“Antidotes to Madness?”

Riverside Gallery

When John Cleese kicked and hit his own car in the BBC series Fawlty Towers and ripped a public telephone off the wall in Clockwork, we laughed while secretly admiring his courage. Machines designed to extend our sensoriums have a stubborn streak of their own. The trouble is, they are here to stay, and we have no choice but to learn to live with them. Ree Morton, whose drawings (six of which were included here) suggested the title and the poetic underpinnings for the selection of installations in “Antidotes to Madness?,” regarded art as white magic. Can it help us control our living spaces?

Installed in the gallery’s foyer, Hannah Collins’ When Words Fail Completely, 1986, includes a huge photograph of an empty living space, designed to be intersected by a pillar of the building itself. The only inviting domestic element in the photograph is a double bed, but it is isolated in the middle of a room that has plastic sheets on its walls and is lined with packed parcels and disconnected gadgets. Two of the three folded blankets displayed on the floor near the photograph bear the words SLEEP and CONSUME. The third has four anecdotes about vagrancy. In contrast, Richard Hamilton’s Lux 50, 1973–79, is a painting that includes a working radio, to be tuned as the viewer wishes, a way of establishing sensory relations with an artwork that doubles as a useful object. It is accompanied by another sympathetic tool: a computer Hamilton designed and has primed with information about his other works.

Nam June Paik’s TV Garden, 1974, with video monitors mounted at different angles among plants and viewable from ramps on either side of the installation, offers visually pleasing movement that Henri Matisse would not have been ashamed of. The video drumbeat and the fan dance, repeated throughout the space as if in a landscape, are unforgettable abstract experiences, so far removed from our customary experience of television that they constitute an ideal rather than a critique. My Grandmother Can’t Use the Telephone, 1986, an installation by Piotr Sobieralski, a Polish artist now living in West Germany, included a telephone number to be dialed from outside the gallery. The listener heard a recorded message in German saying that “communication with the Polish Republic is temporarily broken,” the same message that was repeated to all incoming callers when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. On a wall was a telephone, a phone book with wires protruding from it, and scaled-up versions of doodles made by people while speaking on a telephone. Hanging from the ceiling was a flimsy wire structure bearing dates ripped from a calendar—the days the artist called his grandmother and could not speak to her—and, though wires stretching from floor to ceiling were useless, soothing music was played, based on a translation of telephone numbers.

A living space is not some convenient hideout, these installations suggested; it is a communications center, a metaphor for ourselves, our moods, conditions, and rights—at least to sleep and consume, at most to experience pleasure, to achieve easy intercourse with the objects we choose to live with. Two ’60s idealists, paired with two ’80s realists, could have proved depressing. In fact, all four here offered sane, preeminently human reactions to the evidence that art on a pedestal, unrelated to our needs, may be fine for esthetes but may not help us get through the day. The exhibition’s curator, Maureen O. Paley, draws a parallel between a home and an art gallery: “I mean, how could an exhibition live without a phone, radio, computer, bed, or pictures for the wall?”

“Antidotes to Madness?” is a larger-scale experiment on principles developed by Paley at her own gallery, Interim Art, one room of a terraced house in Hackney, East London, in which (in her words) “participation’’ in art replaces ”confrontation." At a time when, for example, the Whitechapel Art Gallery was mounting art-historical museum shows and the Boilerhouse was paying thoughtless homage to tasteful capitalism, it was good to know that at least one curator could stand halfway between art and design and comment intelligently on both.

Stuart Morgan