diorama: Taplin’s Across the Dark Waters.
Days: Elegies for Modern Times
MoCA, through Feb. 28
At its best, the legacy of conceptual art has meant artists
synthesize wildly daring ideas in divergent media. I’m thinking
of CarianaCarianne, at MASS MoCA’s Believers a couple
years ago; she—rather, “they”—engage with ideas about double
identity in video, legal documents, and drawings. At its worst,
though, conceptual art panders to elaborately footnoted trends
in post (fill-in-the-blank)-ism scholarship that touts the
newest technology (animation, computer-generated graphics)
while leaving viewers alienated. This over blown conceptualism
is one of the problems with These Days, which tackles
an ambitious topic—loss—but, despite some individually strong
work, doesn’t quite get off the ground.
Partly the exhibition suffers because “elegy,” in the subtitle,
is too broadly defined and includes religious allegory, urban
catastrophe and plain old mortality, among other things. Another
weakness is that the six artists have little to say to one
another aesthetically. Finally, the disjointed placement of
works in a series of loosely connected rooms on two floors
leaves much to be desired.
In the first, open, room are Sam Taylor-Wood’s excellent time-lapse
video, A Little Death, which shows a rabbit decomposing,
maggots and all, next to an unblemished peach, and the first
two sculptures in Robert Taplin’s intriguing Everything
Real Is Imagined (After Dante) (the rest are in a separate,
small room). It’s a diorama cycle with realistic wax sculptures
enacting Dante’s Inferno for the contemporary era.
Both artists make appropriate introduction to a theme of lament:
A midlife Dante gets numbly out of bed, while Taylor-Wood’s
shriveling rabbit is a mesmerizing example of mortality. But
that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Where Taylor-Wood’s
video keeps a cool still-life distance, in Taplin’s work,
the suffering is mediated and interior: One scene depicts
Dante at a dining table with Beatrice and Virgil. Taplin also
imagines generalized, societal strife with a destroyed cityscape
in dramatic perspective—Dante’s “great plain full of torment
and pain” (Canto 9).
Awkwardly continuing around a corner are more photos by Taylor-Wood
but from different projects: Clowns lurking in decaying urban
environments are from her After Dark series, while
images of the Yorkshire moors (from Ghosts) seemed
to me oddly emotionally blank. According to the exhibition
pamphlet, they were inspired by Wuthering Heights and
depict “thwarted love and suffering.” Making for an even more
fragmented experience, Taylor-Wood’s work continues upstairs
with a film of a man playing air cello, and her wonderfully
gentle photograph Escape Artist (Primary Colours).
But before we can begin to piece together these disparate
threads of loss, we’re off on another conceptually loaded
tangent with Micah Silver’s The End of Safari, placing
us in a room with palm plants, benches and a “libretto performed
by a fictional Yves Saint Laurent” (in reality a vocalist
from the U.K., Yvon Bonenfant), which, we are told, references
Laurent’s safari jacket. The disappointingly thin decor was
like a tiki-themed college dorm party. Maybe that’s Silver’s
point—that tropical conquest is a played-out fantasy—but can’t
hackneyed fantasies be visually imaginative?
In another room, Chris Doyle’s Apocalypse Management
(telling about being the one being living), a large-scale
animated video of urban catastrophe, is a more fully realized
vision of loss and suffering. Cartoon figures emerge, struggling
to move on a screen, first blank, that then divides into panels
(sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical) as layers of vibrantly
colored fallen buildings and infrastructure appear, crushing
or impaling the people. The figures sing in fragments of hauntingly
mournful opera in this impressive animation that borrows from
Renaissance depictions of the last judgment.
You must walk behind the screen of Apocalypse Management
for George Bolster’s riveting installation, Reckoner (which
does resonate with Doyle’s animation). It’s worth the detour;
Bolster’s flat, doe-eyed rock-icon-styled saints drawn in
fine lines on the ceiling wear headphones and hold images
of nuclear bombs; the best part is their eyes actually weep,
and water puddles on the floor. A Radiohead song plays, and
a suspended narwhal—referring to Christ—bleeds red ribbons.
Individual panels in a nearby room depict things like La Vierge
et L’enfant et Son Dior (the Virgin and child—and a Christian
Then you head back around and upstairs for Pawel Wojtasik’s
panoramic film, Below Sea Level, shown on a huge circular
screen. Unfortunately, Wojtasik’s slowly unfolding images
of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and Mardi Gras Indians
do not add to an already culturally fraught understanding
of New Orleans post-Katrina: The panoramic technology was
dizzying and distracting more than anything.
Like the film, this bumpy show, while it has some highlights,
too often falls victim to its own hype.