Mark Dion, Cardiff/Miller, and Tomás Saraceno in New York City

Installation view of Dion’s “Phantoms of the Clark Expedition”
Explorers Club, New York 2012

New York City this summer has been chock-a-block with installation and public art. Three exceptional experiences stand out: Phantoms of the Clark Expedition by Mark Dion at the Explorers Club (closed the 3rd August); The Murder of Crows by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at the Park Avenue Armory (until the 9th September); and Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until the 4th November). Beyond the marvelous sensory overload, these three projects share issues of environment—built and natural, as well as site specificity—and the role played by relational aesthetics. It is notable that both Dion and Cardiff/Miller are featured at this year’s Documenta 13 with environmental works.

Dion has worked consistently for over two decades in exploring the history of collections, their display, the culture of the representation of the sciences, and the ordering and classification of knowledge. As importantly, Dion has carved out an important role as an environmental artist highly concerned with site specificity and significance. These two threads converged in his installation commissioned by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts and shown at the Explorers Club in New York City. Part of the brilliant re-fashioning of the venerable institution by its director Michael Conforti—a museum with masterpieces from Piero della Francesca to Edgar Degas and Winslow Homer as well as a  research institute—it has been rebranded and expanded with new buildings by Tadao Ando. During construction, portions of the Clark have been closed down and collections put on the road, and this exhibition in New York is one happy outcome of their effort to engage audiences elsewhere during the transition.

Installation view of Dion’s “Phantoms of the Clark Expedition”
Explorers Club, New York 2012

The selection of this “site” was not accidental for since the 1960s the Explorers Club has made its home in the former residence of Sterling Clark’s brother, Stephen. Heirs to the vast Singer sewing machine fortune, both brothers were notable art collectors (the former establishing his own private museum in western Massachusetts and the latter making major gifts to Yale, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art). But before Sterling was a collector, he was a soldier and explorer, and this program celebrates the seminal 1908-09 expedition he financed and accompanied through northern China. The findings were published in 1912 in a volume, Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908-9. This was the most significant result, for while some collected specimens went to the Smithsonian and the British Museum, the expedition was cut short. No cultural material was collected. The expedition’s surveyor, Hazrat Ali, was killed by villagers and a skirmish ensued. In the absence of much if any material for display, the artist had to come up with another approach.

Dion’s elegant solution to thorny issues of the lack of surviving material, availability of specimens, loans, exhibit space, and above all, the representation of the sort of cultural imperialism—however benign—in operation here, found its form in a phantasmal display of accoutrements the type of which Clark would have taken on the expedition. Dion was aided in this with the extensive photographic documentation which illustrates the expedition’s publication, the centennial of which the exhibition celebrated.

Table Installation for Dion’s “Phantoms of the Clark Expedition”
Explorers Club, New York 2012

Arriving in the board room on the uppermost floor of the Explorers Club where hunting trophies and other artifacts are on display and where once Stephen Clark’s Van Goghs, Cezannes and Renoirs were once on view, one immediately encountered a camp fire and cauldron. Hanging above from the beams was a “wild boar shot near Yen-an Fu.” Then, spread out upon the meeting table (reportedly given the club by famed soldier, hunter, naturalist, and politician Theodore Roosevelt) was a trove of ghostly objects: shoes (both Western and native), guns, vessels, pith helmet, telescope, camera, axe, rope, bamboo cages, all the materiel needed for a scientific expedition. Fragile and appearing relatively modest, upon closer inspection and further consideration, the exquisitely made papier-mâché objects laid out on the table began to work their magic. The artist insisted on no custom-built vitrines or special display; these objects were organically embedded in the site. They were tours-de-force of imagination and craft.

Frederic Edwin Church
The Icebergs, 1861
Oil on canvas
Dallas Museum of Art

More to the point, Dion’s concept echoes those epic Victorian paintings cum cautionary tales such as Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs (1861; Dallas Museum of Art); Sir Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864; Royal Holloway College, University of London); and Thomas Moran’s Spectres from the North (1891; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa). These grand pictures evoke exploration and Artic disasters, while sublime, spectral mountains of ice glide past. Dion’s timeless recreations allow us to ponder them as ur-texts on the theme of discovery and scientific exploration, while simultaneously and emphatically referencing the site-specificity of the Clarks and the Explorers Club.

Sir Edwin Landseer
Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864
Oil on canvas
Royal Holloway College, University of London

The beauty of Phantoms of the Clark Expedition is its intimacy and organic integration. Much of installation art today is large-scale—some would argue overblown—a concern the artist and I discussed in the context of Phantoms. While Mark and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller often work on similar scales, in the case of the U.S. debut at the Park Avenue Armory of the latter’s The Murder of Crows, the two thrillingly fill the enormous Drill Hall, their mise-en-scène swathed in darkness and mystery.

Installation view of Cardiff/Miller’s “The Murder of Crows”
Park Avenue Armory 2012
Photo: James Ewing

Among the most intriguing artists working today, wife and husband team Cardiff and Miller are best known for their sound installations and walking tours, recording in binaural sound. But the sound pieces, in addition to their other work in video and other media, are often accompanied by incredibly evocative and elaborate physical installations, such as Paradise Institute (2001), Opera for a Small Room (2005) and most movingly, The Killing Machine (2007). The present installation—although physically comprising only folding chairs, speakers, electric cords and cables, and a gramophone speaker perched atop a card table—takes in its stride the almost totally darkened immensity of the Armory. Dramatic spots of light illuminate the center of the hall, while the suspended speakers and cords remind one of being in a cave with stalactites and stalagmites or inside a nebula. One has to walk carefully to take one’s place and wait for whatever is to happen to begin. A “murder” of crows refers to a flock, and also to the birds’ gathering to mourn one of their dead. Here, doubtless it refers to the winged fancies about to take flight in our minds.

Installation detail of Cardiff/Miller’s “The Murder of Crows”
Park Avenue Armory 2012

A door creaks and there are footsteps…the drama begins. Cardiff’s voice—in her monotonous cadence—sounds out. She begins to tell the first of three disturbing dreams, filled with Grand Guignol twists. Interspersed between the dreams are fragments of violently contrasting music, first that composed by Freida Abtan; then monastic Tibetan chant replete with those otherworldly droning horns; music by Tilman Ritter; Soviet choral music; the intermittent caws of crows; the sounds of the seashore; and finally a lullaby sung by Cardiff and composed by Bures Miller.

The Tibetan chant—along with the first nightmare involving babies and the closing lullaby—firmly anchors the installation in the couple’s own life experience. Murder of Crows was commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection and premiered in 2008 at the Sydney Biennial, the year after the couple’s arduous experience of adopting a child in Nepal. In 2007 while I was at the Miami Art Museum, I got to know George during the installation of their brilliant retrospective exhibition The Killing Machine and Other Stories, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, and the Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt. He spoke of the immense frustration involved in the long, drawn out process taking place far, far away. The Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare comes across in Murder and connects it both with Abtan’s percussive and electronic-based music used here and her keening music for The Killing Machine two years earlier, itself based on a Kafka short story of torture in a penal colony.

Abtan and Ritter’s atmospheric, hypnotic scores for Murder reminded me of Werner Herzog’s moving installation shown at this year’s Whitney Biennial combining the art of Hercules Seghers with the music of frequent collaborator, composer and cellist Ernst Reijseger. In both cases, it was a perfect pairing of music with imagery (both aural and visual) to achieve heightened emotive effect.

Cardiff and Miller’s extravagant story lines have been criticized for not making sense, but then that misses the point. Their narratives are stream-of-consciousness dream states. Both Paradise Institute (2001) and Berlin Files (2003) concoct Cold War-era spy stories—eerie settings, chase scenes and whispered conversations—that move in and out of time, place and character. The effect is disjointed but very much like the way we dream in real life, so to speak. The emphasis on sound effects and their immediate impact, combined with video and installation, don’t need to make lineal sense. In the end, Cardiff and Miller’s stories transport us to another, alternative reality of their creation. Murder’s impact is striking, for while we are sitting together as a group listening to their extraordinary stories, experiencing the music and effects, and staring into the dark, we nevertheless become isolated in our own alternate experience. The work’s tension resides in the fact that it cuts both ways.

Francisco Goya
Plate 43: El Sueno de la razon produce monstros
from Los Caprichos, 1799
Etching and acquatint on paper

The Murder of Crows, according to the artists, was inspired in part by one particular print in that great suite of Goya etchings, Los Caprichos (1799). These “caprices’s”—endlessly inventive, dark and biting satires on the status quo of contemporary Spanish society—most famous image, “El sueno de la razon produce monstros” (“The sleep of reason produces monsters”) shows a man fallen asleep across at a table (in the present work, the table with the gramophone speaker). The winged creatures which swirl around the sleeper’s head are akin to the disturbing imagery Cardiff and Miller conjure in our minds. The point is, the rational mind at rest—or dreaming—is freed up for all sorts of mischief. The 30-minute “sound play” ends with a baby’s lullaby, Cardiff singing “Close your eyes and try to sleep…” gently, yet gently menacing.

Cardiff/Miller’s The Murder of Crows is but one example of the terrific programming the Park Avenue Armory has been producing, bringing new and recent work by Trisha Brown, Philip Glass, Tom Sachs and Peter Greenaway, as well as avant-garde classics by Stockhausen and Zimmermann. Surely it is one of the more exciting programs and venues in the U.S. today, fusing its Gilded Age, Tiffany-infused splendor with fresh cultural perspectives.

Tomás Saraceno
Cloud City, 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Richard P. Townsend

Likewise, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been trying to do the same—we all eagerly await its taking over the Marcel Breuer Whitney Museum building as it expands its programming and display of modern and contemporary art. This all the while offering—like few other institutions in the world can—the ability to contextualize in great depth the more recent material. The Met’s rooftop sculpture garden on 5th Avenue has been a popular spot for it to experiment with installation and large-scale public art (most recently Jeff Koons and the Starn Twins). Currently, the Met offers up Tomás Saraceno in one of his trademark installations (until the 4th November).

This young Argentine artist has been rapidly gaining renown for his complex, organic sculptures and installations which appear to mimic forms ranging from spider webs to cellular division. Often made from bungee cords and filling rooms, Saraceno’s work is engaging and beautifully complex to behold. It is no surprise that his work is grounded in architectural concerns (architecture, along with psychoanalysis, being a popular obsession in Argentina). Although manifesting quite differently, Saraceno’s interest in architecture is similar to that of another talented young Argentine artist, Leandro Erlich, whose parents are trained architects.

Tomás Saraceno
Cloud City, 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Richard P. Townsend

Saraceno’s recent work explores concepts of the ideal cities and structures of the future (series of installations with names such as Air-Port-City and as here at the Met, Cloud City). Buckminster Fuller, a exponent of the geodesic dome and famed futurist, is an important influence on Saraceno. Less well known, Gyula Kosice, an Hungarian émigré to Argentina and founding member of the modernist group the Madí, was obsessed with futurist architecture, creating utopian sculptures out of the then-new material of plastics—he too is clearly important in forming Saraceno’s interest in ideal communities and structures.

Tomás Saraceno
Cloud City, 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Richard P. Townsend

The Met’s installation—the artist’s first such major commission in the U.S.—clearly takes as its point of departure this futuristic architectural concept, but its modules of metal, clear and reflective materials and cable have multiplied out in cellular reproductive fashion. Fuller’s dome has become a completely different organism. Situated on the rooftop sculpture garden of the Met overlooking Central Park, the structure is entirely audience-engaging. Timed tickets allow for visitors to climb up into it—like an adult jungle gym—pausing every so often to take advantage of the tremendous views. In the reflective material one can see the park, the New York skyline, and other visitors. I had a wonderful if vertiginous experience standing tens of feet up in air on a clear Plexiglas floor, seeming to float in mid-air, looking out at the green canopy of the park. On my way down, I noticed a small grace note, a miniature bungee-cord installation, like a spider’s web in a neglected corner. It is a charming conceit: one of the artist’s sculptures nested within a module, which in turn is nested within the larger installation. Cloud City at the Met is clearly audience-pleasing (it was packed the day I visited, in spite of the heat) but has poetry and substance as well.

Tomás Saraceno
Cloud City, 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Richard P. Townsend

Perhaps the sole unifying element—aside from the obvious fact that these works are all mixed media installations but wholly varied in style and approach—is that they pose open-ended questions to the viewer who must complete and activate them. From Dion’s phantasmal expedition objects and the mental imagery conjured up by Cardiff and Miller to Saraceno’s playground in the sky, this summer in New York City is a rich moment in which to explore these recent experiments in relational aesthetics.

 (Author’s Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently working with Mark Dion on a project slated for 2015.)

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2 comments

  1. We are excited about the Dion project.
    Thanks for disclosing your interest in
    Dion.
    I personally look forward to seeing these projects.

  2. […] at Pompeii in his presence in 1849 (The Vatican Museums) surely comprises an early example of installation art, a compendium of items transformed into one great […]

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