Los Angeles

Mario Merz

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

In Mario Merz’s show here, the art looked like it had been brought to the laboratory for examination under controlled conditions. The setting was so clean, so sanitized of all sense of signifying context, that it left Merz’s work looking theatrical and self-important. Arte povera’s arbitrariness reads as material poetics only in situations that exhale some—any—air of cultural history. But MOCA, once you’re inside it, seems as rootless as a space station, and Merz’s work only heightened that impression.

What this commissioned installation revealed was the tacit psychological program of the building’s interior design: to encourage the most literal reading of everything seen in it. Since there is no literal meaning to Merz’s work, since it depends on a play of associative response to materials, structures, and atmospheres, the pieces looked philosophically beached. What a difference it might have made to place Merz’s work in the more textured spaces of the Temporary Contemporary, where even Christian Boltanski’s delicate installation showed recently to full, transporting effect.

At two points in his three-room ensemble, Merz got control of the situation. One was in the first room, where he set up an igloo of glass and steel that seemed larger than the room itself, especially when you took a long view of the piece from across the museum foyer. Merz has said that he uses the igloo as an immemorial symbol of the human capacity to make nature habitable. An open hemisphere of steel tubing, the igloo’s curved ribs bristled with C-clamps, on which rested—unfastened—large polygonal sections of plate glass. Squares of glass leaned against the structure at ground level, held in place by slabs of slate. Inside was a smaller igloo whose sides were swathed in beeswax. Pieces of slate were added here too, along with neon figures that recite the Fibonacci numbers which Merz uses to symbolize natural growth and the connectedness of human generations.

The most effective aspect of the piece was not its enigma, or the anxiety about earthquakes it must have aroused in every geography-conscious visitor. What was most striking was the way reflections in the tilting sheets of glass chopped up and reassembled the pyramidal skylight overhead (itself as much a signature of Arata Isozaki’s museum designs as the igloo is of Merz’s art).

The second room was convincing only by virtue of its inscrutability. A sequence of open polyhedral steel forms was assembled on the floor, with sheets of glass sandwiched upright between them. In plan, the steel forms made back-to-back right triangles: the shape of a Greek temple pediment, like those of the Parthenon. On the sloping wall of the pyramidal light-well above, Merz hung a small stuffed alligator. Below it, like a spoor, stretched the Fibonacci numbers in blue neon.

The third room held two more igloos, one of glass and slate and one covered with bundles of twigs gathered from L.A. canyons. These were fitted into an ensemble of tables draped in sheet lead or topped with glass, slate slabs leaning on their sides. The whole situation had the feeling of a colossal banquet interrupted by some human catastrophe. Along the opposite wall, Merz hung giant muslin sheets painted with strange fanlike figures that seemed to refer to slices of citrus, to the California hills, and to the igloos. A set of crude chairs and tables stretched in front of this backdrop, marked by red neon Fibonacci numbers. The whole ensemble had a defeated air, as if Merz realized halfway through that his art could not master the situation, but that by then it was too late.

Kenneth Baker