Wednesday, July 17, 2013

passing through walls

Today I went down to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver for the exhibitions there that are part of the Biennial of the Americas. The Biennial displays the works of artists from countries all across North and South America. The art, which includes works in galleries as well as site-specific installations, is on display all over Denver through September 2nd. There are a number of festivals and events concurrent with the Biennial, including some big parties in Civic Center Park on Thursday and Friday night. I won't be going to the parties. I'm kind of allergic to parties -- i.e. I'm a wimp.

But today the MCA Denver had a special afternoon of tours put on by the artists whose work was on exhibition. There are actually four exhibits put on for the Biennial, but three of the artists were present to give talks: Tatiana Blass, John McEnroe, and Gaspar Libedinsky.

The talks were all co-hosted by Nora Abrams, the Associate Curator for MCA Denver. Abrams is kind of worth mentioning up front. She's a really insightful person, able to explain and clarify the artists' processes and ideas as she saw them while she was working to help get the exhibitions underway. She also has a very warm, friendly style of presentation.

The first talk was by Tatiana Blass, whose exhibit is called Electrical Room. Apparently Blass had been chosen last year to do an installation for this exhibit. She visited the MCA and the room where her installation was going to be. She was amused, however, by a sign on a door that said "Electrical Room." I'm kind of kicking myself right now for not having sought out the door and the sign.

Blass' imagination worked with the fantasy of what was behind the door of the "Electrical Room." When she came back to Denver, she and the people at the MCA Denver went to an electronics recycling place near the museum. There they found all kinds of old televisions, computers, and other electronic devices. Blass built all these electronic devices up into a mound in the promenade-hallway outside the large exhibit space which would be the main room of the installation.

Blass then strung electric cord back from this mound and into the wall. The cord then gave the appearance of running through the wall and into the large exhibiton room. The large exhibition room is filled with the masses of cord -- 14,000 feet of electric cord, in fact. The cord slumps down from the wall and down toward the floor, only to slope and swoop back upward toward the walls and ceiling. The cord connects into electrical outlets -- 500 of them -- along the floor, walls, and ceiling. So this entire large exhibition space is filled with lines, loops, nets, and coils of elerectric cord.

Blass also created a 10-track video of people whose faces would appear on some of the screens in the piles of electronics. The people all speak in Portugese except for one woman who acts as a translator and speaks in English. All the characters have their own personalities. It was actually very charming to watch Blass describe some of these personae: the pragmatic man, the philosopher, and so forth.

Blass' idea seemed to be that our culture has kind of come to inhabit the electronic devices through which we communicate. But there also seems to be an element of miscommunication and confusion in her work. The issue of miscommunication, it seems, is age-old. And it doesn't go away, even when we as people interactiing with other people characterize ourselves through electronic devices.

But the work also gave me a couple other feelings. First, I saw the pile of TVs not only as being inspired, obviously, by Nam June Paik, but also by David Cronenberg's Brian O'Blivion character from Videodrome -- the character you mostly see only in a head-shot on a television screen.

What also struck me was that the room full of cords implied what comes from the back of the electronic device: the cord. This could also be the cable-TV or Internet cord. But I, for some region, also imagined a whole other set of cords expanding from the front of the screen: the TV waves, which would be invisible, impalpable, to a degree, but still there.

The cords in the cord room also reminded me -- surprise, surprise -- of sperm. But the strange thing about these sperm would be that they came out of a womb, the mound of electronics. Instead of many sperm going toward a womb but only one sperm getting in, we have a lot of sperm going out from a womb, each sperm finding its own personal fulfillment in an electrical outlet.

The next person to speak was John McEnroe, whose exhibit was called Beauty Does. McEnroe seemed to be a little unconfident in the title of his exhibit. At one point he said he thought he should have named the exhibit after a compliment a friend had once given him: John McEnroe Thinks with His Hands. At another point he said that he didn't really believe in beauty, that the closest he got to believing in beauty was believing that occasionally human beings can be lucky enough to catch very honest moments in their lives.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge, mobile-like sculpture made out of two different kinds of plastics and some various found materials. One kind of plastic is a plastic that is molded through melting: polyvinyl acetate. The other is a kind of resin called, I think, heat-set resin.

The melted plastic had found objects, like rope, plastic construction netting, steel mesh, steel wire, shovel heads, flashlights, and other items, dipped into it. These objects were then hung from the four-story-high ceilings of the atrium, allowing the plastic to drip, usually in long strips or strings, down to the floor. The objects are mostly orange, and the plastic is also orange. The heat-set resin is a neon-yellow, and it was dripped down along polyester strings in such a way that beads of the resin gathered along the strings, giving an appearance of bead-curtain strings. Occasionally there are also some Super Balls, which I imagine having been caught by the melting plastic in mid-bounce.

Another set of works involving resin and rope were two works called White Tie and Black Tie. These works are basically long lengths of rope tangled up and frozen inside of massy rectangles of semi-opaque, milky-yellowish resin. The rectangles of resin provide the sense of a portrait or painting, a conventional work of art. But the tangled up rope spills out from the resin, flopping down and spilling all over the floor.

McEnroe said he kind of had a fixation on the idea of freezing rope. It seemed, he said, like rope is such a symbol of mutability. A rope fulfils a purpose when its linearity is distorted by a knot. The knot makes the rope into something different. But after the rope's task was finished, the rope was straightened back out. It just became linear, just line. I thought this was kind of interesting -- a rope is when it is knot.

It's kind of interesting to note that McEnroe said that his idea of melting plastic also came from this idea of freezing rope. He had dipped some rope in the polyvinyl acetate in order to freeze it. He then hung it up in his studio overnight. He came back to his studio the next day with a friend of his. The friend saw the dripping plastic object and thought it was fantastic. This inspired McEnroe to make more melted plastic sculptures.

What's also interesting to me is that McEnroe had stories about the rope in Black Tie and White Tie. The Black Tie rope came from the backstage area of the old stage at the old Elitch's amusement park. This was fascinating to me. The old Elitch's has so many childhood memories for me. And it symbloizes the old Denver for me. I prefer the new, and changing, Denver. But I'll always love the old Denver.

The final artist to speak was Gaspar Libedinsky, whose exhibit was called Productos Caseros, or Household Products. The exhibit is of two videos, both based on the Caseros prison in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The prison was originally intended to be an interim prison, for prisoners caught for minor offences or awaiting trial. Prisoners weren't meant to stay there for more than a few months. And it was built only a couple kilometers from the center of town, so the prisoners could be close to their families and the courthouse.

But, for some reason, the prison started holding prisoners for more serious offences and for longer periods of time. The prison reached a critical mass of prisoners. These prisoners all decided to riot. They took the fire extinguishers and began to pound away at the thin, brittle walls of the prisons, busting holes in the prison walls. They would use these holes to travel between floors, even to escape the prison -- though they would always return to the prison -- often after having committed fresh crimes. This was all happening close to the center of the city. But, strangely, the people in the city weren't talking about it.

Eventually a crime ended in the deaths of two "escaped" prisoners, and the government decided to shut down the Caseros prison. In 2006, about 20 years after the prison was closed, it was demolished. But before the prison was demolished, Libedinsky went to the prison and filmed a sort of reenactment of the making of a hole in the wall. He then used footage of the hole in the wall as part of short video vignettes.

One of the videos in the exhibit is the video of the hole in the wall being created. The video is in split screen, showing the view from inside the building and the view from outside the building. The video is projected low to the floor. This emphasizes the fact that the holes in the prison walls were made close to the floors. It gives the sense of this view being a part of our own reality.

The strange thing, though, is that the split screen also shows the outside view, which is, if I remember Libedinsky correctly, from six stories up in the air. Compound that with the fact that this video is being projected in the basement of the MCA Denver, below ground, and it creates a strange sense of vertigo.

The other video is one of the vignettes. It's called Cuckoo. It is projected onto a foot-tall, wooden structure in the shape of a birdhouse or cuckoo clock. The story begins with the hole in the wall being created. Then a woman, a wife in a family, dumps some "garbage" (really, Styrofoam peanuts) out the window. The husband of the family then steps up and jumps out the window, like he is planning to jump to his death. But he hangs onto the window ledge for a moment, then pulls himself back up in through the window. The wife comes back out, beats the dust off a carpet, then pulls the blinds on the window.

The fourth exhibit was also really terrific -- Diarios, by Guillermo Kuitca. But I am all out of steam tonight. I'm definitely planning to head back to see the exhibit again sometime. So after I do, perhaps I'll spend some time discussing it.