New York

Krzysztof Wodiczko

Hal Bromm Gallery

Krzysztof Wodiczko has been a widely traveled art provocateur since leaving Poland in 1977. In the last five years he has staged “public projections”—outdoor slide shows in which images are projected on monuments and buildings—in cities in West Germany, Australia, the U.S., and Canada. Wodiczko comes off as a curious hybrid-equal parts earnest expatriate intellectual, ’60s guerrilla artist, architectural theorist, semiotician, and public gadfly. His work falls roughly into a show-and-tell teaching mode related to the civic didacticism of Joseph Beuys and the showbizzy media manipulations of Christo; Wodiczko seems to be working out a position somewhere between the social commentary of the former and the public scale and impact of the latter. More of Beuys’ seriousness and Christo’s pizzazz would help the execution live up to his concept.

The documentary photographs on display at the Hal Bromm Gallery are large photo objects cut out to mimic the shapes of the architecture on which Wodiczko has projected images. In some of these works the selection of an image for the specific public site takes on a political twist, as when an image of a hand stabbing down with a knife lights up the South African War Memorial in Toronto, causing a monument to martial death to pictorially commit hara-kiri. In a second vein, Wodiczko anthropomorphizes buildings, for instance by adding hands (a favorite motif) to an ultramodern office tower in Sydney. The documentation works shown here are intriguing, emphatic, and, in their black and white graininess and architectural shapes, altogether convincing as synthetic “facts.”

Unfortunately, the actual projections at various sites didn’t come off as strongly. The first scheduled event, a projection of a pair of militaristic boots on the legs of the arch in Washington Square, became snared in bureaucratic infighting and was canceled. Too bad: in the small-scale mock-up shown at the 49th Parallel gallery Wodiczko’s addition looked both playful and ominous, a nice mix. But a second projection, a humanizing hand projected on AT&T’s windowless high-rise in Tribeca, was like a peashooter pitted against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. The image was small, only weakly visible on a night illuminated not just by the lights of office buildings but also by a full moon, and simply not emphatic enough to create any resonance with its ground. In a subsequent event at the New Museum Wodiczko “bound” the old cast-iron building with a large slide-projected link chain and padlocks; this was a strong image, both in its content and in its bright visibility. It looked intriguing if somewhat vague: did the image refer to the "safe storage of cultural objects in the trendily monikered museum?

Wodiczko’s initial wrestling with New York was not the first time an ardent media idea has stumbled among the vicissitudes of a city unlike any other. I missed seeing a fourth projection, on the Grand Army Plaza arch in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve, but from documentation this image of missiles and chains seemed to make Wodiczko’s point successfully; his work seems to require sculptural architecture and open spaces for maximum effect. It will be interesting to see whether this semiotic suitor can consummate his public desire in a prickly, complex urban setting.

John Howell