The 'vision' thing
Inaugural ICA show sets its sights on contemporary consciousness
Jeff Koons's stainless-steel cast of an inflatable toy rabbit is alive with psychic energy. (The Boston Globe)
The apple bursts at the entry and exit points of a speeding bullet. Arrested by stop-action photography, the escaping projectile hovers an inch or so from the momentarily still-intact orb. "Shooting the Apple," the famous photograph by Harold Edgerton , is one of the most symbolically charged of three dozen works by 27 internationally high-profile artists gathered together in "Super Vision," the showcase exhibition that inaugurates Boston's new Institute of Contemporary Art.
"Super Vision" is about the changes that new technologies have wrought on how and what we see: We've lost the innocence of the naked eye, eaten the fruit of a new kind of visual knowledge. The impact on the art and consciousness of our time has been explosive, and "Super Vision" explores the responses of painters, sculptors, photographers, and video artists.
As the ICA's first big show, "Super Vision" also begs to be read as an ambitious mission statement for the 21st-century art museum. Housed in a building designed by the architectural team of Elizabeth Diller , Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro to resemble a kind of giant optical device, the museum promises to use visionary powers to scan the globe for the world's most exciting art and artists.
Under the circumstances, I was hoping that "Super Vision" would start things off with a bang. I'm rooting for the ICA to shake up the international art world. But it is, I hate to say , an unfortunately cautious opening gambit. Organized by the ICA's chief curator Nicholas Baume , it consists almost entirely of works by artists who are well-known veterans of the international festival and biennial circuit -- Ed Ruscha , Sigmar Polke , Andreas Gursky, and Mona Hatoum , to name a few.
The art and technology theme, a favorite with academic theorists since the 1960s, is also unsurprising. This is especially true in Boston, where two exhibitions with related subjects are, coincidentally, now on view at institutions of higher education: "Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology , and Contemporary Art" at MIT and "Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art" at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Now would be a good time to declare a moratorium on the topic.
The installation is another problem. Too many paintings and photographs are of similar size -- in the 6- to 12-foot range -- and they are monotonously distributed at regular intervals. I wish I could remove about a quarter of the show's works, to give the rest of them room to breathe and sharpen the exhibition's focus.
I'd also like to take away the blocks of didactic wall text in various parts of the show and the wordy explanatory paragraphs on the title labels. All that educational spoon-feeding stifles the viewer's freely associative responses and turns the artworks into illustrations for a fixed, preconceived set of ideas.
Still, "Super Vision" is not without a heartbeat, muffled though it may be. There are some compelling works on display, even a few amazing and beautiful ones, and there are intriguing formal and metaphorical connections bouncing from object to object, wall to wall, and room to room. Apply sympathetic imagination, and a stirring tale about contemporary consciousness unfolds.
Tying the whole together is a resonant tension between the concrete immediacy of the objects and the dizzyingly expanded field of modern visual experience that they evoke. A brushy black-and-white abstraction by Gerhard Richter is based on an aerial photograph of a city. A huge painting by Sigmar Polke transforms a magazine illustration diagramming counterterrorism surveillance in Afghanistan into an illegible field of dot and grid patterns. A weird organic sculpture carved by computer-driven machinery from laminated plywood by Tony Cragg appears to be a digital rendering of lovers converging in time and space for a kiss.
The cumulative effect is to conjure a sense of modern consciousness unmoored from traditional foundations of moral, spiritual, and scientific certitude. Welcome to the delirium of too many perspectives.
The first gallery presents works that play on optical perception. An egg-shaped sculpture the size of a weather balloon made of polished stainless steel by Anish Kapoor looks like something that fell from outer space. Its quicksilver surface reflects everything around it, and a deep dimple in its top makes it look like it's starting to turn inside out.
On the walls, a field of spots undulates in an Op Art painting by Bridget Riley , and blurry concentric circles on a pair of circular canvases by Ugo Rondinone pulsate hypnotically.
Smooth, mirrored glass jars in a wall-hung cabinet by Josiah McElheny recede infinitely into the mirrored background, while Andreas Gursky's door-size photograph of an ultramodern Shanghai hotel's vast indoor atrium suggests an architecture of limitless height and depth. In an adjacent room, what appears to be a disembodied rectangle of pure red light hovers in darkness, a magical mirage produced with surprisingly simple means by the eminent light sculptor James Turrell .
Midway through the show we enter the realm of the mediated body. Tony Oursler's glowing, beachball-size eyes hang in space staring and blinking. They're made by projecting video recordings of human eyes overlaid by grainy films of fire, war, and underground caves onto white spheres. A work by Mona Hatoum presents a cylindrical, walk-in container in which a circular video projected on the floor shows a tiny camera's deep probe into all the orifices of the artist's body.
From the body we emerge into the last and largest part of the show, which addresses our disorienting, hyper-mediated modern cosmos. Ed Ruscha's painting of an archetypal mountain overlaid by block letters spelling Los Angeles street names speaks to a heavy cultural traffic in abstract signs and symbols that threatens to blot out the natural world. An enormous, blurrily pixilated photograph by Thomas Ruff shows Mount St. Helens belching smoke in an image downloaded from the Internet. Neon-bright lightning bolts illuminate the night sky in a sleek, photo-derived painting by Jack Goldstein that projects a vision of what contemporary theorists call "the technological sublime."
In a painting by Julie Mehretu, the profuse layering of sweeping curved lines and floating, colored scraps of geometry suggests a modern world in violent flux. It obliquely echoes a video by Runa Islam in which a woman meditatively drops pieces of fine china to the floor, smashing them to smithereens.
By contrast to those themes of destruction, Jeff Wall's 9-foot wide, backlit photographic transparency alludes to Modernism's faith in reasoned order: It depicts a concrete park sculpture, a ball on a pedestal, at the exact center of an ordinary suburban street scene. In this hallucinatorily lucid image, the sculpture becomes a Platonic symbol of unity and formal perfection.
A couple of works are more directly topical: Chantal Akerman's multimonitor video installation documenting life and surveillance along the US-Mexican border, and Harun Farocki's scary video compilation of films about machines and missiles that can "see" what they're doing and where they're going. Calling attention to the potentially nefarious uses of new visual technologies -- and, in parts of Akerman's work, to their humanistic uses -- they add some valuable social realist grit.
Jeff Koons's iconic stainless-steel cast of an inflatable toy rabbit presides over the last room. A note in the catalog unconvincingly explains that the rabbit's reflective surface "acts like a giant, all-seeing eye," but what is more interesting is that the rabbit has no eyes and no facial features at all (though it does hold a carrot in one rudimentary paw). It's an enigmatic blank, but alive with psychic energy -- a trickster totem for the Postmodernist age.
If my tour of the show sounds more exciting than my initial criticisms would seem to warrant, it's because there is a leaner, livelier, and riskier show buried within "Super Vision" and crying to get out. Notice the hair-raising current of surrealistic poetry that arcs between Kapoor's extraterrestrial egg at the start and Koons's mischievous rabbit at the end. For viewers able to see through its mild-mannered, Clark Kentish exterior, "Super Vision" can be a revelatory trip.
Ken Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.