New York

Fred Riskin

The myths of a day are invisibly woven from the subliminal threads of that which lies beyond understanding. Fred Riskin’s recent installation of Conceptual art, Sub Rosa: A Psychic Journey, 1987, created just such a modem fable of unseen powers, vague and superhuman. It is a decidedly narrative sort of tale, an engrossing international spy story of intrigue, danger, and extrasensory perception. Captivating as a thriller should be, it works as an atmospherically dense web of photographs, text, and sound. The sense of mystery that pervades the installation arises out of the sinister shadows of the psychic unknown and the military top secret. The old gods that man invented to explain the whims of nature are nearly all dead. The new gods of today are those we use to explain the whims of government control; the supreme being among these has come to be referred to by the name that Orwell invented for it, which expresses our awe, terror, and loathing: “Big Brother.”

Riskin charts the murky landscape of surveillance and counterintelligence in a quasi-documentary style inflected by a tone of voyeuristic fascination. It is a distanced view of the enemy, fed by the paranoia of our cold war culture, a global gray zone of international tensions exacerbated by issues of national security and economic domination. He juxtaposes images from this geopolitical landscape (often just enlarged newspaper photographs) with his own telegraphic commentaries, a mix of matter-of-fact reportage, psychic revelation, ideological statements, and cryptic homilies. “What appears as isolated events, action and reaction, cause and effect, are in fact the steady maintenance of policy,” Riskin asserts in the commentary on one panel. “Control the agenda, the packaging of the activity, the staging and sequencing of the presentation to the public and you control power.”

In this fractured narrative Riskin makes some bizarre yet believable connections between mystic phenomena and military technology. In a way they rely on giant leaps of faith yet remain convincing as a series of events. Tied together in this chain of associations are scenes from the Iranian hostage crisis and the Russian downing of the Korean Air Lines jet and allusions to the hidden mathematical/spiritual order of such artifacts as pyramids and spy planes. Although the validity of Riskin’s correspondences (whether actual or metaphorical) among the realms of psychic perception, supersonic travel, satellite networks, and surveillance is arguable, his evocation of the collapse of space/time limits through advanced technology is remarkably interesting.

Carlo McCormick