New York

Jonathan Borofsky

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Jonathan Borofsky’s wonderfully ambiguous, unusually spare installation contained none of the clutter of several previous installations, in which spectators were invited to participate—they became part of one show by playing ping-pong—in a space crowded with objects. But the muted melodrama of other shows remained. The viewer was again brought face to face with a giant robotic figure. It was more robust and rounded than previous flat figures, and though it did not “chatter,” it remained ominous. Large, blue, and male, with blank eyeballs, the giant’s left hand rested on its hip. Its right hand was extended in an indeterminate gesture, and in the cavity of its chest, a sacred-heart-type of red lamp blinked on and off, synchronized with a repeating tape-recorded heartbeat. This powerful but strangely dumb giant was located in the center of a space on whose walls hung the flags of 37 countries, arranged as a frieze. The painted flags looked colorful and bright, but together they formed a monotonous list. Their dullness as a group stood in marked contrast to their attractive, spruce appearance.

The flags functioned both literally, as emblems of a country, and abstractly, as flat designs. Each function seemed to mock, even cancel out, the other: the art identity nullified the flag function, the picture’s equivalence to a flag negated its abstractness as art. By using the flag in this way Borofsky detached the image from its wealth of sociocultural associations. Yet these associations haunted the flags’ “purity,” the result being an insidious semiotic chaos. Only the labels suggested how to read the pictures, but there was no reason to take their instruction seriously: it was still possible to read these pictures as abstract designs, referring to nothing. The doubleness of the reading helped induce a state of panic—an intense anxiety about both art and nationality, as equally insulting ideas.

The allegorical giant suggested a dumbfounded humanity, reaching out in a friendly gesture. But to whom was he reaching? The giant stood isolated and lonely in an empty space, made all the more empty by the vacuous insignias on the wall. Here, art has degenerated to an empty sign as much as nationality. These terms no longer refer to anything—they have become free-floating signifiers. That once seemed good, but now it is blankness, death (and clearly not a living death). Borofsky’s work suggests that both the autonomous work of art and the nation state obstruct—indeed, profoundly violate—humanness, which has become an inert giant with a mechanical heart. Borofsky has created a work of great despair, profound hopelessness, one that shows the apocalypse within, the interior catastrophe. He has articulated the true, unhappy postmodern consciousness of both art and the world, the wretchedness within their glamorous look. This installation is truly great public, political, conceptual art.

Donald Kuspit