Saturday, 26 May 2012

"The Historical Box", Curated by Mara McCarthy at Hauser and Wirth Gallery, London Piccadilly


This exhibition, it is claimed, "brings together a collection of important performance, film, dance, drawings and sculpture created during the political and social turmoil of the sixties and seventies in the USA. It aims not only to broaden the canon of art history, but also to highlight the contemporary relevance of the issues which these artists confronted three decades ago." On display are works by John Altoon, Judith Bernstein, Simone Forti, Wally Hedrick, Robert Mallary, Stan VanDerrBeek and Barbara T.Smith.

In the middle of the first room is an installation by Wally Hedrick titled "The War Room", constructed of eight canvasses painted black and strapped together to form a large cube: they are meant to represent the "wounded veterans" of the Vietnam war. The intention of this installation was that people would be able to climb into this dark cube of contemplation and reflect on, or feel, alienation, alone in deathly darkness; yet as often happens (to me at least), the enforced quietness of the gallery space provokes one into guilty mischievousness: instead of contemplating the horrors of war I was wondering if I could climb in it and sit down as it was so hot outside. I turned into the naughty school child mode of "can I get away with it though?". How quickly the sublime turns into the banal.

I had a similar experience of a work not quite having the desired effect when Miroslaw Balka's giant steel container was on display at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in 2009. When I went to experience this "alienating pitch black and silent cavernous" installation, I found myself walking up the ramp towards the infinite unknown with the flashing lights from some kid's LA Gear trainers to light my way! Also, as you couldn't see where the back of the container was, walking blindly holding out one's arms to be ready to touch the felt-lined container's walls to save oneself from bumping into them was rather problematic in the dark, surrounded by people, and I accidentally copped a feel of many an unsuspecting visitor. This further added to the feeling of the ridiculous in trying to go off into the dark to experience the "unrepresentable", highlighting the near impossibility of successfully exhibiting historical trauma.

Visible as soon as you enter the gallery is Judith Bernstein's absolutely humungous charcoal sketch on paper, Horizontal (1973), a Futurist-style cock of twisting dynamism that takes up almost a whole large wall. It's a lot of fun, but the real treat of the exhibition I thought was the display of work by Stan VanDerBeek. The selection of VanDerBeek's films, screened on a loop along with his animation frames and collages, was as follows: Mankinda (1957), Wheeeel No.1 (1958), A La Mode (1858), Science Friction (1959), Breathdeath (1963) and The Human Face is a Monument (1965). "Beginning as early as the Fifties", we are told, "and continuing throughout his career, VanDerBeek experimented ceaselessly with emerging forms of computer-based media and rudimentary animation. His works combined film with painting, photography, architecture, and mass-produced print media to create complex compositions in the spirit of Surrealist and Dadaist Collages".
Although the films are very good, with a great feel for rhythm and movement, they aren't quite as clever or witty as those early animations of Jan Svankmajer; the collages are nice but not as interesting as Max Ernst's. VanDerBeek seems a bit saucy, but not as filthy as Jindřich Štyrský. His works appear satirical but not as sharply political as the Dadaist who came more than a decade before him. Nevertheless, plenty of delight was had!


The Exhibition The Historical Box is on untill 28th July 2012



List of illustrations:


Wally Hedrick, The War Room, 1967/68

Judith Bernstein, Horizontal, 1973

Stan VanDerBeek, (video) Breathdeath, 1963

Stan VanDerBeek, (film still) Breathdeath, 1963 

Stan VanDerBeek, A La Mode, 1959

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