Rachel Weiss

Helen Shilen Gallery

Artists, like explorers, are adventurers in a quest for new frontiers. In the 20th century the search has led them to the last-chance, bleak extremes of Minimalist landscapes, to the cool, indifferent space of the contemporary gallery, and to the merciless expanses of the polar zones. The metaphoric and geographical frontiers of the gallery and of Antarctica converged this summer in Salon for the South Pole, “an excursion into parlor games, polar appreciation, and polite behavior,” mapped out by the young Boston artist Rachel Weiss.

The event was carefully balanced between salon and gallery opening. Invitations (which did not mention the artist’s name) were sent out, and guests were requested to wear white; on arrival they were greeted by a hostess, who pinned a red carnation on each of them. White-clad hosts and hostesses mingled genteelly with the guests, striking up conversations about the weather and offering glasses of “Polar seltzer.”

From the entrance door, white paper footsteps traced a path denoting the actual wandering of the magnetic South Pole from its first charting, at the beginning of the century, to its most recent, in 1975. The footsteps led to a cheesecloth “room” installed in the opposite corner of the gallery. Flanking the entrance to the room were two blocks of dry ice, representing the polar volcanoes (one active and one inactive), Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. Inside the room a television installed in a table was tuned to “The 700 Club” (an evangelist Johnny Carson show whose time slot dictated Salon’s 1 1/2-hour length), while a magician kept the crowd entertained with another kind of charlatanism—card tricks. On the walls hung quotes, from the Book of Job (“Out of whose womb came the ice? . . .”), Sir Ernest Shackleton, and Tammy Wynette (“Five hundred dollars! I’d play the South Pole for five hundred dollars!”).

Elsewhere in the gallery a chamber quartet (two accordions, bass, and flute) played Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, the doubtful charms of which were greatly enhanced by the carnival tones of the accordions. A wall was hung with a map of Antarctica indicating the different poles (geographic, geomagnetic, magnetic, and the pole of inaccessibility) and topographic and historical points of interest; five transparent floor plans of the gallery, superimposed over the map, served as keys to the polar symbolism of the installation. During the event Weiss circulated, explaining the maps and fostering “polar appreciation” among the guests.

As is fitting for a salon, the guests were more the focus of attention than the hostess/artist. An air of slightly perplexed self-consciousness held sway as they adjusted to their unexpected position as habitués of this quixotic salon. Conventional art-viewing roles were turned topsy-turvy; the guests were not passive observers of or even unwitting participants in someone else’s theater—they were its subject. The artist provided a metaphorical stage for their theater. The event played with notions of art and exploration, and parodied the modern art world’s penchant for novelty and exotica (as well as Western culture’s obsessive need to “civilize” dangerous, inhospitable lands, be they geographic or esthetic).

The wandering path of the magnetic pole (which is recharted every five years) became symbolic of the Western compulsion to quantify and qualify, measure and categorize, both in science and the arts. At the South Pole this compulsion confronts the defiance of the elements and is undermined by forces beyond categorization. Antarctica, with its eerie blizzards, its atmosphere that defies human perception of depth, and its mercurial climatic changes, is a place where optical illusion confuses the observation of natural phenomena. This basically “real” form of illusion was juxtaposed in Salon with the illusion of order induced by a highly refined or ritualized code of behavior. Art etiquette and the social nature of the circumstances under which art is usually viewed were made obvious by extreme stylization. The assumptions and pretenses of the viewers were placed on equal footing with those of the artist, with an irony whose recognition could start a real exploration.

Jamey Gambrell