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Fear is a man’s best friend? Hertrich’s Reality Checking Device.

A Case of Nerves

By Nadine Wasserman

Uncertain Spectator

EMPAC, through Jan. 29

Worried, depressed, restless, irritable, tense, twitchy, or fatigued? These are some of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety manifests in innumerable ways and some days it’s easy to feel like you have every kind. Not only do most of us have our own personal worries to obsess about, but these days we have to grapple with the financial crisis, the wars, environmental catastrophe, and terrorism, which have no doubt frayed the nerves of even the most stoic among us. The exhibition Uncertain Spectator considers anxiety as a theme in contemporary art. It presents the work of 10 artists working in a variety of media.

In the main lobby on the top floor of the building is an installation piece by Marie Sester called Fear. This piece is probably the only one in the exhibition that truly fits the claim that the exhibition asks viewers to “place themselves in situations riddled with tension.” At first glance the piece looks like an inviting group of chairs set up for conversation around a glowing white coffee table. However, as the viewer approaches, the chairs, equipped with speakers, start to hiss and growl while the table changes from white to an alarming red. When the visitor backs away, the table and chairs resume their innocuous and inviting posture.

While this interactive piece literally causes an anxious response in the viewer, the other interactive works in the show are less visceral. Rather than induce a state of anxiety, they make us stop and think about what makes us anxious and why. Susanna Hertrich’s Reality Checking Device, installed on the mezzanine where several other works are on display, acts as a type of seer. When the viewer slides a finger along a touch panel, a graph appears over the viewer’s own reflection. The graph presents statistical data comparing actual risk to perceived risk. The piece demonstrates our susceptibility to worrying about such things as terrorist attacks, when a more likely threat is credit card fraud.

While not technically interactive, Anthony Discenza’s work does require a stroll around campus. A map, available in the exhibition, locates Discenza’s street signs. Proclaiming things like “Please stand by” and “It will end in tears,” these signs, and a poster that you can take from a stack in the gallery, all mimic the authority of municipal and business signage while simultaneously questioning the jurisdiction of their dictates. While these signs have the presence of a disembodied authority warning of potential threats or ordering you to observe some esoteric directive, Superflex’s The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV) is a film in which a hypnotist instructs the viewer through a number of visualizations in a calm and authoritative manner. The tone, while therapeutic, is far from soothing. The disquieting nature of both Discenza’s signs and Superflex’s sessions is echoed in Jordan Wolfson’s video Con Leche, which uses voiceover, another form of disembodied authority. Like Discenza and Superflex, Wolfson introduces a subtle form of subversion by directing the voice actor to change her volume, pacing, and diction. By critiquing the influence of things like media, government, and commerce in our lives, these pieces force us to recognize and perhaps conquer the things that might cause us distress.

While the premise of this exhibition is to confront anxiety in contemporary art there is little evidence of any “deeply charged emotional content.” There are no artists included such as Mona Hatoum, Mike Kelley, or Martha Rosler who regularly grapple with anxiety in their work. Ultimately, the exhibition is missing a coherent thread. There is, however, a particularly interesting dynamic between three works on the mezzanine, which could have been the basis of a broader inquiry. Meant to be the primary reference point for the exhibition, the documentation of Graciela Carnevale’s 1968 piece titled Action for the Experimental Art Cycle, shows the artist locking her audience in a gallery. This piece is echoed in Tue Greenfort’s Die Dynamik der Autoren in which a curator and assistant are similarly locked into an empty, white-walled exhibition space. In Kate Gil-more’s video, Main Squeeze, the artist actually entraps herself in an impossibly tight space. If, as one of the catalogue es says posits, anxiety is about nothingness, absence, loss, and emptiness, then what better metaphor for it than the white cube, absent of art, entrapping artist, audience, and curator, and forcing them to escape.

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