NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Elizabeth King is having her largest solo show to date in one of MASS MoCA’s biggest spaces, and it happens to focus on profoundly small things. In Radical Small, intricate, half-scale mannequin-like sculptures reappear in stop-motion videos, making quiet gestures and movements — blinking eyes, tilting heads, and curling fingers.
King takes inspiration from the long history of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects — including clockwork automata, puppetry, and mannequins — but she chooses to focus on their form rather than their function. The mannequins are all unclothed (save one, which wears an oddly distracting black T-shirt), the puppets take part in no live performances, and the clockwork automata’s movements are so subtle that you feel like you imagined them.
In many of King’s works, the juxtaposition of movement and stillness plays an equally important part as that of smallness and immensity. As curator Denise Markonish describes them, these are “objects that act and cinema that is frozen in time,” a self-conscious role reversal for film and sculpture.
Walking up the stairs into the dark, vast gallery space, the first work that comes into view, “Idea for a Mechanical Eye” (1988–90), is a life-size, disembodied eyeball, complete with eyelids and held in place by a brass stand — making it look like a prop from a silent-era horror film. Behind it, a large projection of this same eyeball blinking slowly gives off the feeling that the sculpture may, in fact, blink of its own accord at any moment.
On the opposite side of the gallery, past what looks like an abandoned movie set, this feeling of missed perception only magnifies with “Compass” (1999–2004), consisting of two small hands in a black box which obviously contains some sort of magnetic mechanism that should make them move. Staring at the hands for minutes on end, you find yourself wondering if the hands are moving or if the black box and magnets are all just a trick. Maybe staring at them long enough will make them move? It’s all about perception anyway, right? So does the movement itself even matter?
Here King touches on the larger red thread that weaves throughout her work: playing god. In a New York Times review of King’s show, Nancy Princenthal suggests that the faces and hands that appear again and again in King’s little people are self-portraits. (There is certainly a strong resemblance.) The artist clones herself on a small scale, having her little people fake at least three of the five senses, with a special focus on sight and touch, the eye and the hand (the only sense not obviously rendered in the videos is taste). She then presents them to an audience to test our limited human perceptions. It’s almost like a two-pronged socio-scientific experiment.
King’s experimentation comes to the fore in a second, smaller room at MASS MoCA — one she shares with Joseph Beuys’s “Lightning with Stag in its Glare” (1958–85) — containing her models and works in progress housed in a kind of cabinet of curiosities. I found this work behind the work to actually be the most interesting part of the show, what with all the eyeballs on sticks, cast ears, and lips (à la Alina Szapocznikow), and even a couple of differently shaped faces. After tricking our minds into believing they have telekinetic powers, King reveals a more grounded reality with her Wunderkammer of miniature body parts.
Elizabeth King: Radical Small continues in Building 4 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts) through January 22.