Press releases for exhibitions deserve their bad reputation. They’re usually as boring as wallpaper, and they all use the same bromide phrases with the word “ubiquitous” thrown in at least once for good measure. But, then, proving there’s always an exception, I came across a release for the inaugural show at Fridman Gallery, The World and Its Things in the Middle of Their Intimacy, curated by Sarah Walko (who sometimes writes for Hyperallergic). This is what had me before I got to the door:
The idea of parallel universes, or dimensions that resemble our own, has been a staple in works of science fiction and metaphysics. Writer Kurt Vonnegut’s repeating character Kilgore Trout called mirrors ‘leaks’, as he believed they were a connection to another universe.
I was then promised the following:
This group exhibition of video, photography and sculpture, featuring works by Ira Eduardovna, Jay Gould, Dana Levy, Sasha Serber, Robert Lobe, and Lucia Papco, aims to blur boundaries of concrete worlds, piecing together multiple realities and offering nature and memory as portals into otherness.
And much of the work delivered just that.
Lucia Papco’s traditional silver halide photographs, though small, ironically offered thoughts on “otherness” in terms of infinite space. In “That Country #1 and #2” a small pocket of light barely illuminates a dense forest that remains surrounded by the vastness of the dark. At risk of overusing a perfectly good but abused term, I immediately sensed a regard for the “sublime” in the work, one that Immanuel Kant called the mathematical sublime. This is the kind of thing that Hiroshi Sugimoto’s admirable ocean photographs — with waves out to infinity — are intended for. I found Papco’s work to be just as provoking, perhaps even more so: matter falling off into infinitude of space in all directions, the perfect crop of the celestial body creating a portal in the darkness. Then, in this world of “ubiquitous” bad art writing, something astonishing happened. In looking up what the artist had to say about her work, I found it to be as good as the work itself. Perhaps even better. In a March 2013 ArtVetting interview with Lis Ivers, Papco states:
I like the idea of not trying to inhabit another world, one that imagination constructs, but to stay and ‘inhabit’ this world, to stay in this world. And in this context I thought of Kant, whom you lectured on. I think of his view of the sublime and of nature –how he looks at the sublime not as something beautiful, overwhelming the human being, but as something that is quite dreadful, because it is the point where we approach our limits and where our ability to act is limited. We are used to creating a mental landscape, which we can control. And I think this is something Kant likes, to judge by his philosophy: the world he can control. And then, when we arrive at the limits, or at the point where we cannot control the world – something infinite makes its appearance, the space surrounding us which is infinite, but we don’t really think about it. We only think about the proximate space surrounding us, which we are able in some way to contain. We don’t think about the infinite space that is further. Infinity too can be something pleasurable, but for most people I think it is not pleasurable to imagine all the space round about us, which we cannot control. We are too fragile.
That’s an apt philosophical segue into another standout inclusion: Ira Eduardovna’s “Cherry Orchard.” When she was ten years old, Eduardovna, moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Now 33, she resides in New York City. The portal into “otherness” in her work is the epic journey. “Cherry Orchard,” a two-channel video, is projected on hatches to that next world — a window and a door. A simple Russian ritual is captured as she and her family assemble their suitcases and sit together before they depart. The migration is as much destroying one sense of home as it is building up another somewhere else. Don’t take the title too literally, though. In the Chekhov play of the same name, all was lost and the cherry orchard was cut down. In this piece we hear birds — the trees are still there — as the father whistles a simple tune. It is one of Eduardovna’s most simple video installations: no voices, little movement, a lot of sitting. Walko made exactly the right choice here, as one of Eduardovna’s flashing and loud spectacle pieces would have overrun everything else in the show. What we get, thankfully, is a meditative and quiet work that fills the silence of the gallery as if one had opened a window onto nature.
The way into “otherness” in Dana Levy’s and Sasha Serber’s “Aftermath” is defamiliarization by way of disaster: the dynamical sublime. In a single-channel video, bare concrete buildings are abandoned, floodwaters stand in moonlight, and we are taken through the quiet aftermath, from space to space, as if flying. Wavy light networks play across the walls. Then, we enter a darkened chamber, and the archetypal white birds appear, completely unexpected, two geese but quiet as doves. Sounds from “Cherry Orchard” and “Aftermath” overlay each other in the gallery in a still and meditative mix. Again, this shows good curatorial aptitude. I have seen too many exhibitions with simultaneous video installations that just cancel each other out, and everything else in the gallery, with dissonance.
Robert Lobe, aged 68, is the anchor of experience in the exhibit, having been an artist in New York for almost five decades. Lobe uses sledgehammers, pneumatic hammers, and heat to conform wrapped aluminum to a tree, right down to textural nuances. The final bas-relief form is a permanent mimetic shell of the original, and the piece at Fridman is one of his very best. The lateral branch seems almost unnatural and gives some good unpredictability to the object. I’m much more of a fan of these works when put indoors; thankfully, they don’t have a Roxy Paine–like spectacle to them, something that would have been too bombastic for this serene show. This is the piece in the gallery that best evokes the idea of parallel worlds — something of Plato’s copy of a copy. It is, in a formal sense, the grounding that everything else in the exhibition orbits.
Finally, Jay Gould’s photographs document his aesthetic science experiments. In “Passage” smoke was created in a large fiberglass tube, then the tube was removed to immediately take the shot. Of course, there’s more enigma in this visual if you don’t know the process. The work, to my way of thinking, is emblematic of the exciting convergence of knowing and not knowing. It speaks to the sublime experience as the backdrop that pushes against our empiricism and all the human conditions of understanding.
If I have gone too far here, then we could defer again to Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, who said the following (as Gould points out in an online statement): “Don’t get too close to a leak. You wouldn’t want to end up in the other universe would you?”
There’s a lot of Vonnegut going around this exhibition. It’s worth a visit, and if this is the measure of things to come, Fridman Gallery appears to be a promising new venue.
The World and Its Things in the Middle of Their Intimacy continues at Fridman Gallery (287 Spring Street, Soho, Manhattan) through December 27.