes Martenot. Mixing direct cinema, musical moments, and never-seen-before archival material, this film journey uncovers the Martenot as a missing link in the cultural history of the 20th century.

Hearing unusual interferences coming from radio vacuum tubes one night during World War I, the French musician and educator Maurice Martenot dreamed of an instrument that would turn the new material of the times, electricity, into music, but electronic music with a distinctive human touch. Despite being celebrated as the musical invention of the 20th century, his instrument is rarely seen—but yet has been heard by most. From early French films noir to sci-fi TV programs like The Thunderbirds, Hollywood classics such as Lawrence of Arabia, to the romance of Amélie or the epic There Will be Blood, the sound of the ondes Martenot has infiltrated the soundtrack of our time. Its unique character has been championed by popular musicians like Jonny Greenwood, who is in the film, and Édith Piaf, and by major contemporary classic composers such as Olivier Messiaen. However, only about 70 functioning Martenots are still around today…
A little bit of an experimental documentary, while having strong historical grounding, and mostly indulging in vérité moments, Wavemakers features musicians, scientists, luthiers, and raconteurs of the Martenot legends who attempt to uncover the magic behind this sensual and sophisticated instrument.

You’ve said that the Canadian Peter Mettler, whose new film The End of Time will soon screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is your favorite filmmaker. What do you value about his work?

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He uses cinema as a tool of fundamental exploration, and says something like film is about dreaming not just in the world, but with it. Indeed, his films are part of a profound quest that many call metaphysical, saying like he’s trying to film the unfilmable. He’s the most splendid director of photography. In fact, his direction, his vision is in good part embedded in his camera work. But he pays an equally great attention to the creation of his soundtrack. I also admire him as an independent filmmaker who cares about every step of the conceptual process.

The Phantom of the Operator

Thanks to Jason Eppink, Dennis Lim, Sam Love, Marion Miclet, David Schwartz, Thanassi Karageorgiou, and all the other workers at the Museum of the Moving Image.

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Wang Bing at the Pompidou

All of these images had some connection to the artist’s documentaries, a thematic link reinforced by the layout of the exhibit.

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Wang Bing

From April 14th to May 26th, Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou held an exhibit on Chinese director Wang Bing, showcasing both his photography and documentary and feature work. At the same time, the center screened several features by Spanish experimental filmmaker Jaime Rosales, extending the “conversation” both artists began with the Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona’s “Correspondence(s)” series. However, these features were shown in traditional cinema spaces, while the exhibit area itself included Wang’s portraits and installations alongside Rosales’s entries into the “Correspondence(s).” If there was a dialogue, then, it wasn’t so much between the Chinese director and his Spanish colleague, but rather between the former’s photography and his own filmmaking.

Wang had originally intended to study architecture, but entry requirements schooling were so steep in the early 1990s, that when it came time to pick a college major, despite spending years preparing for architecture school, he finally chose photography at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. But he would find his real vocation in cinema, and after graduating from Lu Xun, he continued his studies at the Beijing Film Academy. As he admitted in an interview for New Left Review: “Personally, I was not particularly attracted by the seizing of a given moment; for me, the moving image was far more interesting.” Nevertheless, he never stopped “seizing given moments,” though he owes his international reputation to his “moving images,” especially his nine-hour documentary epic West of the Tracks from 2003.

At the Pompidou, the director’s photographs were hung on parallel white partitions standing in the middle of a rectangular area. All of these images had some connection to the artist’s documentaries, a thematic link reinforced by the layout of the exhibit: The partitions, facing each other, produced corridors which led the eye toward the west side of the rectangular area, where various projected installations played simultaneously in niches separated by black curtains. Among them: Crude Oil, a 14-hour real-time depiction of petroleum extractors; Father and Sons, about a stone caster who migrates to Fuming and is deposited by his factory in a deplorable shack with a single bed, which he must share with his two boys; and Happy Valley, Wang’s “letter” for the “Correspondence(s).”

Wang Bing

Photographs and installations have no beginning or end, or they do, but every visitor determines the length of his or her observation. A traditional film, on the other hand, requires that viewers stick with it during a certain span of time. They might leave halfway through, and often do at festivals the world over, yet that’s always a betrayal; in silence, viewers must sprint up the steps of a darkened hall in order to emerge outside the cinematic bubble. Photographs and installations, on the other hand, occupy the more porous grounds of a gallery. The latter might have running times, like films, but they don’t begin or switch off at certain hours, except those in which the building that hosts them is open to the public. True, the same work can function both as film and as installation. But in each case, what changes is the viewer’s behavior.

This is important for Wang, because he delves into both forms. The exhibit at the Pompidou, as mentioned before, included several of his films, among them The Ditch and Three Sisters. Like his installations, his features play with duration, not only through gargantuan running times, but also across prolonged takes in which, it seems, not much happens. Yet, inside a cinema, this duration is something to endure, while in a gallery, the projection can be abandoned and returned to later. This deemphasizes the fact of duration, since it’s no longer necessary to endure it, and foregrounds more architectural elements, as the moving image becomes part of the space that contains it.

In Father and Sons, the camera focuses on a solitary bed in a shack. A boy lies down and busies himself with his cell phone. What he reads, feels, or thinks is never revealed, and audiences can only contemplate his sheer presence, surrounded by paper bags sagging from nails and clustered plastic bottles resting on the ground. Behind the boy is the back wall of the shack, standing perpendicular to the camera. This wall, cut off by the limits of the frame, is extended and continued by those of the immense Parisian edifice on which the image is projected. From outside, the Pompidou Center can look like an unfinished monument of scaffolds and colored pipes, but this boldly modern and lavish establishment is obviously quite complete. Father and Sons reconfigures one of its interior walls and turns it into that of an actually unfinished and ruinous hut in the middle of China.

On the nearby white partitions were several photographs also titled Father and Sons. These frozen moments were paradoxically more dynamic and lively, more mobile, than the installation that shared its name and subject matter. Now the boys could be seen throwing rocks into the distance, on a hill overlooking nearly identical towers; or standing on a tree holding toy guns, the sunlight almost blurring their figures into silhouettes; or sitting on the aforementioned bed, involved with their cell phones or handheld devices. Viewers, who don’t expect animation from a photograph, can imagine the action—the whole drama of movement before and after the captured instant, the rocks lifted from the earth, thrown into the horizon, finally making their way back to the ground after completing their downward arcs.

There’s nothing to actually see outside the image, and how long viewers stare at it comes down to choice. The installation provides information and context missing from the photographs. It shows the waiting and tedium that surrounds the above pastimes, gives them meaning as escapes from boredom through friendship and childish adventure. In turn, the pictures provide quick glimpses of the boys’ activities, which the expansiveness of the installation obscures in its oppressive monotony. If the former establish the variety of these boys’ hours, the latter reminds us that these youngsters are nevertheless floating on a stream of deprivation: loss of opportunities, of civilized conditions, of government institutions, of public works, of time. These kids have nowhere to go and waste their days getting there.

However, installations like “Father and Sons” and “Crude Oil” aren’t really about duration. In his previously cited interview with New Left Review, Wang admitted that “Crude Oil” was meant for galleries and that, thus, he doesn’t expect many people to sit through the entire 14-hour running time. This is far from new: In the 1960s, when Andy Warhol was releasing mammoth works like Empire and Sleep, he suggested audiences look at his projects as they might moving photographs, changing subtly as viewers go on with their lives. Even those artists who avoid galleries share a similar idea: At the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, during a panel discussion on the theme program “Film Without Film,” filmmaker Chris Petit argued, “Duration is built-in in the ’cinema contract’; what I do deals with duration. In a gallery I get ’gallery nerve’: ’How long do you look at a photograph or an installation?’” (I owe this observation to Dana Linssen)

Wang Bing

Despite its colossal length, Crude Oil is built for fragmentary engagement. Indeed, Wang himself couldn’t endure the demanding shoot in the Qinghai province: Brought down by altitude sickness, he left the filming to his crew three hours into the process. The result is an austere document of mundane choreographies, as workers fit pipes into an oil well or chitchat over breakfast, in extensive uninterrupted takes inside mess halls and drilling rigs. By contrast, the 18 minutes of Happy Valley can reasonably be watched from beginning to end. It tracks the daily chores carried out by the crushingly poor denizens of Xi Yang Tang: a woman prepares large tubs of mud-food for the pigs; men drop pressed grass roots into a hearth as fuel; and three underage sisters, abandoned by their mother and left alone while their father recuperates from a wound in the hospital, simply exist in their barren house, a desperate situation that mirrors—but far surpasses in misery—that of the boys in Father and Sons. While this short “letter” to Jaime Rosales is a glimmer next to the immense topography of Crude Oil, its purpose is similar. In one scene, the eldest sister whacks one of the younger ones on the leg with a twig, prompting the latter to break into a searing wail toward the heavens and to drop the potato she held on her hand. As in Father and Sons, the walls of the house, on which the crying child is resting her back, blurs into those of the Pompidou.

Wang’s huts and drilling rigs invade the space of the exhibit. It’s not viewers who dive into the screen, as the metaphor of immersion usually implies, but the screen that overflows into the viewer’s world. Any depiction of poverty for the consumption of more affluent audiences runs the risk of fetishizing its subject, turning it into an impenetrable Other. Wang counters this, having his images seep into the gallery so that viewers feel, somehow, that what they see is where they are. Yet, despite this act of spatial magic, viewers are obviously not in mainland China. They’re still in Paris, at the Pompidou. By smudging the borders between shack and gallery, the limits between them are reinforced. As one is transformed into the other, it becomes manifestly obvious that they couldn’t be more unlike each other, even if the installation offers the illusion of inhabiting both at once. The questions that arise are simple and even naïve, and no less troubling because of it. Why are they there and we here? Why that place and why this place? Why do both exist and what have any of us done to deserve them?

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Cindy Sherman and Her Many Guises

The tension between life and artifice, between being and playing, is blurred in Cindy Sherman’s work.

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Cindy Sherman and Her Many Guises

Critical reactions to the current MoMA retrospective of Cindy Sherman have ranged from wildly enthusiastic to guardedly skeptical. Whatever your personal take may be, there’s no denying the artist’s prolific playfulness. Anyone who enjoyed dressing up as a child, or for Halloween costume parties, can relate to the thrill of being someone or something else, if just for a few hours. The initial appeal of Sherman’s work is this immediate identification.

On the surface, at least, for it doesn’t take long to note that as instantly appealing as her works are, with the exception of the grotesques and the more sexually explicit pictures, there’d a lot more going on in them than a childlike glee at all the makeup, costumes, and playacting.

Many of the works, most notably the Untitled Film Stills, reference the movie industry, and by extension popular culture. Publicity stills, as the show’s curator Eva Respini has pointed out, are snapshots rather than high art, discarded after they serve their function. Revitalizing this humble medium, Sherman captures female movie types, portraying ingénues, vixens, and vamps. A common reading of these stills is that Sherman is taking a critical stance on Hollywood female stereotypes. This is partly true, but a bit simplistic since many of the stills are genuinely haunting, and assert the power of the image even more than deconstruct it.

Sherman’s visual vocabulary for conveying emotional authenticity is rich and varied. There are the frequent sideway glances, the frozen gestures, the way she corners her body, making all the perspectival lines converge toward it, but, as if at the last moment, obscuring her face, turning it away from the viewer. We are aware that the motion and the spontaneity are minutely composed, but the tension between life and artifice, between being and playing, is so blurred in Sherman’s work that the knowledge of artifice doesn’t lessen our engagement with the story in the photograph. Which, ultimately, is what also makes movies magical.

One aspect of the images struck me on encountering them again, in the MoMA exhibition: Quite a few stills capture women in emotional distress. There’s the image of a young woman in a leopard-print shirt, an empty cocktail glass before her and the indispensible cigarette in hand, her mascara smeared with tears. She could be a heartbroken secretary from Mad Men, but she’s only a prelude to a much more cryptic figure that, alternatively, runs through blurry dark woods, hovers in murky corners, or descends into shadowy basements, as if in a Hitchcockian screenplay. This woman wears a white nightie and looks very much on the verge of an emotional breakdown, recalling Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. Mental illness and distress are evoked if not always literally then by the claustrophobic aura that heightens our perception of fragility, and of terror. And while Sherman never really references particular films, the allure of her images is such that we may all be tempted to believe these are films we ourselves have watched.

In the exhibition’s audio commentary, Sherman mentions how she came to wigs and makeup in an era when women were supposed to be jettisoning them, in a feminist gesture. And so, forbidden pleasure animates Sherman’s oeuvre, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in the stills, which palpitate with loneliness, but also suggest the male gaze, particularly with women who lie supine or glance at themselves in mirrors, are partly undressed, or strike suggestive poses. More than any other of Sherman’s notable images (and there are many in the MoMA show, from the centerfold series to the more recent high-society portraits), the film stills speak to the fact that a woman’s identity, her autonomy, is complicated by desire. One could argue that this applies to any desire, male or female, as Sherman’s more androgynous portraits confirm. Although she mostly features women, one senses looking at some images, such as her clowns, that Sherman could be anyone. This fluidity calls into question our readiness to assign genders or gender roles, when in reality they may sometimes be far from simple or certain.

Finally, there’s the importance of the masks themselves; on film, but also in life, we are what we make ourselves out to be. The mask isn’t arbitrary. Through her many guises, Sherman demands that we look at it not as a wanton distraction or whimsy, or solely as a social convention, but as essence, asking how each particular mask is constructed, and what function it serves. In an inversion of the common understanding of the term, Sherman’s masks expose rather than conceal.

MoMA’s Cindy Sherman exhibit runs through June 11.

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Impressions from Frieze New York 2012

Bani Abidi’s Death at a 30-degree angle created a rich, at times humorous deconstruction of political monuments.

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Impressions from Frieze New York 2012

By the time I got back home last night from the final day of Frieze Art New York, the fair staff tweeted: “That’s it, I’m done. Gonna put on my jammies and take a long nap. See you @friezenewyork 2013.” But let’s rewind 2012: I had showed up at the South entrance, but the press attendant was on lunch break, so I walked along the tent north. The wind picked up and the skies looked glum. The outside of a giant white tent, constructed specifically for the exhibition, didn’t inspire visions of grandeur, but the walk allowed me to hear the Susan Philipsz outdoor sound installation We’ll All Go Together. There was Joshua Callaghan’s sculpture Two Dollar Umbrella, a heart-warming sight for any New Yorker who recalls into what bizarre disfigurement a cheap umbrella may be forced by gusts. By Rathin Barman’s intriguing Untitled, a wall of brick and wire with a single sunflower planted on the inside, the friendly guard warned me that I had gotten too close; a tiny red flag in the grass was meant to keep me off. The brisk walk got me thinking about the fair’s calculated spontaneity—the tent arising as if out of nowhere, in a precarious environment. The most visible manifestation of this was a large pit of muddy water fenced off, as if it too were art, by the north entrance.

Once inside, things got a lot more serious. This was the last day of the fair, and the urgency of everyone walking in was palpable. My first full stop was by the seductive works of Garth Weiser, at Casey Kaplan. One of the American artist’s online bios characterized his work as altering “the nature of perception.” As I stood before the three large-scale works with somewhat incongruous titles (My Name is Warren I’m fifteen and desperate to hear from any females into Blancmange, Coronation Street, and Motorheard. My CB handle is Pigpen was one of them), my first perspectival mistake was to believe that the works had been done on wood (in reality, linen and canvas had been used). Yet the surfaces’ undulating ripples made allusions to tree whorls, while their sprawling whiteness, slowly giving up the variegated shadings of blue, red, or of green and yellow, created an illusion of depth. Further on the New York front, Metro Pictures displayed iconic Cindy Sherman—the gory diptych Untitled 89 in which eyes and a tongue emerge from under what look like giblets, yolks, and semi-digested matter, and Untitled 1977, 35 black-and-white photo collages of Sherman figures in alternating costumes and poses—hinting at the wide scope of Sherman’s work.

The other instantly recognizable works included the Tracey Emin drawings and neons both at White Cube and Lehmann Maupin. The Emins weren’t breaking new ground, but London’s White Cube booth was impactful, with the Jeff Wall print Men move an engine back, Damián Ortega’s molten aluminum sculptures inside three glass tanks partially filled with water (Melting Point), and a Damian Hirst piece titled I Want You Too. After all the fuss over the dot paintings, it was refreshing to go back to Hirst’s morbid adventures with the very dead, very-still life: a glass cabinet of preserved fishes, each immortalized in its own glass tank, their magnetic, transfixing transparency as if a commentary on art itself, reminding us that what is captured and frozen, as essence, is already dead. Quieter, but no less impactful, was the work of Mona Hatoum, a London-based artist of Palestinian origin, whose work Afghan was both a physical object—an Afghan rug—and a political statement. In the rug that recalled the ones from her family home in Beirut, Lebanon, Hatoum rubbed out a more realistic map of the continents, restoring larger proportions to Africa, Asia, and South America, and showing diminished Europe and Northern America. Quiet power emanated from the work of this stateless artist, whose use of a modest domestic object further alluded to femininity and gender differences.

My personal discovery this year was the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Her Death at a 30-degree angle at Experimenter, archival prints on paper of various sizes, created a rich, at times humorous deconstruction of political monuments. Abidi’s conversation with an unnamed sculptor, quoted in the wall text, revolved around an unrealized 309-foot statue of Gandhi. What followed was a play between person and myth, between politics and art. In some of the photos we see Gandhi, his bronze bust, the sculptor and the politicians, thus displaying the full spectrum of persons involved in public-art decision-making, drawing our attention to the tensions between the sculptor’s personal if somewhat sentimental vision of a humble Gandhi (leading poor children by the hand in a trial cast) and the desires of government officials for a more imposing monument (reproduced in a promotional photo). The photographs served as both documents and artifacts, and as news, tourist promotion and government propaganda, some deconstructing and others perpetuating the myth. Into this narrative, Abidi inserted her commentary on the heavily codified language of monumental sculpture (raised arms, hands pointing to the sky). Playing with scale, she placed some images above eye level, making the visitor look up as if at a monument, while propping others on the floor, making the visitor peer down at Gandhi’s bare skull—an image of vulnerability rather than strength, illustrating the complexity of readings and representations of Gandhi as a spiritual leader on one hand, and a political figure on the other, whose image has been appropriated by the state and the media.

Further peregrination through the tent maze led me to the interactive Watchword of Brazilian artist Rivane Neueunschwander at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, where I pinned up a word to the artist’s board partially filled by previous visitors; to Wolfgang Tillmans’s stunningly formal inkjet print Nachtstilleben at Galerie Chantal Crousel, and to the thought-provoking Thomas Hirschhorn, whose work The Map of Headlessness, made of the artist’s favored humble materials (cardboard, tape, paper), was placed outside one of the food courts. The Hirschhorn word-and-photomontage incorporated a wide and disparate range of images: from a black-and-white snapshot of painter Francis Bacon in his studio, or press clippings of hooded war-on-terror prisoners in orange jumpsuits, to a design-mag glossy spread of Mondrian-pattern decorative pillows. From top to bottom, one could trace the mental map, from headings like “Assertion of Truth” and “The Friendship Between Art & Philosophy,” through “Ontological Abyss,” “Opening Toward Contingency,” and “The Void,” showing an uneasy tension between art and life, order and chaos, sublimation and anxiety, merging into a kind of pictorial madness, which in turn poignantly underscores how our most enduring cultural and socio-political nightmares refuse to be contained, or mastered, by any neatly delineated system of ideas.

One of my final stops on what now looked like a somewhat subversive route was Galerie Krinzinger, a veteran of the Armory shows. Here the circle of artists known as the Viennese Actionism group, founded in the 1960s, included Rudolf Schwarzkogler, whose vintage print Aktion telegraphed pain and mutilation; Günter Brus, whose performance art ranged from excrement and masturbation to vomiting, but whose print from the Starrkrampf series was almost lyrical compared to the more heavily scatological contemporary counterparts of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy in Heidi, displayed in the same room; and finally Materialaktion Nr. 16 by Otto Mühl, the founder of the ‘70s commune in Vienna espousing radical and revolutionary aspects of everyday life. Add to these the Ukrainian performance artist Oleg Kulik’s The Mad Dog Performance, featuring the artist, naked and on a leash before a crowd of street spectators, and you’ve injected a dose of the shockingly visceral into the fair’s offerings, blunted only by the fact that on display were prints and not the performances themselves.

By 5 p.m., as the fair’s pace slowed down visibly, with dazed gallerists munching on snacks or the lunch leftovers, the rundown and the weary visitors seemed to have taken refuge in the workshop of American artist John Ahearn. As part of the special Frieze project series, Ahearn restaged his famed 1979 South Bronx Hall of Fame exhibition, making plaster casts of the visitors’ faces. By the time I joined the spectacle, a volunteer with two straws up his nostrils to allow him to breathe was being warned that the substance (alginate) would feel cool to his face, before his features disappeared under its mass. A heroic act, and one-of-a-kind chance to have one’s face immortalized, for a fee of $3,000.

A little later, it was all over, my regrets perhaps typical for a visitor thrown into a happy cornucopia of art: not having had more time, having seen too little, but just enough for a whopping headache and the distinct sense of vertigo that comes from visual overstimulation. The fair had officially closed, the last few catalogues had been sold or given away, and the ferry taking the visitors back to 33rd Street was waiting in the docks. It was drizzling again and as the winds picked up I opted for a yellow school bus instead acting as a shuttle, which dropped me off in East Harlem. Here the mostly young art enthusiasts dispersed quickly among the commuter crowd, swallowed up by the evening rush hour.

Farewell, Frieze Art New York. Keep your jammies on, till next year.

Frieze New York ran from May 4—7.

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The Spectacular Confrontations of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”

In his too-brief career, he managed nothing less than to broaden the possibilities of how bodies can appear and of what kind of confrontations clothes can provoke.

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The Spectacular Confrontations of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”

It’s a violent business, tailoring. Cutting, ripping, pinning, yanking, pressing, stretching, stitching; we put the raw materials of our clothes through quite a lot before putting them on our bodies. Typically, these exertions result in the merely presentable, occasionally the fetching, rarely the beautiful, and perhaps once in a generation, the transcendent. Throughout his career, beginning in the 1990s and lasting right up to his suicide in February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen constantly laid bare the brutal qualities of his craft. In doing so, he upended our notions of bodily contours, movement through space, and beauty itself.

Entering its final week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” has established itself as one of the defining events of Summer 2011. The New York Times, in its print edition and Arts Beat blog, has devoted no fewer than seven posts and articles to it. The $45 hardbound catalogue is selling by the tens of thousands. People dress up in elaborate outfits to see the exhibit. And, when it’s all over, “Savage Beauty” will probably rank among the top 20 most-visited Met exhibitions since the museum began taking attendance. The Met has extended the show from July 31 to August 7, extended viewing hours during regular opening days, and has also offered $50 viewing tickets on Mondays, when the museum is normally closed. On the final two days of the show, the museum will remain open until midnight. News of these measures has only added to the buzz surrounding the show, and the crush of visitors continues to pack the exhibition rooms and queues for hours on end to see it.

What awaits as the end of the queue is a spectacular confrontation with McQueen’s wild and often troubling visions. Two terrifying mannequin sentries greet visitors at the exhibition entrance. The first wears a flame-red dress with a feathered skirt; the bodice has no neckline, but rushes upward, engulfing the mannequin’s face and head. The other mannequin, a wicked mer-creature, wears a dress and train constructed entirely out of razor-clam shells. Fire and water stand in opposition here, the first of many clashes—between body and garment, beauty and the grotesque—in this sartorial house of horrors.

In the first gallery, “The Romantic Mind,” are garments from collections titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (1992), Nihilism (1994), and Highland Rape (1995-96). Although the clothes are exquisitely tailored, knife slashes are everywhere, in plunging, curved necklines and slits sliced into the fabric. The aggressive cut is also manifest in the notorious “bumster” pants McQueen developed in the ‘90s, cut low enough to reveal the wearer’s buttocks, and sparking nearly a decade of not being able to find a pair of ladies blue jeans with a zip fly longer than half an inch.

In the remaining galleries, organized thematically by the curator, Andrew Bolton, things don’t get any more cheerful. The “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery is a 19th-century mad scientist’s laboratory, walled with black cubbyholes of various sizes, housing individual accessories—a headdress here, a metal torso ornament there—giving the effect of rearranged dismembered body parts. Yet another gallery is decked out as an ominous banquet hall right out of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and meant to evoke the horror and romance of the Victorian Gothic. In here there are garments inspired by actual Gothic altarpieces of the 15th century as well as witchy, bondage-inspired pieces, including a billowing black dress and black cape from the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection (2002-03), which McQueen said was dedicated to Tim Burton. (The cape is kept in an appropriate state of billow by a wind machine.) Of course, Burton also traffics in such remembrances of historical horror, but absent from McQueen is any whiff of the juvenile fun that permeates the director’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Burton’s naughtiness is tongue-in-cheek; McQueen’s is genuinely dark.

McQueen’s historical references also include the violent past of his native Scotland. He used extensive amounts of tartan wrought into extreme silhouettes (who’d imagine a bustle reappearing in the aughts?) for two of his collections, The Widows of Culloden (2006-07) and Highland Rape. Widows of Culloden specifically invokes the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, which spanned from 1688 and 1746; Highland Rape is an elegy to the British displacement of the Scottish Highland population in the 19th century. Yet at the same time, McQueen also bore nostalgic feelings for England’s imperial past. The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008-09) is a collection inspired by “British Empire, the Queens of England, the Duke of Wellington.” Anyone who’s watched even one Jane Austen film adaptation will find the empire waists and velvet jackets familiar territory, and if there is any levity in the show, it came from this collection. A volcano of ivory tulle bursts forth from a red bolero jacket with gold bullion embroidery, and a scarlet dress cape with proportions of unfathomable amplitude balloons out in every possible direction. The head on the cape-wearing mannequin was adorned with a pair of ruby-encrusted Viking horns, making the whole thing look like a satanic Lady Russell. As if facing off, pieces from The Girl Who Lived in a Tree and the more severe Widows of Culloden line opposite walls of a gallery, as visitors walk the aisle between them, turning from one side to the other.

The historical galleries culminate in a room in showing a 3D hologram of Kate Moss rotating amid masses of wind-blown silk organza to the score of Schindler’s List. One could say that the hologram is the ultimate project for an artist who constantly worked the tension between the violence and seductiveness, and looked for beauty in the repulsive. If, on the other hand, one takes it as glib invocation of the Holocaust, it’s almost unforgiveable.

As Holland Cotter pointed out in the New York Times, such political unresolvedness is one of the more frustrating aspects about McQueen’s appropriations of the past and of other cultures, which include Africa, China, and Japan. These borrowings from other cultures are, like the everything else in the show, stunning monuments to exquisite craftsmanship, but the visual signposts—beadwork and stacked rings for all of sub-Saharan Africa, kimonos, anime, and chrysanthemums for Japan—smell slightly of tokenism.

Of course, we’ll never know if McQueen could have developed these ideas further, but in his too-brief career, he managed nothing less than to broaden the possibilities of how bodies can appear and of what kind of confrontations clothes can provoke. “Savage Beauty” shows McQueen’s work to its best advantage. Only a lucky few were able to attend his runway shows, spectacles involving human chess matches and spray-painting robots. The wonderful installation of the show, wind machines and all, allows for an approximation of the experience in a more imaginative way than merely running video clips of the runway.

McQueen’s work brings to mind another Met exhibition I saw a few years ago, “Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868.” In the armor exhibit was an Edo-period decorative helmet adored with a pair of black and red lacquer rabbit ears soaring into the air. There have been certain times in history when it’s perfectly reasonable, even called for, to strap a pair of lacquer rabbit ears onto one’s head. McQueen made his fantastical works for people who find such occasions in the everyday. It’s fun to see Lady Gaga dance in his 10-inch, hoof-shaped stilettos in music videos, but McQueen in all seriousness would have liked to see a woman wearing them to the city courthouse to contest her parking tickets.

For more information about “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” click here.

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Grasping the Infinite Through Order: Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite

It’s an experience that has the power to rewire your brain to perceive of a world that hovers just beyond our grasp.

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Grasping the Infinite Through Order: Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite

There is, of course, no one set of criteria to determine whether something is a truly great work of art; different people will have their own conceptions of what makes something truly great, and what makes something great to one might not make it so to another. To my mind, though, one thing art indubitably has the ability to do is alter our view of the everyday in some tangible or intangible way—whether that means giving us a different perspective on something, or simply reawakening our awareness of things we notice everyday without really reflecting on it.

Upon experiencing, for the first time, the transfinite, the new installation from multimedia artist Ryoji Ikeda that’s currently standing at the Park Avenue Armory, I found myself impressed by it, but in a rather detached way, inspiring little more than mostly intellectual contemplation. But then, after walking around in its darkly lit, strobe-light-flashy, numbers-heavy grip for an extended period of time, I then stepped into the “real” world outside and found myself unable to easily shake off the experience. Instead of buildings, I would see numbers pulsing through its surfaces; instead of coherent thoughts, I would see barcode-like line patterns flitting through my mind. The revelations of the transfinite, it seems, don’t make themselves truly apparent until you’ve stepped away from its imposing structures—but afterward, the cumulative effect is like seeing the world around you in a wholly different way than you did going in.

What is this thing Ikeda calls the transfinite, you’re probably wondering by now? A mere description will suffice, for the moment.

As you walk into the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, you’re greeted by a behemoth screen, one which spans the length of the floor in front of it and stands upright. As three DLP video projectors situated high up in the ceiling project computer-generated black-and-white patterns and lines onto the screen, one is invited to take off one’s shoes and walk onto the screen as those patterns and lines run underneath their feet; one can furthermore venture as close to the edge of the IMAX-size screen as one wishes. In that sense, one is given free rein around the artwork, to either gaze passively or literally go further into the images.

But that’s only the first half of Ikeda’s installation. Go behind the screen and you’re confronted with the second part of the transfinite: Instead of more black-and-white patterns and lines, you’re instead presented with a barrage of data—numbers and words—ordered on the screen in a mind-boggling array of configurations. And in front of this backside of the monolith are nine monitors, spaced equidistant from each other, that display more lines, numbers, and words arranged in even more configurations: numbers washing over a screen like waves in one; lines configured into molecular patterns in another; black-and-white squares moving across a monitor like a Windows disk defragmenting pattern.

All of this is bathed in darkness—the screens providing the only illumination—and, through speakers situated in different parts of the large space, scored to Ikeda’s own Brian Eno-ish ambient electronic music, with its melody-less beeps, blips, static, white noise, and slowly shifting drones. If you stand near the speakers on either side of the monolith, you may get an actual sense of what it might have been like for those space explorers in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovering that film’s famous monolith for the first time.

A key to determining what all of this might actually signify comes from its title. Webster’s New World Dictionary offers two definitions of the adjective “transfinite.” Abstractly, “transfinite” means “extending beyond or surpassing the finite.” But there is also a strictly mathematical definition: “designating or of a cardinal or ordinal number that is larger than any positive integer.” These two definitions, considered together, suggest a search for something beyond perceived experience, but it’s a search that’s carried out almost entirely through concrete means such as mathematics.

Is it possible to grasp the infinite through order? Scientists and mathematicians have, in their own ways, been dealing with this question for ages, and, in his artist statement, Ikeda himself admits to believing that “the purest beauty is the world of mathematics…It is similar to the experience we have when we confront the vast magnitude of the universe, which always leaves us open-mouthed.” the transfinite abstractly suggests such a confrontation through its setup: the way the front of the monolith greets us all with an impressive barrage of strobe lights and moving lines and patterns, and the way that you literally have to look behind it to glimpse the ordered universe underpinning it all.

The result is an experience that, if you’re willing to explore within the self-contained world it conjures forth, has the power to rewire your brain to perceive of a world that hovers just beyond our grasp. In a sense, the transfinite could be seen as a grand metaphor for art itself: the way artists often use ordered means—whether its numbers in mathematics, three-act structures in film and theater, or scales in music—to express things that are sometimes ineffable. Sometimes order can be beautiful. Ikeda’s new work certainly is.

See Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite at the Park Avenue Armory from May 20–June 11.

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