Created in 2007 by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Killing Machine is not an artwork that is going to hang discreetly on a wall or sit quietly on a plinth. Designed to be erected in a large, darkened room, it features an empty dentist’s chair covered with a soft sheepskin liner and outfitted with heavy straps. The chair is overseen by two drills that, at the touch of a button, start swivelling and darting at its invisible occupant while a disco ball rotates overhead.
Grisly and unsettling, but also darkly humorous in the way it contrasts its robotic dance and cheeky materials with its murderous purpose, the work exists in three versions. One is the artist’s proof, which was shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013 and the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2014, while a second version belongs to a private museum in Munich and has been shown occasionally in Germany. The third version was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 by Julia Stoschek, a German collector who specializes in time-based art – and it has never been seen since.
“The Killing Machine had been in crates for 10 years,” MoMA curator Hillary Reder said as she led a recent press tour of Surrounds: 11 Installations, an exhibition that marks the first time the prestigious museum has displayed Stoschek’s gift – as well as any of the other pieces in the show.
Kinetic, conceptual, dematerialized or just plain big, contemporary installation work can be difficult to collect and to show. The MoMA’s newly expanded 53rd Street headquarters are purposefully designed to get more of the collection out of crates, increasing the number of works that can be shown by about 75 per cent. At the top of the building, in the expansive temporary exhibition space that occupies the entire sixth floor and represents the museum’s largest suite of contiguous galleries, Surrounds makes space for large-scale immersion, devoting a room to each ambitious installation.
The exhibition covers the past 20 years in installation art, and includes an international group of artists both mid-career and veteran. It begins spectacularly with Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, a floor-to-ceiling trunk of multicoloured acrylic fibres created by the 85-year-old U.S. artist Sheila Hicks, who is well known for her over-sized work with textiles. Here, the column of knobbly threads, soft yet towering, engages powerfully with the big architectural space just as MoMA unveils its new building. Next door, the scale of the encounter changes completely in Indian photographer Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance, which invites the viewer to sit among her dreams and memories, intriguingly mounted as a dense installation of black-and-white photos in wooden screens.
Meanwhile, the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto plays with scale and space in a whimsical way in Architecture is Everywhere. He creates a series of irresistibly minuscule worlds with his tiny models of landscapes and structures made from unusual materials, including stackable potato chips, the fake grass from sushi packaging and a ridged household sponge.
Sarah Sze also works with everyday materials to create her kinetic sculpture Triple Point (Pendulum), which represented the U.S. at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Across a large circle formed by rows of anonymous junk, including wires, boards, papers, Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles, a pendulum swings provocatively, threatening to knock over the whole precarious display.
Sze’s work flirts with the disappearance of the art object itself, and the exhibition also includes the fleeting medium of performance: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, collaborators who live and work in Puerto Rico, are presenting Fault Lines, a 2013 piece in which two boy sopranos sing insults drawn from literary sources as they pose on large, low platforms of carved and polished rock. It’s an exercise that is supposed to say something about contemporary discourse, but seems mainly to prove, as it juxtaposes the high voices of the boys with the harsh beauty of the rocks, that you can aestheticize anything.
That’s one way to engage an art audience. Another is to let them wander through your installation with their dirty shoes and grubby fingers. Perhaps the most high-concept piece here ultimately creates the most ephemeral art: To make Work of Days, a piece originally conceived in 1998, the Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander mounts sheets of adhesive vinyl in her studio and then transports them to the gallery, creating a bare white room that is rapidly smudging and darkening with more dust and dirt as the museum’s visitors experience the show.
Cardiff and Miller, on the other hand, implicate the viewer more emphatically in their dark process: The Killing Machine only begins its five-minute danse macabre when the intrepid visitor approaches, notices a yellow sticky note that says PRESS and duly hits the button.
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