Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Thursday April 18th, 2013
Filed under Spring 2013

A Trio of Recent Exhibitions

by Vyoma Venkataraman

Doug Aitken, Tam Van Tran and Miroslaw Balka recently had solo shows at 303 Gallery, Ameringer|McEnery|Yohe and Gladstone, respectively. At the outset, they seemed completely distinct, but as I wandered into each of these galleries I was almost forcibly reminded of the other two.

Doug Aitken, "Fountain (Earth Fountain)," 2012. Plexiglas, steel, pumping system, colored methyl cellulose, lava stones, 53 by 78 1/2 by 26 inches. Courtesy 303 Gallery.

A gaping circular crater the size of a small car ruptured the gray cement floor of 303 Gallery. It was filled with murky water, turned milky with limestone deposits. Called Sonic Fountain, this work was a visual and aural treat. From five rods suspended above the crater trickled droplets of the milky water, “plop…plop…plop”; ripples spread out from five epicenters. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The plops echoed in the big space. The pace quickened and my ears detected a rhythm. “Aitken created a 15-minute composition where he programmed the pipes to drip in specific time intervals. If you listen carefully you’ll be able to hear the pattern,” the bespectacled gallery assistant told me. The pool emitted a faint glow even in broad daylight on a particularly sunny afternoon. I felt I was listening to a clock tick. A pile of rubble sat in the far corner of the space, perhaps made of bits of floor that were torn up to create the milky pond. It lay discarded, unwanted and messy. Although evocative of a post-apocalyptic, rubble-strewn landscape, the sonic experience was therapeutic.

Time is irreversible, relentless and in short supply. Among the other work shown, Fountain (Earth Fountain) is noteworthy for its expression of time’s inexorable flow. The show’s theme of a dystopian state of collapse was intensified through this arresting work, with its sense of deteriorating hope. The letters “A R T” stood in a rectangular dish filled with a muddy liquid substance in which dark brown foam collected around darker brown, porous rock formations. Looking like melted milk chocolate, the brown sludge oozed at a steady pace from the head of each three-dimensional letter, its repetitive recycling inviting and hypnotic. The apparently melting letters were suggestive of something discarded and dwindling. It looked like the artwork was sighing, contrite and broken.

Miroslaw Balka, "The Order of Things" (2013). Steel, water pumps, plastic, rubber, water, food coloring, wood, 138 by 118 by 118 inches overall. Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

Constant cacophonous movement is ironically peaceful. Miroslaw Balka’s The Order of Things was a lot to take in, visually and aurally. The installation was entered through a small white door that did nothing to prepare me for its impact. A huge rust-colored vat in the shape of an upside down trapezoid greeted my open-mouthed stare. A loud rush, like that of a waterfall, filled the room, and I could barely hear myself think. But the noise was interruptive in a way that was oddly welcome. I felt calm, as if this noise had wiped my mind clean of thought. The trapezoidal metal vat was halved and its pieces were placed neatly about five inches apart. An inky liquid gushed into them from two pipes positioned directly above. In the sunlight streaming into the space, the liquid took on a deep magenta hue, like wine. A few feet away from the vats sat a block of wood about 13 inches high. Sitting on it and staring up at the work from this angle was unsettling, because the angled form of the vat made it appear as if it were teetering dangerously, threatening to flatten me. My encounter with the work was multilayered—visual, aural and even tactile. Although I didn’t touch it, I could vividly imagine the vat’s rough metallic surface beneath my fingers. I could feel the inky liquid slosh around and be sucked into the pipes leading out and up, only to gush back into the vat in one systematic cycle of movement. But if watching it was therapeutic, as with Aitken’s Sonic Fountain, Balka’s behemoth also humbled me with its size and the ferocity of its sound. I imagine that the oil-like substance pouring into the vat represents the human urge for evil, part of a constant circle in which trauma is endured and contained. As the exhibition’s title suggests, this circle helps maintain “the order of things”—a reference to Michel Foucault’s book excavating historical patterns of human thought.

Tam Van Tran, Installation view, "Leaves of Ore" (2013). Courtesy Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe Gallery.

Tam Van Tran’s show, “Leaves of Ore,” was a beautiful sight from the street, his copper works shimmering invitingly to passerby. I wrestled with an urge to run my hands through the delicate, leafy, metallic protrusions with which Tran covered his canvases. The wafer-thin leaves of copper make the surfaces, which vary in size but are compositionally similar, look like they’ve been through a particularly unforgiving shredder. Stuck flat onto the canvas in some places and crumpled and torn up in others, the copper leaves fluttered in a light draft whose source I couldn’t identify. They responded to my movement, swishing lightly. It was like autumn, come early. The slight movement was, once again, extremely soothing. This is ironic, given that the works are reminiscent of ruined landscapes, the aftermaths of bloody battle. The effect is heightened by a lock or two of a dark straw-like material placed on each canvas, which looks disconcertingly like human hair, thrusting the work into a violent and deathly context. In this light, the constant swish of the leaves becomes more sinister—as if it were the only sign of movement on a battlefield. The theme of destruction continued with a work composed of a set of 12 cans in washes of military colours—forest green, muddy brown and an oddly cheerful yellow—each lined with rows of porcelain shrapnel, which formed sets of ferocious looking teeth. Broken and cratered ceramic works hang on the walls, their shattered surfaces made up of pieces of green, blue and brown ceramic that reminded me of an aerial view of the Earth.

It’s odd how watching something in a state of unrest can keep your mind at peace. Tran’s show however, when compared to Aitken and Balka’s, was decidedly more violent in theme, and its association to destruction and suffering more pronounced and poignant. This feeling lingered unsettlingly, and was not like the thoughtful repose that I was lulled into by Aitken’s and Balka’s exhibitions. Our history bears the scars of thousands of self-inflicted wounds, which Tran’s work seemed to trace.

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