The two exhibitions currently on view at the Swiss Institute examine the usually hidden infrastructure of architecture, and their consideration of space makes them particularly fitting: they are the gallery’s final shows before it moves from its current building on Wooster Street to a yet-to-be determined premise. On the main floor, Sam Lewitt’s Less Light Warm Words engages with the mechanisms of the gallery through subdued sculptures — he has laid out the room’s lighting circuits in plain sight; in the basement, Mathis Altmann’s Foul Matters uses intricate dioramas to reveal the unappealing innards of private homes, highlighting our relationships to our lived environments.
The Lewitt exhibition — the artist’s first institutional solo show in New York — is more visually sparse and more calculated, provoking reflection on the largely invisible, human-engineered systems surrounding us. The artist dismantled all the fluorescent ceiling lights in the gallery and redirected the energy to course through glistening copper heating circuits. You now feel what you would typically see: heat rising from the lengthy plates, which connect to the ceiling through long, black wires that draw bold lines in the white space. Circular sensors also lie on the floor, connected to each strip. They display the plates’ temperatures, which fluctuate endlessly but typically hover around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
A gallery’s lights usually remain on — and stable, to our eyes — but this transfer of energy into something that we can see as ever-shifting unveils the mechanics of ubiquitous technologies: the small circuits embedded in everyday objects such as phones, cameras, laptops, and even satellites meant to help them remain cool. Without proper thermoregulation that ensure they remain within precise temperature ranges, these tools simply wouldn’t function.
Lewitt’s designed copper strips are enlarged versions of these circuits. But beyond making this infrastructure visible, he also draws attention to the global corporate powers responsible for it. Each of his strips features an etched, labyrinthine pattern that actually spells out keywords drawn from manufacturing manuals for these heating technologies: “CUSTOM PROFILING,” “VACUUM SEALED,” “FREEZE PROTECTION.” They’re nearly impossible to read — and, displaced, don’t mean much to casual viewers — but this crypticness nods to the invisibility of the circuits, despite their existing as international industry standards that configure the items on which so many of us depend. The flow of information within the circles of manufacturers who hold so much power affects our lives deeply, in ways on which we don’t often dwell. Lewitt has made these systems very present, using the gallery’s own power lines to create an experience in which we sense the hold that the industry has on our devices, which are always within our reach, yet also out of our control.
While Lewitt shows us the gallery’s electrical innards, Altmann presents the guts of anonymous dwellings in what is his first solo US show. Lewitt’s work feels particularly conceptually involved compared to Foul Matters, which spotlights Altmann’s sculptural adeptness and plays on shared standards of another kind: human hygiene. Comprised of eight miniature, disheveled or dirty interiors of homes and one life-sized, repurposed couch covered — I kid you not — in multitudes of mealworm exoskeletons, the show quickly shocks and incites repugnance. In one work, two neat piles of feces rest atop tiny, neatly made twin beds covered in satin sheets; in another, a scaled-down, two-story apartment remains empty aside from a handful of preserved dead flies. One diorama features an armchair with piles of trash underneath its seat cushion, with a room below bursting at its bottom with a dusty pipe, dirty insulation, and other junk.
Altmann’s attention to detail is impressive: from tiny, crafted rolls of toilet paper to, yes, the textured topography of his sleeping turds, every model is faithful to the real deal. Set in such compact settings — shudder-inducing couch notwithstanding — each repellant scene stokes your curiosity and forces you to look closely, often in voyeuristic ways. You may have to stand on tiptoe to get a proper view, look through a window, or peer past a door to catch the man-made messes in these interiors. Some models just allude to poor sanitation, such as the room that holds within its very white walls a sneaker or one that houses a waiting mousetrap. Frozen in states that make visible even the filth between walls and underneath floors, Altmann’s dollhouse-like dioramas serve as painstaking, archaeological investigations into our living habits, speaking to every urban dweller’s worst nightmares in a form typically meant to entertain. They’re undemanding, easy to like, and make for a fun closing exhibition — a good complement to Lewitt’s more complicated, research-heavy consideration.
Less Light Warm Words and Foul Matters continue at Swiss Institute (18 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through July 24.