Post #913 • November 28, 2006, 11:27 AM • 7 Comments
Cambridge, MA — "The art in Sensorium captures the aesthetic attitude of this hybrid moment when modernist segmentation of the senses is giving way to dramatic multi-sensory mixes or transpositions," sayeth the copy for the exhibition currently up at MIT List. It's a telling sentence, if not a melodious one. MIT is working on some of the world's most intractable problems. I'll wager that the List is the only entity on campus that specializes in problems that don't really exist.
It is difficult to take brute matter and make it convey feeling, and high technology seems only to complicate the options of how one might do so. With new materials, the artist now has more weapons than ever to aim at his foot. "Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art" should have made an aesthetic case for sound, scent, and digitally altered perception in the visual arts arena. It failed, and reading the sentence quoted above clarified why: the modernist impulse to distinguish boundaries between media and make the essentials of each operate with maximum effectiveness is a highly effective strategy, and opposing it willy-nilly is not. Progress is not merely an Oedipal project. Cries of "Things are different now!" neglect the fact that in many important ways they're not.
On a more basic level, if I go to see a techie art show, the stuff has to work. A headset that should have put other people's views of Mathieu Briand's recreation of the control bridge from 2001: A Space Odyssey in front of my eyes, due to glitches, did not. Secondly, if my participation is required, doing so shouldn't force me to override my better judgment. A sound and light installation by Ryoji Ikeda described by the wall label as "a test of the participant's endurance"? Transluscent appliques impregnated with human sweat, by Sissel Tolaas, in what amounted to a bunch of giant BO-scented Scratch-n-Sniffs? Thanks, I'll let somebody else go first.
Thirdly, I have shit to do, and I'm only going to wait so long for a video to get its act together. Bruce Nauman's lofty reputation does not justify my watching his 51-minute video of an infrared camera trained on his empty studio at night. That's just stupid. (He calls it Office Edit I, 11/11/00, 11/09/00, 11/16/00, 11/19/00, Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage), in a bald and pathetic attempt to glue profundity onto the work via the title.) In a small solo exhibition next door, Alix Pearlstein recorded videos of people engaged in strange tasks in minimalist environments, and they came off as failed improv exercises. It's vacuous to say that video art is just bad film, but examples like these bring that criticism to mind.
That leaves one successful piece. Opera for a Small Room by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller consisted of a built environment within a windowed room, stuffed with dusty bric-a-brac, old furniture, records, and turntables and lights that creepily turned themselves off and on. A voiceover related an inchoate story about a relationship as an orchestral performance and old songs wandered in and out of the auditory background. The technology, which must have been considerable, lay hidden, subordinated to the desolate effect. It evoked Tom Waits and Ed Kienholz, and although I wouldn't say it exceeded either of them, the work at least had some emotional bang. The rest of the show could have used some. Without it, this hybrid moment is not worth highlighting.