PRINT April 1992


IN A WUTHERING KIND OF HARMONY with all precedents in his work, Keith Sonnier’s El Globo (The globe, 1992), an 18-foot-long wind sock made of nylon sailcloth and animated by a fan, waves, flutters, hums, drones, lures us like some great piece of gossamer bait. Perhaps the most strangely evocative of Sonnier’s new pieces, El Globo was named after, but not modeled on, those brightly colored, kitelike paper projectiles that cross the skies in Guatemalan villages at Christmastime—a bit of ritual pageantry observed by the artist in the course of his peregrinations this past winter. El Globo suggests a novel mode of transport for Sonnier, analogous, perhaps, to the current revival of hot-air-balloon travel in the age of NASA. It could make you leap to the conclusion that the artist, probably best known for his offbeat performances and high-tech tinkering—for satellite video transmissions, for instance, and neon constructions—had abruptly switched tacks and headed for more atavistic shores. But you would be mistaken.

In 25 years, Sonnier has yet to abandon a medium or a message. In keeping with his uncommonly allusive history of slipped metaphors and fused meanings, the great white sock of El Globo—the paradox of subtle flamboyance is a Sonnier specialty—may suggest a feminine phallus, a foolscap, or a sack of roe, its “skin” somehow “tattooed,” in other words silk-screened with the patterns and blueprints of sound-transmission waves and microwave transmitters, with planetary orbits and New York Stock Exchange reports. So, too, Meridian Passage A and Meridian Passage B, both 1992, a new pair of circular, tilted wall pieces, also made of sewn sailcloth and aluminum tubing, and in appearance the kissing cousins of trampolines: about seven feet in diameter, these taut, shieldlike structures have similarly been imprinted with some of the technological signage surrounding them. But elsewhere in Sonnier’s ongoing endeavor, neon of course endures. Among other, more readily familiar new pieces, for instance, are Propellor Spinner, Selector Dipole, Fuselage Rudder, all 1990, and Syzygy Transmitter, 1991, each a member of a group of large, elegantly filigreed hanging sculptures made of neon, wire, and radio antennae.

An ambiguous and schematic vision of the figure-in-transit has furthermore shaped countless Sonnier pieces, such as the handlike Walking File, 1968/89, roundly upholstered with wire mesh, at once an incipient protagonist and an archaic-looking traffic sign; or the manicure-inducing File Set, 1968, which resembles the travel kit contents of a well groomed voyager, while also, a bit sneakily, recalling Pop. This mutable and user-friendly idea of the figure presides over Sonnier’s glass Ellipses, 1991, as well—this time evoking argonauts asleep erect in their cabins, or, on the floor, big astronaut space shoes.

The spirit of performance—so much a part of Sonnier’s signature style of oblique interaction—also continues to inform his work. The buzzing neon colors and the shimmering sfumato of the reflective surfaces in Mirror Act V, 1989, for instance, evoke nothing if not contact sports—cruising play, perhaps, at dusk on some steamy, gently futuristic piazza. And if the loftier constructs of teleology and theology periodically collide—and elide—in Sonnier’s work, nowhere do they do so more concisely than in “Cross Station,” 1990, a recent series of mixed-media multiples, in which the phenomenological effects of neon-light sources—auras of light—perform acts of transubstantiation on basic aluminum posts and transepts, thus obliquely refiguring the Stations of the Cross.

Nothing Sonnier does is fixed or finite or opaque or heavy, or in any way prone to facile summary; nor does he address anything so monolithic as a viewer standing still. Light and motion—embodied most succinctly in the neon tubes and mirrored surfaces—are his governing elements, if “governing” isn’t too forceful a word. Applied brute strength is no temptation for this big easy from Mamou, Louisiana. Even the metals he works with are thoroughly processed: extruded, transformed, made sheetlike or hollow, in any event domesticated for his use.

The mood in Sonnier’s New York studio is likewise fundamentally diurnal, improvisational, inventive, and diffuse—mercurial qualities that have characterized Sonnier’s realized works, as well as his working process, since long before his engagement with “sculpture” in the sense of resolved physical forms. Sonnier’s aerated style of thinking and working can be traced at least as far back as the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he participated in a variety of often aleatory, open-ended, well-documented performances with such colleagues as Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra. (The movements of these four over the years suggest an odd sort of square dance: while Jonas and Serra seemed to veer in opposite directions—one still involved with mythopoeic videos and performance and the other with sculptural monumentalism—and Sonnier and Nauman went on do-si-doeing in a related range of materials, Sonnier is finally closer in spirit to Jonas, while Nauman, with his confrontational style, is closer to Serra.)

In all his current projects, as before, Sonnier explores the vagaries, nuances, and, especially, the interactive effects of what might most precisely be called “virtual communication.” Symbols of contact as obvious as television sets and radio antennae (or, in the case of Aesthesipol, 1982, an actual public pay phone), and as oblique as the silk-screened sound-wave patterns, or the artist’s countless, inchoate pictograms, have been constants. But, in addition to the many discrete structures and gallery installations in his customarily flexible range of mediums and idioms, Sonnier’s recent projects now include permanent public works—all, appropriately enough, at least indirectly involving viewers on the run. In 1990, a hanging structure of aluminum, Plexiglas mirror, and neon, titled NJ Route I (about 9 by 14 by 10 feet)—with its scaffolded planes, it looks like a spaceship or satellite base—was commissioned and installed by the Department of Transportation of Trenton, New Jersey. Last year, a large outdoor shelter of neon and extruded aluminum was installed as a streetcar stop on Canal Street, in New Orleans, under the auspices of the city’s Audubon Park Commission. Now called Pro Eco, this project began its life in David Duke’s state with an altogether different message, its neon beams spelling out the words “NO KKK” and “TA CHOIX,” which means “your choice” in French and Cajun.

Sonnier’s most recent, most elaborate public project to date, an integral environment for a kilometer-long pedestrian walkway, was commissioned by the city of Munich for a new airport designed by the architect Hans-Busso von Busse. The terminal’s long connecting areas, which include moving sidewalks, are delineated by different colors of neon and fluorescent light: for the walkways, five red zones border one wall, four blue zones the other, each area of light emerging from an aluminum “shutter” that functions both as sculpture and as refracting device. Social and commercial cluster areas—those with shops, for instance, and restaurants—will be heralded by the reflecting surfaces along the moving sidewalks or walkways in, if you will, the interactive performance of everyday life.

It seems likely that the Munich commissioners were influenced by Helmut Jahn’s eerily soothing, sound-infused walkway space in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when they invited Sonnier to propose a design. But Sonnier’s design, while coherent, does not suggest any master builder’s plan. It does, however, suggest scenarios. The artist distills experience into visual messages at once so direct and evanescent that they can only fleetingly be understood. I found myself thinking of movies by Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville, for instance, or Weekend. Sonnier, like some troubadour of the technological age, seems to be carrying the high-style existential themes of the Nouvelle Vague into this airport, this communications nexus of the 21st century. Past meets present, looks to the future.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer who lives in New York.