New York

“Social Spaces”

Artists Space Exhibitions

The unpredictable dynamics of the social space make it volatile, unceremonious, covert, and frequently asocial and irrational. It is often the site of inconsistencies rather than ritualized conventions—the space where it becomes clear which contradictions between thinking and action are tolerable and which are not. For these reasons, it is a charged locus for cultural critique. This exhibition of installations by five artists—Perry Bard, Michael Byron, Stephen Glassman, Ann Hamilton, and Henry Jesionka—focused on just such issues.

Michael Byron’s House for Winnie Mandela, 1987, consisted of almost 200 suitcases piled one on top of another to form a small rectangular “house,” with a thin corrugated-steel roof and a single, low “doorway” that provided access into the dark, cramped interior. The idea of the house has been seen as the architectural region where security is fostered by a sense of stability coupled with personal freedom. It is the retreat from the world that enables one to be a more constructive and public participant in the world. But Byron’s house upended these expectations, for it looked like a tomb—a place of death rather than the domain of life. Constructed out of luggage, an evocative symbol of transience, mobility, and travel, it represented all of one’s earthly possessions turned into an improvised shelter, forced by the circumstance of having one’s place in the world constantly uprooted. Through a simple and eloquent metaphor, the project addressed both the tragic situation created by South Africa’s apartheid policies and the homelessness that has occurred throughout history and that continues to plague us.

Perry Bard’s project The Invisible Man, 1988, was a small, crudely built enclosure with just enough space for a single upright wooden chair, surrounded by a wall of brightly lit fluorescent bulbs. The way she assembled these elements it looked like a nightmare image of an interrogation room, witness stand, or execution chamber. Dangling above the chair was a set of small earphones through which one could hear a passage from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, 1963. There was a disturbing disjunction between the powerful message of Ellison’s prose and the ghastly context. Looking at and listening to Bard’s piece instilled a sense of incrimination in the viewer—of guilt for all inhumane systems of “justice”—and a feeling of helplessness before the intractability of prejudice and the divergence of ideal society from the real world.

Ann Hamilton’s Dissections or They Said It Was an Experiment, 1987, was an ambitious amalgam of vaguely related parts, all of them provocative but without enough of a central focus. One wall of the room was covered with insect and butterfly specimens, each mounted by a straight pin through the thorax; the other walls were covered with dark smudges. Near the center of the room was a bathtub occupied by a still man also covered in black smudges, charred paper, and ashes. Just outside either end of the tub was a small Plexiglas “tank” containing water and very large fish. In spite of the somewhat dispersed quality of the installation’s components and ideas, the concept of the tragic dimensions of a society obsessed with the collectible as an end in itself was vividly communicated. Through this painstaking arrangement of the artifacts and detritus of civilization, Hamilton conveyed both the inanity of such an addiction and its inherent danger to individuals and institutions alike.

The medium of installation, with its up-to-the-moment, on-the-spot mode of creation and production, presents a unique opportunity. Its compressed conditions can be individualized to the space and can be used to address the most urgent and topical ideas. However, these particular pieces, perhaps because of the great urgency that motivated them, seemed to be cast in configurations that relied too heavily on overly specific narrative. All five of these installations were tremendously engaging, but one had the feeling that they were not just direct but a little too dogmatic as well.

Patricia C. Phillips