New York

Alan Sonfist

Stefanotty Gallery

“I became a tiger waiting” Alan Sonfist writes in the text hung up with two series of color photos in a gallery antechamber labeled “The Animal Room.” Naked in the grass, Sonfist snads at the approaching photographer. Unlike the usual photographer/subject relationship, the art here resides with the subject, the man playing tiger, just as heroism might be said to reside not with the hunter but with the animal who gets killed. A couple of philosopher’s anecdotes I first heard paraphrased around art-world dinner tables might enlarge aspects of these photos. One is Wittgenstein’s: if the lion could speak we wouldn’t understand it; the other is Bateson’s: a person is frightened not by the lion, but by the idea he or she makes of it. Those are about ,communication, an imagined kind and a psychological kind. They’re both couched in terms of the lion vis-à-vis a person; Sonfist’s piece deals with the tiger as a person, which is not the same, but only a similar beast.

This show also included Running Dead Animal, an opossum encased in a plaster block with an account of how Sonfist came across the body. The thing stank; I guess because plaster is porous. This work is more striking than the photos and text in The Animal Room. Those simply present an Acconci-like transformation exercise extended in the direction of shamanistic horseplay and animal empathy. But the photo piece is didactic, and I’m interested in the attitude behind it. Sonfist defines himself as a man by pretending that he’s an animal. The role entails a pose of misanthropic alienation which is revealed in Sonfist’s peculiar relationship with the photographer, his friend. Perhaps it’s a kind of millenial disenchantment with our species. The future belongs to the porpoises; we have too thoroughly found ourselves out.

At this point I’ll go back to Running Dead Animal. Sonfist’s text unspecifies just who it is that is presenting this thing. A hunter-gatherer, naturalist, poet of the landscape, artist sets up a four-sided drawing of sorts that is coming into being as a function of something that is unbecoming, i.e., a rotting opossum which stains the plaster with fluid from its decomposition. I’m reminded of Smithson’s fascination from childhood with animals, an early show in which I’m told he presented specimen jars of organic material, and his final involvement with entropy. This kind of reasonable eschatology is all very dismal—the idea that all you can finally know about a structured system is that it will fall apart, about life that it will end, and about an artist that his or her job will expand to fill the time allotted.

From the street you could see flashing lights and hear funny sounds coming out of the James Yu Gallery’s ’techno art show. The several “reactive sculptures” in the exhibition make a commotion when you get close to them that scares little kids but delights the folk who bus in from Long Island to swarm SoHo galleries. Moving around these things made me think more of musical instruments than of sculpture. Perhaps the prototype here is the theremin, an electronic loop that you play—I mean coax some sound from—without touching.

Alan Moore