Monday, April 23, 2012

Investigations on Existence at MoMA PS1 - Frances Stark: My Best Thing, Darren Bader: Images, Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet

There are three very good shows on view at MoMA PS1 at the moment, Frances Stark’s My Best Thing, Darren Bader’s Images and Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet. All three artists are investigating and presenting various forms of work to affirm, give evidence, and at moments, release on the questions and emotions involved in existence. The methods in which these artists do this are extremely different but they all leave a tingle in the same location of the brain that holds the question, “how and why do we exist.”

In Frances Stark’s My Best Thing, there is a room with movie theater seating and a large projected video. The video is actually an animation, which you learn is a pre-designed program that has a female who wares fig leaves over her private parts and a male who wears underpants. They look like odd Lego-Playmobile-cartoon people. These avatars are hovering in a bright computer green and they are talking to each other in this floating space, never touching. The dialogue is the puncher in the piece and it being the dialogue of post-coital camsex makes it even punchier. Stark is the female and the male is an anonymous young man from Italy. Both of their typed chats are dubbed with computer-generated voiceover and only the male’s words are also subtitled. The male is a slacker, lives with his parents but he seems curious and open with Stark and the dialogue seems to be very sincere. Stark is the director, writer and star of this interaction and she seems more forced and transparent in her objectives. This was most notable in her reference to books, philosophies, and studies that were in response to unreferenced thoughts or emotions the male expressed. One such instance was when she recommends David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to him after they figure out each other’s real names. The male ends up being the son of a filmmaker who won an award in Venice and the character in Wallace’s book also had such a father. This sort of intellectual corralling by Stark took some of the serendipity out of the piece but overall, watching the various episodes and learning more about each person and the bigger back story was interesting nonetheless.

The visuals of the avatars are charming and when they dance during the “Episode” recaps, it is more then adorable. The way that there are close ups on the face, the pupil, and the mouth of the avatars to heighten certain points in the conversation makes watching the video more stimulating. The “Lol”-ing and the “Mmmm” during camsex are very funny as well. Although the post-coital set up is invariably a shock factor it is just sort of odd and maybe unnecessary. The work actually has very little sexuality and at times it feels a bit exploitative to all involved, but somehow not in a damaging way. The work is very smart and captivates the impulse to witness what is supposed to be private and it also shows the desire and strange new ways that humans can connect to one another and how that impulse inevitably remains eternal.

Oh that Darren Bader, he is just the cleverest thing there is. His show entitled Images is a series of one-liners but they are very well written one-liners. The texts that he has written that are on the walls, and on the takeaway pieces of paper are direct, smart, clear and to the point. In the show there is; a glazed ceramic large garbage bucket, a room that is supposed to have three cats (there were sadly no cats when I was there) until they are adopted, a room with an iguana also up for adoption, a room with wooden plinths and various vegetables on top to make a salad on various days of the week, a white marble Buddha, a white marble snowman, a room with a chicken burrito and a beef burrito on a window ledge with the instrumental intro of Bob Dylans’ Like a Rolling Stone on loop. Yes, all those things and more where there to help you make a Conceptual, Relational Aesthetic smoothie in your brain.

The show didn’t give me goose bumps and I don’t feel cooler after seeing it but you have to give it to Bader, the show is good and he is damn clever. There is a toothy smirked glibness to his work but experiencing them in real time and space, reveals that it is not as bad as I thought it would be. There are no methods of pretension or smarminess. All the pieces seem like genuine ideas and those ideas are on display as astutely as they possibly can be. What is most activated through this show and through the type of work he makes, is that it confronts what it means to be an artist, what it means to make something, to think of something and how that functions in the world. This is the direct question/admittance on his introductory wall text and it’s a very sincere statement. Bader is just existing and he happens to function in a thing that existed before him and will exist without him yet he is a part of it and being himself happens to be his only default and it happens to also fascinate a lot of other people as well.

I was lured into Janet Cardiff’s, The Forty Part Motet on the second floor by the sound of singing. I had not expected this show as it is a longer-term installation and didn’t have all the hullabaloo of some of the other exhibits on view. You walk in a small hallway with grayish fabric panels on the walls and then you are in a room, atrium like, that is wide and has windows the length of the room on both sides. There are 40 speakers standing in the room at 7 feet or so on black metal rods and bases. These speakers are split, 20 on a side, and make oblong open-ended semicircles. Out of these speakers comes music, the voices of males, females, the old and the young singing a reworked version of Thomas Talli’s Spem in Alium Nunquan habui from 1575. It is absolutely heartbreaking music. It is transcendent. Each speaker possesses voices, and sometimes just a voice, that creates an undulating cascade of sound. The sound actually feels as if it is sweeping through the room and during certain parts it feels as if there are invisible strings creating radiant lines between you and the speakers. This effect also makes the speakers feel like disembodied tombs, stand-ins for the voices you are hearing. The effect is intense and when the singing begins everyone in the room freezes and there is a sense of internalization. This piece is rare in that it is one of the few things that I have experienced that triggers the word and feeling ‘divine.’ Is this a bit over the top? I promise it isn’t. This work is brutally moving and it makes you think of life, death, love, god, sadness, beauty, everything, nothing.

After seeing this suite of shows I felt refreshed, happy, light. My eyes didn’t burn, my head didn’t feel like a squeezed grapefruit and my belief that art is the most amazing way to investigate our humanness was reaffirmed. It isn’t about liking, not liking or any of that, it’s about thinking, and thinking about thinking, and then wanting to think some more.